The Manchester United renaissance under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been an achievement of a certain kind but while the club has been in its recent ice-age, the elite end of the European game has moved on once more and never was that more evident than this particular night.
A wave of confidence and attacking belief from the liberated United team under Solskjaer crashed against one of the most formidable sides in Europe, long in the development and, even without key players, one that was way ahead of the new United. The first defeat for Solskjaer, 12 games in, was against an exceptional PSG team and yet by the end it felt damaging indeed with Paul Pogba dismissed for a second yellow card and out of the return leg on March 6.
United were dominated in the second half, and it was their old boy Angel Di Maria, booed by the home fans as so few are when they return to Old Trafford, who was the standout in the array of stars in the PSG team. He created both goals in a seven minute spell leading up to the hour for first Presnel Kimpembe and then Kylian Mbappe and after a first half that was relatively even it did feel that PSG were playing football of a different kind.
There was no Neymar and no Edinson Cavani, but PSG picked off United expertly with no serious chances created by the home team of any note after the break. The experience of Dani Alves, operating as a left wing-back, and Marco Verratti who ran the midfield until his late substitution was telling. This was Champions League football played by grown-ups and when Mbappe turned on the jets it felt like anything was possible.
An uphill struggle awaits United in Paris and it would take a monumental effort to turn this tie around given the gulf. This is where years of wrong turns in managerial appointments and in the transfer market can take a club, and that point was driven home by the performance of Di Maria, once a record signing for United who lasted only a season at Old Trafford It felt like a European knockout game is supposed to feel at Old Trafford, from the moment Solskjaer’s players rushed into the first press and PSG were under pressure in their attempts to play the ball out through midfield. United were not always composed, and there were a couple of occasions when Solskjaer will have winced at the challenges of players already on bookings. But this smelt like a United performance, as if this team were trying to do the right thing rather than wait for the game to happen to them.
It was a magnificent first half, one that ended with Ashley Young charging Angel Di Maria down the slope in front of the South Stand and into the advertising hoardings where the Argentine subsequently refused the hand of his former team-mate. There had been a few challenges like that and the game was played on the edge. United certainly seemed to believe that they could go after the famous visitors - or at the very least make them think twice about settling into their game.
There were a couple of moments in that first half when Kylian Mbappe stretched his long legs and reminded everyone what that pace can do to a defence. In short, Victor Lindelof might not have caught him had he been riding a motorbike. Later on when Mbappe went down the left channel, Young decided that he had no choice but to thrust a hand across the chest of the 20-year-old and spin him over.
At the other end, Rashford was just as dangerous in the early stages, slowing Presnel Kimpembe down and then accelerating away early in the half to draw the foul and put the centre-back on a booking. When the 23-year-old lunged in on Luke Shaw later in the first half he could count himself lucky that Italian referee Daniele Orsato decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was like that for a few of them, including Paul Pogba, who seemed to forget that he too was on a booking.
Nevertheless it was marvellous stuff and United, as they never did under Jose Mourinho, seemed to accept there would be times when they would be open in midfield. It was worth it for the ambition that they showed. They played football higher up the pitch, they took the game to their opposition and they had a certain aggression and confidence that made them looks instantly recognisable as a team that were trying to win a game, not just survive.
It was just in the closing stages of time added on at the end of the first half that Jesse Lingard, who had combined well with Rashford on counter-attacks, got up slowly from an overstretch and came off briefly for treatment. He tried to soldier on but left shortly afterwards rubbing his left hamstring, replaced by Alexis Sanchez.
By the end of the interval, Anthony Martial was off too, replaced by Juan Mata, and whatever it was United has sustained in the first half seemed to fade quickly. Alves created the first chance for Mbappe on 53 minutes, a header that De Gea turned round the post and from then on the momentum was all one direction.
The first PSG goal arrived from the ensuing corner struck by Di Maria long to the back post where Nemanja Matic, solid in the first half, had completely lost track of Kimpembe who ran behind him and met the ball first time on the full and sent it into the roof of De Gea’s goal. Perhaps that was the turning point but already by then it seemed that PSG had adjusted and the game was theirs to control.
The second PSG goal, seven minutes later demonstrated that clearly, played through the away team, from Thilo Kehrer, the young German full-back and out to Di Maria on the left wing who stroked his cross perfectly for the run of Mbappe. The striker emerged between the two United centre-backs at exactly the right time to meet the ball and score from close range. Whatever Young had tried to do to Di Maria, it had not worked and there was another change he created for Mbappe three minutes after the second goal that De Gea again did well to save.
Pogba’s second yellow card felt like a tight decision given that he and Alves seemed to collide but this was not United’s night and their place in the Champions League, for this season at least, seems to be slipping away from them.