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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's honeymoon period is over

Man United were left with a second leg mountain to climb, after losing 2-0 to PSG in the Champions League last night.

PSG players celebrate a goal.
PSG players celebrate a goal.
Image: Imago/PA Images

MANCHESTER UNITED WERE outclassed by a far superior PSG side on Tuesday night at Old Trafford, as Norwegian boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally experienced defeat in his biggest test yet as Red Devils manager.

Thomas Tuchel’s men, in contrast with their error-prone opponents, looked like a team accustomed to this stage. Most of their side have an abundance of Champions League experience.

The 2-0 victory was ultimately thoroughly deserved. United, so praised for their attacking ambition of late, registered just one shot on target, while PSG star Kylian Mbappe alone had three.

There was, granted, a degree of truth in Ander Herrera’s post-match claim — the Spaniard suggested that before Presnel Kimpembe’s opener, there was little between the teams.

Although they didn’t exactly bombard their rivals’ goal in the first half, there was something masterful about the way PSG increasingly took control of last night’s crucial clash.

And the abrupt one-two punch represented by goals from Kimpembe and Mbappe was the icing on the cake, leaving the majority of those watching at Old Trafford stunned.

The French side’s prodigious 20-year-old striker continually proved a thorn in the side of United’s vulnerable defence, with his intelligent movement and lightning pace, and the Paris-born forward should have added his second and PSG’s third of the night, but a combination of a heavy touch and commanding goalkeeping from David de Gea ensured the tie was not quite effectively ended on the night.

As the game’s climax approached, you got the sense that the reigning Ligue 1 champions could almost afford to sit deep and take their foot off the pedal to a degree — United barely laid a glove on them and surprising fell to officially their worst-ever European home defeat.

None of the above makes Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a bad manager, of course. It is not intended to rubbish the ability of the players either, or suggest the club’s recent exceptional form was a fluke, or in some way undeserved.

Nevertheless, the word most often used to describe their performance last night was ‘reality check’ and it seems a fair assessment to make.

United are currently fourth in the Premier League table and this position is an accurate indication of their current level.

There is no doubt Solskjaer has done a fantastic job and exceeded expectations since taking over, getting the best out of the previously inconsistent likes of Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, among other notable feats.

However, there are a couple of caveats. Eight wins in nine Premier League games is undeniably impressive, but only one of these victories came against a side currently in the top half of the table — Tottenham. Moreover, there was an element of good fortune about the Spurs victory at Wembley, as a combination of woeful finishing from the hosts and brilliant goalkeeping by De Gea earned a hard-fought though improbable 1-0 triumph.

Last night, however, United hit a ceiling at last. For most of the game, the team looked virtually indistinguishable from the side that stuttered so badly at the gloomy end of the Jose Mourinho era.

The most disappointing aspect from the Red Devils’ perspective was how toothless they were in attack against a PSG side who had failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their six previous Champions League fixtures this season.

There was a stark lack of creativity in the Old Trafford outfit’s play, and their problems were exacerbated by the departure through injury of Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, with ill-fated substitutes, Juan Mata and Alexis Sanchez, patently lacking the dynamism of the players they replaced.

The quality was so poor at times that home fans would be forgiven for wishing they still had the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini — sold to Chinese club Shandong Luneng Taishan in January and seen by many as epitomising the unsophisticated pragmatism of Mourinho’s tenure — to spring from the bench as a much-needed alternative means of attack.

It must not be forgotten, of course, that United are a good, improving Premier League team and one result should not unduly detract from such progress. But given the current unsatisfactory makeup of the squad, they will always be exposed at the elite level.

A good indicator of their quality can be understood by asking the age-old question: how many of their players would get in their opponents’ team? De Gea is the only virtual certainty. You could probably make a case for Pogba at his best and one or two others at a stretch, but overall, they simply cannot match PSG for world-class talent. They have no one with the defensive prowess of Thiago Silva, the midfield genius of Marco Verratti or the unstoppable pace and power of Kylian Mbappe. And that’s even without bringing injured duo Neymar and Edinson Cavani, two of the world’s best attackers, into the equation.

United have improved significantly in recent weeks, but they are still a long way from being great again.

The baby-faced assassin will need a performance approaching the miraculousness of his 1999 Champions League winner to turn this markedly one-sided tie around.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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