Whether it is Paul Pogba picking up the tools he downed, Marcus Rashfordfinishing like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Neymar’s brittle metatarsal, the stars continue to align for the Unitedcaretaker manager. Of all the Paris Saint-Germain matches he chose to attend, he picked the one where they finally lost in Ligue 1.
As if Lyon’s defeat of PSG was not enough encouragement, PSG were held for 90 minutes by third-tier Villefranche in the third round of the Coupe des France on Wednesday night. Villefranche’s ground is smaller than Rochdale’s and their Facebook page has a smaller following. Their players will be able to regale their grandchildren about the night they kept Di Maria, Paredes and Draxler quiet before extra-time.
PSG eventually prevailed 3-0 after 120 minutes with substitutes Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani introduced. Amid the rotation, it seemed significant Marquinhos – a midfielder in Lyon – dropped back into defence. Thiago Silva was blameworthy for Nabil Fekir’s penalty winner and, for a 34-year-old, is not best equipped to handle the intensity of Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford on Tuesday.
When the draw was made for the Champions League round-of-16 on December 17, even platinum bottle jobs like PSG must have viewed United as a near gimme. Only Jose Mourinho was sacked the next day, United have won nine from 10, Neymar is crying again and Marco Verratti is also prone.
“Marco Verratti could not finish training yesterday,” coach Thomas Tuchel said at Villefranche. “He had problems. I have to wait until tomorrow to decide if he can play against Bordeaux [on Saturday]. His new problem is something else, but I do not know too much.”
Adrien Rabiot, the imposing French midfielder, has also been ‘indefinitely benched’ for refusing to commit to a new contract as his current one ticks towards its June 30 expiration date. Hence the use of Marquinhos as an auxiliary midfielder. Surreally, United have the edge over PSG in an area where Scott McTominay and Marouane Fellaini were getting a look-in last month.
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“What I wanted most as a birthday present today is a new metatarsal so I could be back on the field fighting,” Neymar, looking like Kiefer Sutherland from The Lost Boys , wailed at his sponsored Nuit Rouge birthday party in midweek. What a pity he will not be introduced to Eric Bailly’s manic defending in Manchester or Paris.
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Neymar’s charmless theatrics are well-suited to a club as hollow PSG, whose players and staff used to arrive at the earthy Parc des Princes on a red carpet. Watching them against Lyon, their egocentric forwards’ selflessness still had a tendency to harm the collective, which is some going without Neymar. The more modest Mbappe applauded Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes’ stupendous stop. Cavani made way for Stoke misfit Maxim Choupo-Moting.
More promising for United is the indecision in the PSG defence. Gianluigi Buffon started the three Champions League matches he was available for but was dropped to the bench at Lyon in favour of the 25-year-old Alphonse Areola, who shrunk as Moussa Dembele rose to meet a cross from Leo Dubois and equalise. Areola’s shot-stopping was impressive, though.
Tuchel deployed Dani Alves and Juan Bernat at wing-back, with Silva supplemented by Thilo Kehrer and Presenel Kimpembe in a defensive trident which was anything but a deterrent. Lyon had more attempts at goal than PSG, lacking the authority of Marquinhos further back and the composure of Verratti in the middle third. Silva is too slow and immobile to shackle eminent attackers. He must have hoped Mourinho would still be in charge.
Fekir, Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore – the fluid front three behind Dembele – had little trouble bypassing the PSG rearguard, despite the more pragmatic set-up. All three had presentable goalscoring opportunities in the first-half.
Alves, an asset in attack and an occasional ass in defence, is 35 and 11-and-a-half years Martial’s senior. Tuchel might be better advised to summon the more dogged Thomas Meunier to combat the United winger, who will be backed up by the adventurous Luke Shaw. Left wing-back Juan Bernat would not have a direct opponent, unless Lingard doubles as the centre forward with Rashford moved wide again.
Angel di Maria is still a purposeful midfield runner, a role he seldom occupied under Louis van Gaal, but – a little like Didier Deschamps’ France – there is a dependence on Mbappe to carry PSG up the pitch, which often left him isolated against Lyon.
Maybe the stars are continuing to align