Paris St Germain coach Thomas Tuchel admitted his side can no longer be considered clear favourites to beat Manchester United in their Champions League Round of 16 tie.
When the draw was made in December few doubted the Ligue 1 leaders would get the better of a United side labouring under Jose Mourinho.
But since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over as caretaker there has been something of a revolution at Old Trafford, while PSG arrived in Manchester with star strikers Neymar and Edinson Cavani sidelined by injury.
Now the Parisiens can no longer be so confident of progressing.
“Over 180 minutes I would say it’s 50-50,” Tuchel said through a translator. “Tomorrow, with them at home at Old Trafford whether it’s 50-50 I’m not sure but we have a second leg in Paris where we are strong and comfortable.
“At this level it’s the details. It could be a decision of a referee, a yellow or a red that can make the difference. It’s a close game.”
Tuchel said he never got as far as scouting Mourinho’s United, but he is clear about the challenge posed by the Solskjaer version – still unbeaten with 10 wins from 11.
“They play with a lot of confidence, they score a lot of goals and get a lot of early leads,” he said. “It’s an impressive run. To play at Old Trafford in this moment against this Manchester United is one of the toughest challenges you can have.”
And it is a challenge which only got harder for PSG at the weekend, when Cavani injured his hip after scoring in a 1-0 win over Bordeaux. Neymar has been missing since breaking a metatarsal on January 23 and faces 10 weeks out.
“Would Man Utd miss (Paul) Pogba or (Marcus) Rashford? Of course,” Tuchel said. “Neymar is one of our best players and one of the best players in Europe. We will miss him a lot. And now Cavani is out.”
But Tuchel said their absence should not change the way PSG play, particularly given they still have one of the best strikers in Europe in their side in the form of Kylian Mbappe.
“Obviously we’re going to be missing a couple of key attackers, but you don’t change your identity for that reason,” Tuchel said.
“We have a tradition, we play attacking football and that is how we’re used to playing – to create chances.
“It’s in our DNA. That’s how we play. To change it is really difficult.”
However, Tuchel did say some things about his side have changed – particularly in terms of maturity since their 3-2 defeat to Liverpool early in the Champions League campaign.
“Absolutely, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to draw the game against Napoli under a lot of pressure, nor beat Liverpool in what was a decisive game for us,” he said.
“I think we’ve come a long way. We’re a really tight-knit team with a lot of energy.
“We cannot forget the fact we’re a big club, we are from Paris, the capital of France. We are capable of playing at the highest level but we don’t have a lot of history in the Champions League.
“We haven’t played a lot of finals or semi-finals so sometimes it is difficult for us to play Liverpool or Manchester United. There is an energy for these clubs and I believe it really makes it more difficult. That is why we must stay together.”
There will be a familiar face in the PSG side with Angel Di Maria set to return to Old Trafford, where his career failed to fire, and Julian Draxler revealed his team-mate was fired up.
“I was asking him some questions about Manchester United,” said Draxler. “I won’t tell you what he said, but he will be ready.
“He’s a big player. He has a lot of respect for the club, there was nothing terrible in what he said, but it was between me and him.”
Barely a week passes by without Jadon Sancho causing the football world to gawp, and the Borussia Dortmund wonderkid will be pleased to know he’s made it back into Weekend Wonderkids.
The aim of this weekly column is to shed light on the players, aged 21 or under across Europe’s top five leagues, who aspire to lead the game into a bold new era.
Without further ado, here’s our five picks from last weekend’s action.
JADON SANCHO (Borussia Dortmund)
Key stat: 94 – pass success percentage in 3-3 draw with Hoffenheim
Dortmund continue to feed hope to a sub-standard Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga title race thanks to frustrating back-to-back draws, having inexplicably blown a 3-0 lead with just a quarter of an hour to go.
Sancho, for his part, was almost blameless. How about that goal – the ball seemed to stick in the turf upon his first touch from Lukasz Piszczek’s pass, but somehow hooked the ball along with his second while running at full pelt. Then the finish, drilling home from just about the only angle that could have evaded both the outstretched defender and keeper Oliver Baumann.
Baumann then handily parried a Sancho shot into the path of Mario Gotze, who tucked away for 2-0 before the first half was out. The best was arguably to come from the 18-year-old in the build-up to Borusssia’s third, an audacious backheel nutmeg before Raphael Guerreiro completed the move. That was during his ‘less’ effective second half. Don’t forget he hit the post, too.
Find us a better teenage footballer.
LUCAS PAQUETA (AC Milan)
Key stat: 1 – first goal for Milan in 3-0 win over Cagliari
Sunday was an emotional day for Lucas Paqueta in more ways than one, as he dedicated his maiden goal for the Rossoneri to former club Flamengo, where a fire broke out that saw 10 young players lose their lives last week.
The Brazilian midfielder raced on to Davide Calabria’s inch-perfect cross and lashed in with his left, before pointing to the sky and bowing his head in tribute.
It was just his fourth league appearance for Milan. He is a risktaker on the ball, much like his spiritual San Siro forebearer Kaka, but far more menacing off it. In addition to his offensive contributions – including two key passes – Paqueta snapped at Cagliari heels to the tune of three tackles and an interception.
Life will never be safe and simple for Milan with Paqueta, as he only completed 70 per cent of his passes. But it’ll sure be fun, especially with fellow January signing Krzysztof Piatek in front of him.
AINSLEY MAITLAND-NILES (Arsenal)
Key stat: 5 – successful dribbles, three more than closest team-mate in 2-1 victory at Huddersfield
Ainsley Maitland-Niles felt the need to apologise directly to Arsenal fans who criticised his performance at Huddersfield. Perhaps he should just have reeled off his impressive statistics instead.
