When Paris Saint Germain were drawn to face Manchester United on 17th December, most onlookers were certain that the Ligue 1 side had received one of the easiest routes into the Champions’ League quarter-finals available.
But manager José Mourinho’s sacking just a day later has revitalised the Premier League club. With former player Ole Gunnar Solskjær at the helm, the Red Devils have not lost in 11 matches in all competitions, winning 10. Manchester United’s purple patch might not have caused too much concern for Thomas Tuchel and co. had it not been for issues on their side too.
Key forwards Neymar and Edinson Cavani will miss this match through injury, with the former already seemingly ruled out of the 2nd leg and the latter also a doubt for the early-March return match. Thomas Meunier is another absentee for this game following his concussion, sustained during the win against Bordeaux at the weekend. The final player who looks doubtful for the trip to northwest England is midfield maestro Marco Verratti.
The Italian lasted for an hour against the Girondins on Saturday following his recovery from an ankle sprain, but his return feels rushed ahead of the key fixture. Thomas Tuchel is understandably keen to bolster an already light midfield, but Verratti surely should not be thrown into the mix ahead of schedule, given that the second leg will be at the Parc des Princes where PSG can go at the English side with a replenished squad.
Though if Verratti does start at Old Trafford, as expected, he will likely not be accompanied by a natural central midfielder. Marquinhos has already had several tastes of life in the middle of the park, despite his usual role at centre half, regularly filling in the gap during Ligue 1 encounters. The Brazilian even featured there in the vital Champions’ League home game vs. Liverpool, standing out as one of PSG’s best performers on the night.
His regular appearances at the heart of midfield, at the expense of Christopher Nkunku and others, have all been building up to this. Tuchel, deprived of Adrien Rabiot thanks to infighting between the player’s entourage and the board, has been forced to craft this makeshift midfield, and was unable to suitably reinforce the side during the winter transfer window, with only Leandro Paredes arriving a few days before the deadline. The Argentine midfielder is eligible to play for PSG in the Champions’ League, but is unlikely to start having played just 42 minutes for the Parisian club since joining.
In attack, responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Kylian Mbappé. He scored at Anfield earlier in the campaign and will be keen to inflict more damage against Premier League opposition. Though there will be one player even more eager to score on Tuesday night: Angel di María. The former Manchester United man is right to feel harshly judged by the English press following an imperfect spell at Old Trafford. He will almost certainly start for PSG, and is in good form, having scored and assisted twice in his last three league appearances.
Recent results have also contributed to a pessimistic atmosphere around the PSG camp. Their first domestic loss of 2018/19, a 2-1 Coupe de la Ligue defeat to EA Guingamp early last month, was swiftly followed by a maiden league defeat of the campaign to Olympique Lyonnais. Even the recent 1-0 win against Bordeaux was hard fought, with the home side registering just three shots on target, and scoring the winner through a Cavani penalty.
Manchester United, conversely, have gone from strength to strength since the turn of the year, and smell blood. Doubters of Solskjær were quickly proven wrong when his side turned over Tottenham at Wembley and produced a spirited comeback from 2-0 to Burnley in the last three minutes of the game.
The French contingent of Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, as well as Marcus Rashford, look like new players under the Norwegian and will approach this game with every intention of taking a lead to the Parc des Princes. With the weakened PSG line-up, Pogba has the opportunity to impose himself against Marquinhos in midfield, and the Manchester United wingers should relish the chance to go up against Juan Bernat and either Thilo Kehrer or Dani Alves.
Solskjær was at the Parc OL for PSG’s first league defeat two weekend’s ago and will have been pleased by how tame the side from the capital were made to look. Realistically, Manchester United will want to take a significant advantage to Paris in four weeks time, as Tuchel’s men have conceded just four goals at home in Ligue 1 this season and look far more comfortable at home than on the road in Europe.
Although PSG have bad luck to lament regarding their injury issues, this minor crisis is of their own doing thanks to the poor transfer policy over the last year. The lack of depth in central midfield and the centre forward position now gives Manchester United a very realistic chance of qualifying against the French champions.
Tuchel said recently in an interview with Canal + that this is no longer a Plan B situation, but a Plan D. A draw on Tuesday night at Old Trafford would be more than welcomed by the Germain.