The second week of February is not one that would have immediately filled Manchester United fans with hope and excitement last December. More like complete dread and sheer fear.
Yet, suddenly, Red Devils fans are rejoicing. Wicked Jose Mourinho has almost been wiped from memories of supporters thanks to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s stupendous unbeaten run.
Of course, Paris Saint-Germain pose quite a different prospect and will surely provide a stern test – even if star man Neymar is unavailable.
Here, we look ahead to the game with our talking points.
JUST HOW WILL PSG COPE WITHOUT NEYMAR?
As much as fortunes have changed for United coming into the first leg, things have also flipped for PSG coach Thomas Tuchel – who will definitely be without Brazilian behemoth Neymar, ruled out via a broken metatarsal for 10 weeks.
To compound his misery, Edinson Cavani limped off during Saturday’s 1-0 win over Bordeaux at Parc des Princes, while right-back Thomas Meunier was also withdrawn late on.
There is something of a mini crisis in midfield to manage as well, with the that fact he was forced to move 35-year-old right-back Dani Alves into the middle of the park against Bordeaux. “We are no longer looking at Plan B, but Plan D,” Tuchel joked after the game.
Of course, all is far from lost. PSG still have Kylian Mbappe to call upon, while Marco Verratti’s timely return from injury provides a silver lining for Tuchel. The tenacious Italian played almost an hour at the weekend and is now in contention to start in Manchester.
They’re not exactly a one-man band without their brilliant Brazilian. Sure, they’re shorn of a sublime player. But his absence might actually help rather than hinder.
In the away game against Liverpool in the group stage for example, he was disappointingly subdued. In the return leg in Paris, meanwhile, despite his goal, which ultimately turned out to be the winner in a 2-1 triumph, it was his unnecessary showboating and childish histrionics – that have so often overshadowed his undeniable brilliance – that his performance was most memorable for.
SOLSKJAER’S LITMUS TEST?
When United pulled PSG out of the hat on December 17, it’s fair to say the majority of fans were not anticipating a very merry Christmas.
They’d just seen their side torn apart at the home of their most hated rivals, Liverpool. In the larger sense they were coming off the back of a wretched run of results including just two wins in seven games.
Fast forward nearly two months and the club is almost unrecogniseable from the miserable mess it had been rendered by moody Mourinho. They are in the midst of an impressive 11-game unbeaten run under Solskjaer – including 10 wins – and all of a sudden hope abounds that by season’s end, trophies could be added to the swollen Old Trafford trophy cabinet that is nevertheless in need of a bit of replenishing.
United’s players must feel like they possess superpowers at the moment. And despite all their progress under Solskjaer, they certainly require all their star powers to combine if PSG are to be pulverised and the last eight of the Champions League blasted into for the first time in five years.
But unlike under Mourinho, when they may have feared the world was coming to an end, Solskjaer’s superheroes will certainly believe they can destroy all powerful PSG.
FRENCH CONNECTION CAN FRIGHTEN PSG
Speaking of having a good thing going, Frenchmen Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial have been two of the main protagonists behind the Red Devils’ resurgence.
This reached a crescendo on Saturday when the duo combined to conjure all three goals as Fulham were flung aside at Craven Cottage.
Pogba received Martial’s pass to rifle United ahead before Martial made it 2-0, embarked on a mesmeric, mazy run that was reminiscent of his first foray into English football when he scored that stunning debut goal against Liverpool at Old Trafford.
World Cup-winner Pogba sealed the points with his second – United’s third – from the penalty spot to rubber stamp the fact that he is in red-hot form.
Eight goals have been plundered by Pogba in the 10 games he has featured during United’s unbeaten run of 11 (he did not feature in the third round FA Cup win over Reading). He has scored twice in three of those games, while his goals have also been coupled with five assists and providing fans with a general sense that they are watching a player finally deserving of the tag, the Premier League’s most expensive player.
Martial had played well under Mourinho but he is someone who will surely revel in a more joyful and nurturing environment.
His goals against Fulham and Cardiff were devastating and provide a sliver of just what the 23-year-old is capable of. We all know about Pogba’s panache but United fans still feel like there are plenty of layers to Martial than can be peeled back.
When you add Marcus Rashford into this menacing mix, United possess a truly terrifying trio that can torment the Ligue 1 juggernauts.
Lucas Torreira believes Arsenal “deserve” to be playing Champions League football because of the club’s status.
The Gunners, who have failed to qualify for Europe’s premier club competition for the past two seasons, are currently off the pace in the battle for a top-four Premier League finish.
Unai Emery’s side sit sixth on the back of Sunday’s 3-1 loss at champions Manchester City, a point below Manchester United and three behind fourth-placed Chelsea.
