Manchester United travel to Paris this week for the second leg of their Champions League tie against PSG. Carrying a 2-0 deficit from the first meeting, United’s chances of progressing are slim. However, there will be supporters who still have the belief that their team can turn it around.
In Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who scored one of United’s two injury-time goals to win the Champions League 20 years ago this May, the players have a manager who will be telling them that anything is possible.
Two seasons ago, PSG were 4-0 up after the first leg, only to lose the second 6-1 and crash out of the competition. Granted, they were facing Barcelona, which is a level United are not at yet, but stranger and less predictable things have happened than turning over a 2-0 scoreline.
The confidence that the United players have at the moment – particularly in contrast to the mood at the start of the season – must be incredible. Even with 10 or more injuries, United were able to hold Liverpool to a 0-0 draw last week, beat Crystal Palace away, before getting a win over Southampton at the weekend.
Solskjaer isn’t just getting United playing more exciting football, or scoring more, or conceding less, but he’s getting better performances out of almost every single player in the squad. Alexis Sanchez is probably the only anomaly here.
There’s likely no bigger transformation than Romelu Lukaku’s, with him now the sixth highest scorer in the Premier League, averaging a goal every 141 minutes he’s on the pitch. For the sake of comparison, Mo Salah has one every 140 minutes, Alexandre Lacazette every 158 minutes and Eden Hazard every 173 minutes. Lukaku has scored seven goals in 14 appearances under Solskjaer, when it was six in 22 for Jose Mourinho.
While Lukaku’s game is lacking in places, and he still seems to frustrate the fans, his contribution is much improved. From assisting two goals at the Emirates to knock Arsenal out of the FA Cup, to scoring four in the past week, he has raised his game immeasurably.
Mourinho played him centrally and up front in every match, regardless of form, at the expense of Marcus Rashford and others. Solskjaer has shown Lukaku that he isn’t the main man anymore and that if he wants to play, especially in his preferred position, he has to do more.
Before the injury crisis, Lukaku was demoted to the bench, with Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard all preferred to him up front. The positive way in which he has responded to this means that the manager will have a decision to make when Martial and Lingard return.
If Lukaku could bag a goal or two in Paris this week, it would certainly do his chances of nailing down a starting role some good. One of the biggest criticisms of the Belgian is how rarely he shows up in the big games, with his goal against Chelsea last season his first against top opposition since signing for United. But when the pressure was on last week, Lukaku stepped up to the plate, and will need to do the same this week.
Yet with Solskjaer in charge, it’s hard not to get swept away with the hype.
He has done so much better than anyone could have imagined, with him breaking the club record for the most away wins in a row against Palace last week, that there is belief that he can get one over on Thomas Tuchel. In eight away games, including against the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Arsenal, United have scored 20 goals and conceded three. Solskjaer has the numbers to support the belief.
The priority, for now, has to be for United to finish in the top four, with many supporters fancying their chances of finishing third now, which seemed like an impossibility just a couple of months ago.
If Solskjaer is to remain in charge permanently, as you would imagine he will, he would like to have Champions League football to offer new signings in the summer, and the money Europe’s elite competition provides clubs with to pay the wages of top players.
However, as Solskjaer has said all along, he wants to win every competition he’s competing in, as that’s the United way. The FA Cup may be a more reasonable target, with them only having to get past Wolves to reach the semi-final, but he will have faith that United can progress against PSG, and that sort of determination and belief is infectious.
Regardless, whatever happens on Wednesday night, it will show a marked improvement on United’s dismal exit against Seville last season, with the club finally looking as though they are heading in the right direction again.
Even before the injury crisis, United had a job on their hands to go through, so there will be no shame in losing to a team that has the talent that PSG possess. But then you also can’t rule out some Ole magic this week, with him having the Midas touch at the moment, and United getting the result they need at Le Parc des Princes.