LONDON: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s name is inseparable from Manchester United’s history of late drama in the Champions League and his latest astonishing feat against Paris Saint-Germain will surely secure him the permanent manager’s job at Old Trafford. No team in the history of the European Cup had gone through after losing the first leg 2-0 at home.
Yet United under Solskjaer are no ordinary team, even when shorn of the talismanic Paul Pogba through suspension and nine other first-team players due to injury. Romelu Lukaku’s first-half double laid the foundations for a famous 3-1 win against Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc de Princes on Wednesday as United progressed to the quarter-finals on away goals. But Pogba’s absence meant it was left to 21-year-old Marcus Rashford to land the decisive blow from the penalty spot to complete the comeback deep into stoppage time — 20 years after Solskjaer won the Champions League for United against Bayern Munich in Barcelona.
“There was pressure on the boy but there were no nerves whatsoever. Fearless,” said Solskjaer of his prodigy. “With this club, this is what we do. That’s just Man United.” In the whirlwind three months since the Norwegian was drafted in after Jose Mourinho’s sacking to oversee the Red Devils until the end of the season, it is easy to forget that this is not what Manchester United have done in the six years since Solskjaer’s mentor, Alex Ferguson, retired.
Inflicting another year of Champions League pain on a star-laden PSG is all the more remarkable as United had won just one knockout game in the competition since 2011. The aggressive, attack-minded, ambitious football that Solskjaer played under Ferguson and has tried to instil in his own side was not on show.
Instead, given the circumstances, with so many key players missing, the rookie manager showed an adaptability and tactical acumen that proved he is more than just a cheerleader. “We had a game plan before the game and every man knew what he was doing,” said United captain Ashley Young. “At times we had to give up possession, I think we frustrated them.” United also had fortune on their side. Lukaku pounced on errors by Thilo Kehrer and 41-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to twice give his side the lead before half-time and VAR was needed to award the controversial stoppage-time penalty against Presnel Kimpembe for handball.
Faith in youth
There was, however, a United trait of old as Solskjaer showed his faith in youth. As well as Rashford, another academy graduate, Scott McTominay, 22, starred in midfield, while three teenagers, Diogo Dalot, Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood, were summoned from the bench in search of the goal to win the tie.
It was from Dalot’s shot that Kimpembe was adjudged to have handled to give Rashford his moment of glory. “This was the real Manchester United,” wrote Henry Winter in The Times. “Playing with belief, youth, commitment. Playing for one another, playing for the shirt. Making light of absentees, refusing to be overawed by famous opponents. Never, ever giving up. And winning.” Solskjaer’s record is now 14 wins from 17 matches in charge with his solitary defeat in the first leg of this tie now long forgotten.
Even better could still be to come as United take their place in a wide-open quarter-final draw alongside Tottenham, Porto and Ajax, who ended holders Real Madrid’s three-year reign as European champions. “Of course we fancy ourselves. We can go all the way,” said a confident Solskjaer, who will have Pogba and Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Nemanja Matic back for the last eight. More importantly, as the visiting fans sang amid wild celebrations at the final whistle “United are back” as a contender on the European stage. – AFP