Manchester United are back playing swashbuckling football and winning games with late goals again under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – but they will need a comeback of Sir Alex Ferguson proportions if they are to overcome Paris Saint-Germain.
The Champions League round-of-16 first-leg tie was finely poised until half-time three weeks ago, but the French side dominated the second period to take a 2-0 lead back to Parc des Princes. And, with United now burdened by a raft of injuries, plus the absence of banned Paul Pogba, their chances of progression seem slim.
Still, stranger things have happened. Let’s look ahead to Wednesday’s second leg:
UNITED’S IMPOSSIBLE TASK?
The odds are stacked against Solskjaer’s team.
Only three times in the continental competition’s 27-year history have 2-0 first-leg deficits been overturned (a tally that includes United v Olympiakos in 2013/14). Critically, this trio all performed their almighty comebacks on home soil.
But if anyone can overturn this deficit, it is the Norwegian’s Red Devils.
Doom and gloom were the buzz words during Jose Mourinho’s dour reign. His, temporary, at the moment, successor has transformed fortunes – the first-leg loss the only blemish on his otherwise impeccable record since he was drafted in during December.
Now, confidence and passion are the words being used to describe their play. Goals are flowing through a team suddenly dangerous again.
Of course, United – like their opponents ahead of the first-leg – are severely depleted. Anthony Martial, Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Phil Jones, Matteo Darmian, Antonio Valencia and Alexis Sanchez have all been ruled out.
But Solskjaer’s tactical acumen and poise have been constantly questioned throughout his brief tenure. Critics wonder what will happen when the bubble bursts.
Yet it hasn’t. Staunch tests have been presented in the shape of Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, plus – after the raft of absentees – Crystal Palace and Southampton.
Solskjaer has passed them all.
His team was well beaten in the second half against PSG, but the margin of defeat was fine. Would any other boss have been able to overcome the loss of two attackers so integral to the way his side play after Lingard and Martial went off at half-time?
They are up against it. Almost every player, however, called upon by Solskjaer is contributing.
Striker Romelu Lukaku has hit a rich vein of form, while in midfield Scott McTominay has been fearless in recent weeks and Andreas Pereira was excellent against Southampton.
Of course they are underdogs, but Solskjaer has helped this side rediscover its bark.
PSG PRIMED TO PROGRESS
PSG, of course, have been here before.
Okay, so having a 2-0 lead overturned wouldn’t exactly be as catastrophic as the incredulous 2016/17 round-of-16 clash in which Barcelona overturned a 4-0 first-leg loss to win 6-1 in the second and subsequently triumph 6-5 on aggregate.
Nor would it be completely unheralded, though. Head coach Thomas Tuchel will be fully aware that this is no ordinary United side he is facing.
Yes, they’re depleted but this is not plain sailing for the Parisiens, and they will need to be on top of their game to get the job done. Should United score the opening goal, it will be game on.
Tuchel took his side to Old Trafford shorn of elite forwards Neymar and Edinson Cavani, and reacted rapidly at the break when Lingard and Martial went off. The ex-Borussia Dortmund tactician ushered his side forward at the start of the second half which the home side subsequently struggled to cope with.
He will know what is coming. United head to the Parc des Princes with nothing to lose and rather a lot to gain.
The German is hardly likely to set his side up to defend, knowing an early goal for his side could quickly derail any momentum United head into the game with.
Italy midfielder Marco Verratti returned from injury in the first-leg and was imperious, playing all but the final 15 minutes. He is well rested after missing the 2-1 victory over Caen at the weekend, and should play an integral role.
France superstar Kylian Mbappe was quiet in the first leg, but still popped up with the killer second goal. United’s task is made all the more arduous by the fact they must be brave, while also keeping him, Verratti and Argentina winger Angel Di Maria – who spent a miserable 2014/15 at the Red Devils – on tight leashes.
LUK OUT FOR LUKAKU
Talk about coming into form at the right time.
Chastised by as many people within Old Trafford as outside, the Belgium striker is proving to be a beacon for Solskjaer in the midst of a devastating storm of injuries.
Four goals in two games as United have recorded vital wins in the race to secure Champions League football next term will fill him with confidence, as well as provide United fans with plenty of reasons to head to the French capital with hope.
Lukaku looks like he’s trimmed down significantly in the last month or so and is proving more agile. Pace married to power has long been the devastating double-edged combination in his attacking armoury.
Braces against Palace and Southampton have epitomised everything that is great about Lukaku’s game. The left-footed centre forward has shown tremendous poise with two of his strikes finished sublimely with his underrated right foot, while his trademark strength came to the fore when he put United 2-0 up at Selhurst Park last Wednesday.
Quite why he felt the need to bulk up to a monstrous size for the summer’s World Cup when his goal return of 27 in 51 during his debut season in red was more than adequate, seemed strange.
Leaner and definitely feeling meaner after a goal drought lasting nine games and no longer an automatic starter under Solskjaer, Lukaku is looking a lot sharper.
He will never be the most technically gifted player but is a devastating finisher when in the mood – and he definitely has been in the last two games. Lukaku has answered the call and now the sternest test awaits.
Tottenham aim to seal their Champions League quarter-final berth against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday, with what Mauricio Pochettino believes is an unfair advantage.
Spurs are leading 3-0 from February’s first leg at Wembley, but Pochettino is unhappy that the Bundesliga leaders have had more time to prepare for both games.
They played 24 hours before them for the first leg and then played on Friday night compared to Spurs’ lunchtime kick-off ahead of the second leg in Germany.
Pochettino has called on the authorities in England to help their clubs in the Champions League by giving them better domestic fixtures ahead of big fixtures.