Uruguay midfielder Torreira admits his team must improve their recent form, which has seen them collect only 10 points from the last 21 available, if they are to achieve their primary objective.
“Just a few weeks ago, (Manchester) United were obviously behind us but it’s happened and it’s something we have to deal with,” the 22-year-old told Sky Sports News.
“We obviously don’t want that form to happen again. As players, you always need to be fighting for an objective when you walk out onto the pitch and for us that means qualifying for the Champions League.
“We know it’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure, because we are up against some great teams such as Chelsea and Manchester United but we need to try and stand firm as a team and as a group and battle in every game.
“The squad is focused on qualifying for the Champions League because a big club like Arsenal deserves to be playing in that competition.”
The knockout stages of the Champions League are upon us and some of the tantalising clashes are just one week away. It’s time to look back at what the group stages told us about the best-performing forwards – and which are likely to fire again in the last 16.
These players – or in one notable case, the absence of – could prove to be the difference in the crucial ties that are lined up for the next month.
Below we’ve broken down the stats to watch out for, while taking into account the quality of the opponents that they faced in the group stages.
The key-passes delivered by a player per 90 minutes is scaled on the x-axis, while the y-axis provides a measure of the direct involvements in goals (Goals+Assists) per 90 minutes. The size of the bubble is proportional to the successful dribbles per 90 minutes.
We take a look at some of the observations.
MESSI FLIES AWAY FROM THE CLUSTER
Lionel Messi has scored six goals and provided one assist in Barcelona’s campaign so far. Only Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski (8) has scored more goals. Given that the Argentine has done so in merely 297 minutes, makes it all the more impressive.
Messi is clearly the most creative player of the lot, with 3.6 key passes per game. The fact that he managed to achieve these numbers against quality opponents like PSV Eindhoven and Tottenham shows that he was probably the best player of the group stages, with only Neymar (whom we’ll get to later) as his rival in that regard.
The five-time Ballon d’Or Winner will be licking his lips at the prospect of building on his impressive numbers as he heads to the knockout rounds of the tournament.
Messi will be up against a Lyon defence that has conceded roughly two goals a game on average in the group stages. While the French team can’t be underestimated, they are definitely not among the top tier of defensively stable teams in the tournament.
The Argentine can hence be relied upon against Lyon’s defence – and he may need to be given Lyon’s strength in attack, which we’ll see below.
NEYMAR’S ABSENCE LEAVES A HUGE VOID AT PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN
Despite Messi having a brilliant season – even by his high standards – Neymar was every bit as effective in the group stages, and perhaps even more.
The Brazilian was involved in the same number of goals for PSG as his former team-mate was with Barca, while tying with him for key passes and recording a higher dribble success rate.
The absence of Neymar for the games against Manchester United due to injury will hence prove to be an even bigger blow for PSG than one would naturally assume, despite the presence of Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani.
Neymar, who turned 27 on Tuesday, has been phenomenal in Europe this season, having engineered a much-needed 2-1 win against Liverpool.
While Mbappe has been the poster-boy for PSG’s impressive season, Neymar has been the behind-the-scenes puppeteer who has pulled strings for their devastating attack.
Key-passes, dribbles, goals and assists – the Brazilian has it all. It takes a string of extra-terrestrial performances to reach Messi’s numbers and Neymar has somehow managed to pull it off.
Mbappe is very much capable of carrying the creative burden, but the fact that Edinson Cavani has been quiet – he didn’t even make our list of top performing group-stage forwards while benefiting from Neymar – should be a concern for PSG.
Therefore Mbappe will have to bring out his best performance to fill Neymar’s void, but he could still fall short. The entire team has to step up to make up for it. Could new signing Leandro Paredes help in the creativity department from midfield?
NABIL FEKIR CAN TORMENT BARCELONA
With a goal and assist in Lyon’s win over Manchester City at the Etihad, long-term Liverpool target Nabil Fekir has shown that he is capable performing against the big guns.
The Frenchman can operate as a forward, on either wing and as a number 10. He has been most lethal in the latter role if the bubble chart is anything to go by.
Only Neymar and Messi have been more creative than the 25-year-old in the group stages. Given that Fekir displayed his playmaking abilities against the likes of City, Shakthar Donetsk and Hoffenheim makes a case for why he could light it up for Lyon against Barcelona.
With young French talents Tanguy Ndombele and Houssem Aouar behind him, Fekir could lead an extremely promising midfield to an unlikely win over the Spanish giants.
The fact that Blaugrana anchor Sergio Busquets has been fairly average this season further casts doubt on whether this tie will be a walk in the park for Barcelona.