Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s undefeated reign at Manchester United had to come to an end at some point and there are worse teams they could have lost against than French champions PSG. BATE Borisov, for example. But that didn’t make the 2-0 defeat any less disappointing for the fans who had become reaccustomed to winning.
United started the game well, with David de Gea not having a single save to make in the first half, but Solskjaer’s game plan went out of the window when Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial were unable to come out for the second half due to injury. United had been set up to attack with pace, with Marcus Rashford spearheading their speedy frontline, but then had to make do with Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata who had no impact on the final 45 minutes of the game.
Would they have been better off putting Rashford on the right so he could have put in a defensive shift to help the struggling Ashley Young? The 33-year-old couldn’t keep up with former red Angel Di Maria, who assisted both of PSG’s goals, with Mata providing little cover. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and Solskjaer wanted to stick with his traditional attacking intent, but it was obvious early on that his makeshift plan wasn’t working, yet he waited until there was just five minutes left before making another substitution.
Solskjaer has been tactically astute thus far though, with him outthinking Mauricio Pochettino and Unai Emery to get away wins at Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, but he didn’t get it right against Thomas Tuchel’s side.
Some supporters wondered whether this showed that Solskjaer isn’t up for the job long-term. After all, they were playing at home and PSG were without two key players too, in Neymar and Edinson Cavani.
However, it’s important to remember that Tuchel prepared for the game with these absences in mind, while Solskjaer had to reorganise his team in just 15 minutes.
United’s chances of progressing to the next round are slim, even if they are facing the team that recently blew a 4-0 lead over Barcelona when losing 6-1 in the second leg. Although it’s probably worth noting that Neymar, who scored two goals that night, now plays for the French team, and United don’t have Lionel Messi or Luis Suarez at their disposal either.
Still, United can’t be distracted by the second leg yet, as they have another big game on the horizon, with them taking on Chelsea in the FA Cup on Monday night. Their record at Stamford Bridge is atrocious. In their last 25 visits to west London in all competitions, United have managed just three wins and have suffered 14 defeats. Their last victory came in 2012 and even then they needed Chelsea to get two players sent off before they could secure the 3-2 victory.
United did come close earlier this season though. After going a goal behind, Martial scored twice, before Ross Barkley scored a painful 96th minute equaliser.
It will be a different game on Monday though as Martial will not be available and Jose Mourinho, who was on the receiving end of some taunting from a Chelsea coach that afternoon, will not be in either dugout.
Mourinho joining United added some extra tension to the game between the two teams who used to battle it out for the title and Champions League in their prime. The ‘One Of Us’ banner they had dedicated to Mourinho had to be removed, replaced instead with their abuse and signs calling him Judas. This was met with him tapping the United badge whenever he faced his former club and holding up three fingers to the crowd, reminding them of the titles he won there to make him the most successful manager in their club’s history.
“They can call me what they want,” Mourinho said at the time. “When they have somebody that wins four Premier Leagues for them, I become number two. Until this moment Judas is number one.”
Mourinho lost both of his FA Cup matches for United against his former club though, the most recent of these at Wembley last summer, but this clash won’t be about him, although both clubs’ new managers will be under scrutiny. The pressure will be on Solskjaer to help his team bounce back after his first defeat, while some sections of the Chelsea support have already started to turn on Maurizio Sarri. They’ve been battered 6-0 by Manchester City and 4-0 by Bournemouth in recent weeks, as well as losing to Arsenal, and the original excitement over Sarriball has subsided.
Both managers are fighting for their jobs, with Sarri revealing that he hasn’t spoken to owner Roman Abramovich for almost a month, but expects a talk about his future soon. Solskjaer is obviously in a different position, given he only has the post on a temporary basis, but he is desperate to get the job permanently and progression in the FA Cup would certainly boost his chances.
Solskjaer’s start to life at United was relatively easy, with no big tests until facing Spurs, and he’s now on the opposite end of that scale, with difficult games every week. If he loses against Chelsea and then Liverpool at the weekend, taking it to three defeats on the bounce, much of the positivity surrounding his suitability to the job long-term will be lost for some. This would be unfair, given the quality of the opposition, and defeats in these games would not be viewed in the same way if spread out with victories in between.
He doesn’t have that luxury though and the fickleness of United’s support will be tested if the results don’t go the right way for Ole.
The clamour for Pochettino may well return, ignoring the fact Chelsea knocked his team out of the League Cup this year, and it will be an uphill battle for the Norwegian to regain momentum.
However, as it stands, he’s won 10 of his 12 games as United manager, losing just the one, and there’s plenty of reason for fans to be upbeat about his potential. United supporters will be hoping that Solskjaer can break their Stamford Bridge curse and get a long overdue away win against Chelsea. If he does, that will mean he has further bragging rights over Pochettino, and add more weight to the argument he should be appointed on a full-time basis this summer.