Good reportage demands a balance of stance. As a writer, it is my job to be objective. Perspective moulds opinions, and I cannot afford to look through the proverbial tinted shades of love. Today, though, I’ll take my chances, and cross fingers in the hope that the editor looks away.
Seriously, where do you even start after a night like that? Everything about last evening was tailor-made for Manchester United to capitulate. Paris Saint Germain reduce very good opponents to dust at home every other week. United arrived, trailing 0-2, with a sizeable chunk of their usual starting lineup either recuperating at home or watching from the stands.
The Parc des Princes was its best–boisterous, smokey and intimidating. A quarterfinal spot that had eluded them in all their recent opulence was a mere hour and a half away. The noise seeped through satellite television all the way to midnight India. The pubs here were quieter; in hushed voices, fans draped in red Adidas jerseys spoke of the need to protect the remaining fit players for Sunday’s Premier League clash against Arsenal.
Then, almost as if on cue, Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford hustled United into the lead. Game on.
On a night like this, when there was nothing to lose, when everyone would’ve forgiven Ole Solskjaer for thinking long term and taking it easy, United were going for the win.
Ici c’est Manchester.
Paris Saint Germain, the match still well within their grip, came hard, almost with fury for having conceded so early. The right side of United’s defence was reduced to jelly by the pace and industry of Juan Bernat and Angel di Maria. PSG took less than ten minutes to draw level, but it wasn’t quite square one for United. They were in the middle of a sprint, the kind where you put your head down and run like your life depended on it; where even if you stumble, the momentum springs you back into stride. The ball was rushed to the center circle.
Ole Solskjaer and Mick Phelan, who by now are legitimate front runners for a statue at Old Trafford, sprung out to the technical area, urging their men forward, secretly channeling the spirit of Turin, Milan, and Barcelona. It’s debatable whether the mood of the players would have deflated anyway, but it almost felt like PSG’s goal reinforced their approach. The Parisian grass was pounded harder with every minute. The hustle grew stronger.
One of cricket’s greatest-ever minds, Steve Waugh, often spoke of artificially creating a siege mentality to eke out every last inch of intensity out of himself and his team. On Tuesday night, United played with fervour fit for a Champions’ League final.
That very tenacity got United their second goal. As soon as Rashford took one lateral step to set himself up for a long-range shot, Romelu Lukaku started running towards the goal. Football is a sport decided by the narrowest of margins, and the ten extra yards Lukaku made in anticipation of a rebound, from even the great Gianluigi Buffon, turned the scoreline and the match.
The entire team was bouncing. Fred and Scott McTominay, men who wouldn’t have come anywhere near the starting lineup if it wasn’t for the injuries, ran more than twelve kilometers each during the match. No one, across the two teams, managed more.
Ici c’est Manchester.
Paris Saint Germain attacked even more. Their line of defence, like in a crunch Football Manager match, rose higher every five minutes. That is the only way they know. The last two times they were tasked with merely seeing out a game in the Champions’ League, they blew away situations of great advantage. Against a defence with a dodgy reputation, you could hardly blame Thomas Tuchel for choosing to attack even with the aggregate favoring them. The first leg at Old Trafford presumably served as validation too.
PSG began the second half as if they were chasing the lead. They knocked and knocked and knocked on the door, but Chris Smalling and his guards would not budge. With every failed attack, the players and their 45,000 fans grew curiously nervous. The decibel levels at the stadium started dropping like the bassline of an ominous prelude. Marco Verratti started misplacing passes and Kylian Mbappe was making the wrong runs behind the wrong defenders. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer just looked on with his usual half smile.
They pushed some more, and every single time they failed to get through. Fred, McTominay, Lindelof, and Smalling stonewalled everything away. And then…
Ici c’est Manchester.
Discussions on VAR must be had in great earnest, but to debate the legitimacy of the final penalty in context of this match report would be to miss the point of the entire evening. That Manchester United, with all their constraints, entered injury time one goal away, must stand as the real story.
In Tuesday’s pre-match press conference, Solskjaer had spoken about climbing mountains and how Manchester United weren’t new to these situations. He refused to focus on the uncontrollables, and spoke about what his team would look to achieve once they stepped out on the pitch. Everyone listening had two reactions. For starters, his positivity was admirable, but it also reeked of pure mediaspeak. It was what you would expect a positive manager to say in public, even in the face of certain adversity.
A football-and-Manchester-United observer as seasoned as Gary Neville, too, couldn’t fathom the audacity of belief it must’ve taken to actually consider this result as attainable. When asked, Solskjaer just casually shrugged, and said, “Of course!”
What have you just done ! 👹
— Gary Neville (@GNev2) March 6, 2019
A writer’s table is usually littered with pens and scribble pads. Mine currently has throat relaxants, a small bottle of liquid betadine, and a glass of salted warm water. Truth be told, I hope I need more after Arsenal on Sunday.
I have spent the last few hours scrolling through the social media pages of current and former United players. There is Jesse Lingard absolutely losing his top, Anthony Martial in an intense fist- and torso pump, Rio Ferdinand screaming and jumping inside the BT Sport studios. There is everyone else too, from Cesc Fabregas and Leon Goretzka to Boris Becker. The elation is universal.
And then there is Patrice Evra, next to Paul Pogba in the stands, shouting his lungs out.
Ici c’est Manchester. This is Manchester.