“I think we need help from the FA, we need help from the Premier League, I don’t know because I am not involved in the decisions,” the Argentinian said.
“I don’t know whether to blame the FA or to blame the Premier League or to blame Tottenham because we changed the day because we still not deliver our new stadium or the TV because they wanted us to play live on Saturday.
“Look what happened with Rennes in the Europa League. They cancelled their game at the weekend to help or provide Rennes to play against Arsenal.
“In Europe, the FAs are more sensitive to help the club to compete in the best way in Europe.
“I would like to play in the same situation as your opponent. That is the most important, you have the same day to prepare for the game.
“I think that is not fair and it is a problem that in the future it is a thing we need to change if we want to help the English clubs be stronger in the competition.
“We need to be more sensitive to the clubs who play in Europe to provide better condition to have the same possibility to arrive to the games.”
Pochettino will not allow that Red Letter Day at Wembley three weeks ago, where his side blew Dortmund away in the second half, to come into his thinking ahead of the return leg.
The Argentinian is demanding that his side go on the front foot against Lucien Favre’s side.
“We need to play like always we play, trying to win, that is important,” he said.
“We need to forget the first leg, it’s important to be aggressive, fight from beginning, high tempo, that is going to be the key.
“We know Borussia Dortmund is a great team, top of the Bundesliga because they deserve to be there.”
Dortmund boss Favre knows turning the tie around is going to be a big ask.
“We know it will be very difficult but you never know,” he said. “We have already played many games in this stadium where we have written history and we are in a position to achieve the impossible.”
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Real Madrid‘s players have to dust themselves down after their dismal last week, in which they lost to fierce rivals Barcelona twice to see their hopes of winning the Copa del Rey and/or La Liga both extinguished.
Attentions turn now to the one trophy they still can win, as they hold a 2-1 lead over Ajax in the Champions League round of 16 heading into Tuesday’s second leg at home, an advantage that puts them in the driving seat.
For the Ajax players, this fixture is the chance to make history as they try to produce a famous win and comeback to knock out the side that has won this competition three times in a row.
Here’s a look at the key player battles that will decide the game.
Luka Modric vs Frenkie de Jong
Luka Modric may be the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, but his performances this season haven’t been up to that high standard. The 33-year-old’s ability to take the game by the scruff of its neck and dominate it, seen to such brilliant effect during Croatia’s stunning run to last year’s World Cup final, has seemingly waned, and whether it’s fatigue after a long summer and short preseason, or just the beginning of a natural decline, Madrid haven’t seen that version of Modric often enough this season.
But perhaps this is the occasion. A tight Champions League clash against a young pretender in midfield may be just what Modric needs to raise his game.
Frenkie de Jong isn’t quite at the stage where he can be considered the same level as Modric, but there’s no doubting his talent. The 21-year-old has been the backbone of the Netherlands’ resurgence in international football and for Ajax at club level.
Modric dethroned Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo; whether De Jong can do the same and beat the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe to the Ballon d’Or remains to be seen. For now, the intrigue in this potential rivalry is this: unless Modric moves this summer, De Jong will face the Croatian plenty of times in El Clasico after completing his move to Barcelona. Tuesday’s clash provides a tantalising preview.
Vinicius Junior vs Hakim Ziyech
The greatest compliment that can be paid to Vinicius Junior at the moment is that Barcelona’s defensive gameplan on Saturday was centred around stopping him. It worked, to an extent, as his impact was reduced and his finishing let him down, but that an 18-year-old playing only his third El Clasico can command such attention is testament to his potential.
Vinicius is unlikely to struggle as much against Ajax – though struggle is a relative term; despite a subdued performance against Barcelona he still led Madrid in shots and chances created.
If he brings his shooting boots as well, the Brazilian could bring the cheer back to the Santiago Bernabeu.
Hakim Ziyech could be forgiven for looking across the pitch on Tuesday and wondering what could be. The Moroccan has long been touted as one of the best young players in Europe, someone who could easily thrive at the continent’s elite clubs. Seeing a player seven years his junior in Vinicius get the chance to do just that might sting, if only a little.
No matter. Ziyech has blossomed into a star at Ajax and may still get a move to a bigger club. In the meantime, the 25-year-old can use Tuesday as an audition, showing what he’s capable of on one of football’s grandest stages.
Sergio Reguilon vs Nicolas Tagliafico
There weren’t many positives to take for Madrid while they were losing to Barcelona twice in four days, but, along with Vinicius, young left-back Sergio Reguilon was one of them.
Asked to step up as Marcelo’s form began to decline, the 22-year-old academy product has answered the call. Among players with at least 10 La Liga appearances for Madrid this season, only Casemiro and Sergio Ramos have more combined tackles, interceptions, clearances, and blocks per game than the deputy left-back.
And he’s no slouch going forward, either – only Toni Kroos and, coincidentally, Marcelo, have more key passes per game, while on Saturday Reguilon had the most dribbles for Madrid, topping even Vinicius. Los Blancos may have unearthed a gem.
Much like the battle between Vinicius and Ziyech, the clash of left-backs also provides a transfer-related subplot. Though Reguilon has performed admirably in Marcelo’s stead, Madrid are said to be looking at the transfer market for players at the position – and Ajax’s Nicolas Tagliafico is one of the players to be linked with a move.
The Argentine may be determined to put on a show for his prospective future employers, though simply trying to help Ajax pull off a stunning win will no doubt be motivation enough for the 26-year-old. But if he does outshine Reguilon, Tagliafico could soon be playing at the Bernabeu much more regularly.