Champions League

Evoking bravura and heroics of '99 has elevated Solskjær's status

 • by Matt Gault
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Not that one was needed, but if you wanted an insight into how Ole Gunnar Solskjær differs from José Mourinho, then look at how the stewards of the Manchester United throne past and present reacted to the club’s two greatest wins this season.

As United toasted a dramatic late triumph over Juventus in Turin, Mourinho strode purposefully onto the pitch, cupped his ear in the direction of the home supporters and began taunting. He was ushered from the field and later apologised for getting carried away.

Solskjær, however, had nothing to be sorry about after toppling Paris Saint-Germain in the Parisian rain.

The Norwegian arrived in the French capital with a threadbare squad and only the faintest hopes of continuing United’s Champions League adventure. He left having pretty much secured his employment status for next season.

And ‘Ole’ celebrated in a fashion you would expect from the manager of Manchester United. Battered by the elements on the touchline all night, Solskjær, alongside chief lieutenant Mike Phelan, kicked every ball, felt every tackle and lived every second of an absorbing, sometimes excruciating but ultimately exhilarating night inside the Parc des Princes.

And as referee Damir Skomina blew his whistle, condemning PSG to another harrowing exit from Europe, Solskjær and his staff erupted from the visitors’ bench, sprinted onto the pitch and celebrated with the players.

Therein lies a key difference.

Mourinho, having defied the odds to stun Juve on their own patch, somehow made it about him. His successor, on the other hand, once again made it about the players. And that has been one of the former striker’s greatest accomplishments during a dreamlike three months in the Old Trafford hotseat.

Solskjær has successfully shifted the focus away from tense press conferences, bemoanings about transfer activity and the idea United required a miracle to get themselves back into the Premier League’s top four.

Having made Mourinho look horribly out of touch, Solskjær has surely now done enough to convince the United hierarchy of his long-term managerial credentials.

In fact, so dramatic was Wednesday night’s victory that it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see the BT Sport cameras cut to Sir Alex Ferguson mouthing the words ‘let’s give it to him, then’ in Ed Woodward’s ear. The pair were sat high in the stands, overcome with disbelief and ecstasy like the rest of United’s 2,000-strong travelling band of supporters.

Ferguson later popped into the away dressing room to congratulate United’s players. United’s official Twitter account also posted a photo of Fergie, Eric Cantona and Solskjær – three club legends – smiling and offering a celebratory clenched fist after full-time.

Solskjær had said mountains are there to be climbed. Well, his players scaled a pretty big one with the bravura and late heroics of ’99. They became the first team in European Cup history to lose the home first leg by two goals and come back to win. Yet another ringing endorsement of the character he has drilled into this squad.

The more measured assessment of the tie as a whole, of course, is that United rode their luck enormously. They were comprehensively outclassed at Old Trafford, most leaving the stadium that night wondering how the French champions had not put their English counterpart’s elimination beyond doubt.

And, after a thrilling start in Paris which saw Romelu Lukaku pounce on Thilo Kehrer’s misplaced pass and fire United into a second-minute lead, the hosts responded strongly.

Juan Bernat and Ángel Di María terrorised Eric Bailly and Ashley Young down United’s right flank. United’s Ivorian defender, resembling a bemused and overwhelmed fan who had won the chance to play with his heroes, endured a particularly brutal night, his lapse in concentration allowing Bernat to ghost past him for PSG’s equaliser.

The hosts continued to heap pressure on United’s backline, with Bernat and Dani Alves both spurning chances. At that point PSG were enjoying 85 per cent possession. It was utter domination.

But United refused to read Les Parisiens’ script of Euro redemption. Marcus Rashford shot from distance. Gianluigi Buffon, still chasing an elusive first European crown, spilled the ball, allowing Lukaku to steal in.

From there, United could be grateful for a strange off-night for Kylian Mbappé. The French superstar, who scorched United’s defence to score a fine goal at Old Trafford, ended the night in tears, his killer touch in the penalty having deserted him.

Admittedly, the 20-year-old created Bernat’s goal but fluffed his lines when presented with chances to score. Marshalled impressively by Chris Smalling all night, Mbappé had a few moments he’d rather forget; up against Smalling in a one-on-one, he ran straight out of play after a heavy touch before losing his footing as he tried to round David de Gea.

But Rashford, who has attracted dubious comparisons to Mbappé in the build-up to both games, showed no such indecision. In a heart-stopping climax, Presnel Kimpembe – the other PSG goalscorer in Manchester – was penalised when Diogo Dalot’s shot from distance was adjudged to have struck his elbow. After a VAR review awarded United a penalty, Rashford stood near the spot, gathering his thoughts with his side’s fate in his hands.

The referee blew his whistle and Rashford drilled the ball past Buffon, sending United fans – and their bench – into delirium.

It was the biggest moment in the 21-year-old striker’s career, for sure, but again Solskjær was the hero of the hour, notching his 14th win in an astonishing 17-game sequence since his appointment. And make no mistake: this was his greatest triumph. With ten first-team players missing, Solskjær faced a PSG side unchanged from the first leg. By the end, United had 19-year-old Tahith Chong and 17-year-old Mason Greenwood, the latter making his senior debut, on the pitch and they still won.

He may have got his team selection wrong but switching to a 5-4-1, moving Rashford back into midfield, helped United quell PSG’s threat in the closing stages. His coaching of Dalot was especially impressive. The teenage full-back is gifted but raw. Recognising that he was drifting out of position and flying into tackles, Solskjær kept him check down United’s right flank.

Ultimately, the runaway Ligue 1 leaders, who looked so threatening in the first half, ran out of ideas as the clock ticked away and their European dreams crumbled. Again.

The odds of United lifting the Champions League are still slim, of course. However, having returned his side to the top four, reached the last eight of the Champions League and progressed to the same stage of the FA Cup, it’s difficult to envisage a scenario now where Solskjær doesn’t get the job.

But even if he doesn’t, he has brought the smiles and the heroics back to United. Staring down a Champions League exit, they are suddenly dreaming big. Solskjær said United can go all the way and win it.

It seems implausible, but who dares question him now?

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