The Champions League resumes on Tuesday, bringing with it the latest instalment of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s bid to rejuvenate Manchester United to such an extent that he will be impossible to overlook at the end of the season.
Paris Saint-Germain will arguably present the toughest test of Solskjær’s caretaker period, although United’s league form is better than that of their opponents at the moment. Neymar is out injured and the French side did not look all that imperious when last seen in England at Anfield in September.
Thomas Tuchel’s side must have thought they had been handed a route to the quarter-finals when the draw took place in December. Certainly United looked likely to prove the most accommodating English opponent if not quite the weakest link of the last 16, but things have moved on significantly since José Mourinho was sacked a day later. “When the draw was made they were favourites,” Solskjær noted on Friday. “Until we have played PSG you can say we are still the underdogs, but at the moment we feel we can beat anyone.”
Confirmed United fanatic that he is, Solskjær was watching the Champions League draw on television with his son in Norway when the pairing with PSG was made. “I thought: ‘Wow, what a challenge,’” he said. “Then two or three days later I was in it. Suddenly it’s my challenge, and I can tell you I’ve got goosebumps. It’ll be a fantastic night under the floodlights, the fans will be up for it and it will be a new experience for PSG as well. They’ve been in England but they haven’t been to Old Trafford, have they?”
While the debate over whether Solskjær deserves consideration as permanent manager will probably last until summer, what is observably true is that he has rebooted United in a manner that seemed beyond his immediate predecessor, or the two managers before him, come to that.
United are now playing with confidence and not a little verve, so the first leg at least is now a daunting proposition for a side not famous for travelling well or proving robust in the latter stages of competitions.
One would hesitate to brand PSG as bottlers – they have rather too many players of genuine quality for that – but they can be intimidated and United are in just the sort of mood at present to take up the challenge. “I’m sure PSG will be as wary of Marcus Rashford as we are of Kylian Mbappé,” Solskjær said. “They are both fantastic players who can light up football for the next 10 years.
“Even without Neymar PSG have some great players, but now I have had 11 games to prepare for them I think I know what my players are capable of. This tie will bring out the best in them.” Solskjær clearly knows how a Manchester United manager should sound.
As long as his players give it a go he cannot really lose against a side as lavishly funded as the French champions. Again, Mourinho managed to set the bar low in this regard, for one of the direst moments of his two and a half years in Manchester was the meek last-16 exit this time last year against Sevilla.
United had topped their qualification group and were second in the Premier League without much hope of overhauling Manchester City, so no one inside Old Trafford could understand why Mourinho’s players gave such a poor account of themselves against feisty but hardly frightening opponents.
It should not be too difficult for Solskjær and his players to improve on that forgettable performance, and at this stage of the season there is no reason why United should not try. The difficulty may come later if a decision has to be made between Champions League progress and the league position at home.
United are not going for the title and though Solskjær would doubtless love to plonk the European Cup on the Old Trafford sideboard as a calling card – “It’s about time we moved on in this competition” – a more realistic prospect than dreaming of Madrid might be securing a top-four finish.
Anyone deeming such an achievement underwhelming should bear in mind that Mourinho was not on course to deliver it, hence his dismissal, and that United reaching the top four would most likely mean Arsenal and Chelsea and both their new managers missing out. For United, under a caretaker manager, that ought to be enough.