Baptism by fire, but real test awaits | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 15, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:06 AM, February 15, 2019

Baptism by fire, but real test awaits

There were plenty of burning 'what ifs' for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and any Manchester United fan after their 2-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in their Champions League Round of 16 first leg yesterday.

What if Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard hadn't gone down to injuries before half-time? What if Nemanja Matic hadn't been asleep at the wheel while marking Presnel Kimpembe from the corner that led to the first goal? What if Kimpembe had been sent off for his tackle on Marcus Rashford before being able to open the scoring?

However, despite those questions burning a hole in the minds of Manchester United fans, there is one more what if scenario that they should take into account. What if Neymar and Edinson Cavani had been present at Old Trafford on Tuesday night?

The hosts were given a seemingly insurmountable advantage well ahead of the tie when the Brazilian went down and that advantage was only compounded by the injury to Cavani.

They were also riding the wave of Solksjaer's immaculate start with the Red Devils in a managerial capacity, having gone undefeated for 11 games and coming into this match -- crucially at home -- with the tables completely turned from when the draw was made.

However, those advantages were quickly wiped out with injuries to two of Ole's front three, forcing his hand and compelling him to bring on Juan Mata and Alexis Sanchez, capable players in their own right but neither quite at home in his quick-paced style of play.

There was the option of deploying Romelu Lukaku on the right, from where he put in a man-of-the-match performance against Arsenal in the FA Cup, but tactically that was the only thing the Norwegian manager could have done differently at that point.

On the other hand, Thomas Tuchel had planned things down to perfection with advance knowledge that he would be missing superstars and be without the services of wantaway midfielder Adrian Rabiot -- who has been frozen out by the hierarchy at the Parc des Princes.

The returning Marco Veratti was put into a makeshift midfield with Dani Alves and Marquinhos -- a centre-back that Tuchel has been training to play in midfield so that he can pair what proved to be an impregnable duo of Thiago Silva and Kimpembe at the heart of defence.

Each were also set a defined role, with Alves bombing up and down the flank and Veratti pulling the strings almost single-handedly from midfield. Most importantly, Marquinhos was given the unenviable task of putting the brakes on a red-hot Paul Pogba and the Brazilian did that to perfection, not giving the Frenchman an inch to play his balls over the top or surge forward.

The game was decided by a 'brain-fade' from Matic and the blistering pace of one Kylian Mbappe -- who covered significant ground to run ahead between United's centre-backs and slot home -- but the path to that win was set by PSG's utter domination of midfield, the part of their team that is often considered the weakest.

If there were any plans that Solskjaer had made beforehand to disrupt that midfield, and he almost certainly would have planned something by the half-hour mark, they went up in flames with the injuries and forced substitutions.

However, the plaudits for the visitors' midfield domination and the commanding victory -- it was incredibly the first time that Manchester United have lost a European Cup tie at home by a two-goal margin -- should deservedly go to Tuchel but special mentions should be adequately reserved for almost all of his playing XI.

Angel di Maria came back to haunt the Stretford End and even with the game 1-0, contemplated whether he should drink a beer thrown in his direction -- such was the visitors' stranglehold. Their entire backline conceded just one shot on target and Mbappe made the most of the little opportunities he was given, even getting in behind for a second goal only to be denied by David de Gea.

Solskjaer's best player on the night, Ander Herrera, expressed optimism for the return leg but the Norwegian accepted that the level of competition was just a bit too much for his depleted troops to bear.

With a first defeat, and such a chastening one at that, it would be fair to say that Solskjaer's honeymoon well and truly ended with United chasing shadows around Old Trafford.

However, United's next run of games will be telling -- with or without Martial and Lingard.

They face a Chelsea side smarting from a 6-0 defeat to Manchester City before hosting Liverpool, when they will have a chance to inflict a damaging blow to their biggest rivals' title challenge. Following that is a daunting away trip to Selhurst Park for a meeting with Crystal Palace. They will at least get a chance to get back into a groove ahead of the return leg against PSG on March 7 with a game against Southampton four days prior, but it will likely be the results in the games before that dictate proceedings in Paris.

It will be a different game then, one that Paul Pogba will crucially miss out on after being sent off on Tuesday night, and realistically perhaps one leap too far for Manchester United, but at least they have the perfect person at the helm to describe the feeling of a Champions League comeback.

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