Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 August 2019

Manchester United, fuelled by Solskjaer's unwavering belief, defied all expectations in Paris

No one thought the depleted Premier League side had a chance against Paris Saint-Germain. A 3-1 win later, they are in the Uefa Champions League quarter-finals

‘A job to finish’ read the headline on L’Equipe’s front page on Wednesday.

Almost everyone in Paris thought the result of Manchester United’s meeting with Paris Saint-Germain would be a mere formality. Even one of United’s coaches played down any chance of success in a pre-match chat. The focus seemed to be Sunday’s league game at Arsenal.

‘Mbappe – why is he so strong?’ asked the front page of Le Parisien. There was no need to sabre rattle because the hard work had been done two weeks previously in PSG’s 2-0 victory where they had thoroughly out-classed United. That would be enough - or so journalists thought. They could afford to sit back and glory in watching the best teenager in world football.

Paris expected. It expected victory for France’s best team, a confident performance to show why they are among the favourites to become European champions.

They expected the concrete bowl of the Parc de Princes to be a febrile chamber of noise. That tone was set when 50 PSG ultras showed up at the Hotel du Collectionneur near the Eiffel Tower and let off flares amid their raucous songs.

But football’s appeal lies in its unpredictability. Maybe Parisians didn’t expect to hear 2,400 travelling supporters singing France’s national anthem in the rain, with a slight tweak to the lyrics to incorporate the wayward genius from Marselle called Eric Cantona.

For Romelu Lukaku to put that stricken visiting team a goal ahead after a minute and 2-1 up after 30. For a team so depleted on paper that any organisers of a pre-season friendly seeing so many unfamiliar names would have demanded their fee back. The callow youths who made up numbers on the bench which looked like cast-offs from a boy band audition. Nobody expected these men in pink to dump the mighty PSG out of the Uefa Champions League.

Incredibly, that is what Manchester United did with a 3-1 victory on the night – the third goal in time added on thanks to a controversial, VAR-assisted, penalty. That meant 3-3 on aggregate and victory on away goals. The force is with the Red Devils, but it was still wholly unexpected.

Chelsea fans sing about being carefree, but the mood among unexpectant United fans was the same before the game. Rare was the fan who thought their team were going through, even when Lukaku scored his first and second. The maligned Belgian is in form.

“Six goals in three games isn’t bad,” said Solskjaer, who has a nice line in understatement. “Ever since I came here Rom has worked his socks off to get fitter and into the team.”

He had been kept out by Marcus Rashford, a player so dispirited in November under Jose Mourinho that he wasn’t unhappy at being linked with a move away from Old Trafford.

The 21-year-old Rashford stood tall to take that crucial penalty. Better him than the banned Pogba, who has been exceptional under Solskjaer but erratic when it comes to spot kicks.

“I just kept a cool head,” said Rashford. “You practice that every day and I wanted to take it. That’s probably the hardest thing, the wait before. These moments are what we live for. Everything was against us but we are used to surviving in these moments and we proved that again.”

It was United’s best European away win since Juventus in 1999 – it was that good. That win nearly 20 years ago took United to a final in Barcelona, this one could bring another trip to Barcelona in the next round or it could be another stepping stone towards a final in Madrid.

Such thoughts were utterly implausible as a wretched United with a goal difference of zero sank 19 points behind Manchester City in the league at the start of December.

Now? Solskjaer’s indestructible belief means he thinks United can become champions of Europe for the fourth time.

“Of course we fancy ourselves,” he said after celebrating with Cantona and Alex Ferguson, with Patrice Evra also on hand to congratulate those ecstatic footballers singing the songs their fans have written about them.

“We can go all the way but we just have to wait for the draw and then take the games as it comes. It was a fantastic night.”

Updated: March 7, 2019 04:51 PM

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