Yes, stats don’t tell the story of the whole game, and Maitland-Niles did put the Gunners in a couple of hairy situations by giving the ball away. Consider though that he was just back from injury – and is still learning the position of a wing-back – and the whole picture becomes mightily impressive.
With Sead Kolasinac hurtling up the left flank, Arsenal completely overran the Terriers in the first half and the game should have been sewn up there and then. But 21-year-old Maitland-Niles – who has stated that he views centre midfield as his most comfortable position – was arguably the more efficient of the two.
His delicate pass into Alex Iwobi should have deserved a better finish and he also picked out Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the edge of the box, who could only find gloves. Finally he got his reward – whipping a cross into Alexandre Lacazette, who would have struggled to miss it.
With Hector Bellerin out for the foreseeable future and Stephan Lichtsteiner a disaster so far, there’s a chance for the taking on the right-hand side.
RAFAEL LEAO (Lille)
Key stat: 4 – aerial duels won in goal-scoring display, a 2-0 win over Guingamp
The first thing that stands out about the ‘Portuguese Mbappe’ is that he doesn’t really play like Kylian Mbappe. The 19-year-old certainly has a decent lick of pace yet he’s just as likely to hustle a defender off the ball as he is to hare away from one.
Whatever method he uses, it’s clear that he instinctively knows where the goal is. At no point did Leao look up before barging his marker and thundering a shot from a difficult position onto the post in the early stages against Guingamp, before going close with a similarly arrowed effort.
His eventual strike, a short time into the second half, was not exactly precision but he did awfully well to wrap his body around a cross with his back initially to goal.
Guingamp just couldn’t contain his 6ft2in frame. By the time he left the pitch in the 74th minute he had won four aerial duels, the most of any Lille player bar impressive centre-back Gabriel. Alongside Andre Silva, Joao Felix, Bernardo and Goncalo Guedes, a Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal should sure still be exciting.
Rafael Leão's recent form for @losclive:— FootballTalentScout (@FTalentScout) February 10, 2019
21 minutes vs Nimes ⚽️
75 minutes vs Toulouse ⚽️
88 minutes vs Caen ⚽️
87 minutes vs Amiens ⚽️
88 minutes vs Marseille ❌
73 minutes vs Nice ⚽️🅰️
75 minutes vs Guingamp ⚽️
19 years of age. One of the most in-form forwards in Europe. 🇵🇹 pic.twitter.com/gREglBAaRC
YOUSSEF EN-NESYRI (Leganes)
Key stat: 3 – shots on target, three goals in the 3-0 triumph over Real Betis
The second appearance for a player on these pages who few outside the Arab world and La Liga have cottoned on to yet. Youssef En-Nesyri is having himself a mighty fine 2019 indeed.
Up to New Year’s Eve, the Moroccan had just scored just one league goal for Leganes all season. Now he’s up to seven from five games in one-and-a-half months, helping his side streak clear of the relegation zone.
The giant of a man is now a giant of a finisher. He squandered two chances in the opening two minutes – the first via his wonderful chestdown – but got off the mark in the 22nd minute after finding space from a corner (though was his shot going wide before the deflection?).
There was no doubt about the second. The timing of his run was exquisite as he barged his way from an onside position and onto Jonathan Silva’s cross.
The third? My word. Pace, power and timing – again – combined forces at the end of a brutal counter, with the 21-year-old finding enough oomph from a side-footed effort to beat Pau Lopez from outside the area.
If En-Nesyri stays true to his New Year resolutions, a bigger European club may find the resolve to sign him in the summer.
Juventus returned to winning ways with a 3-0 victory at Sassuolo to extend their lead at the top of Serie A to 11 points.
Sami Khedira scored midway through the first half, and had should have had at least another goal to his name, before Cristiano Ronaldo got his 20th goal of the season with 20 minutes remaining. Substitute Emre Can rounded off the scoring late on.
It was a first win in three matches for Juventus following defeat at Atalanta in the Coppa Italia and the 3-3 home draw with Parma last weekend.
Sassuolo started well and thought they should have had a penalty after only five minutes when Wojciech Szczesny appeared to clip Filip Djuricic’s foot, sending the attacker to the ground.
However, the referee decided against awarding a spot-kick after consulting VAR.
Stefano Sensi then had Szczesny scrambling across his goal shortly afterwards as his powerful shot flew narrowly wide.
Juventus struggled to get going early on and cheaply conceded possession on numerous occasions. Djuricic collected a loose ball, after Juventus had given it away again, and set up Manuel Locatelli, whose driven shot brought a decent save from Szczesny down to his right.
It was against the run of play when Khedira opened the scoring after 23 minutes. Ronaldo’s long-range effort could only be parried back out by Andrea Consigli and Khedira was on hand to tap in the rebound from close range.
The goal seemed to spring the league leaders into life and Mario Mandzukic should have really done better than head the ball over the crossbar from Ronaldo’s pin-point cross.
However, his miss was not as bad as that of Khedira at the end of the first half as the German midfielder somehow managed to head wide from inside the six-yard box.
Another headed chance was missed by the visitors at the start of the second half, this time Daniele Rugani was the culprit.
A mistake by Szczesny almost allowed Sassuolo back into the game after 55 minutes.
The goalkeeper came a long way out of his goal for a long ball forward but sliced his clearance straight to Domenico Berardi, who was unable to hit the unguarded net from 40 yards out.
Khedira missed another golden opportunity to extend the lead when he missed again from close range but Juventus eventually got their second goal with 70 minutes on the clock.
Miralem Pjanic swung in a corner and Ronaldo rose highest inside the penalty area to power home the header.
Now in complete control, the visitors were happy to just keep the ball and frustrate Sassuolo but they added a third goal four minutes from the end when Can rounded off a lovely passing move involving fellow substitute Paulo Dybala and Ronaldo.