Manchester United remain on the brink of the Champions League knock-out stages but that one point that they require feels much further away than it did a week ago after this 10-man, 3-1 defeat by Paris Saint-Germain at Old Trafford.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were beaten by Marquinhos’ decisive goal, sandwiched between early and late Neymar strikes, but also by their own wasteful finishing, the indiscipline of their midfield enforcer Fred and Solskjaer’s own game management, which was found severely wanting.
Fred could easily have seen red inside the first half hour for a blatant headbutt on Paris’ Leandro Paredes, only to somehow survive a pitchside review by the referee Daniele Orsato. At any point between then and his 70th-minute sending-off, it would have been sensible to remove Fred before he removed himself.
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Instead, even with the score at 1-1 after Marcus Rashford’s equaliser and with Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek in reserve, Solskjaer kept his powder dry. The red card came shortly after Marquinhos’ goal and the second yellow was contentious, but the reluctance to replace Fred sooner was a basic error and his dismissal diminished genuine hope of a fightback.
Everything now rides on next week in Leipzig. Solskjaer and his players still only require a draw to secure qualification for the knockout stages – just as they did after beating Istanbul Basaksehir last week – but there is now immense pressure on next Tuesday’s trip to play last season’s semi-finalists, who will be looking to win to guarantee their own place in the last-16.
The emphatic 5-1 victory in October’s reverse fixture gives United a healthy head-to-head advantage over Leipzig. That could be crucial in this most finely-balanced of groups with three sides now level on nine points. Yet it was impossible to come away from Old Trafford without the sense that with 21 minutes left to defend a draw that would have secured safe passage, this was a wasted opportunity.
This was a breathless evening’s entertainment that came alive within six minutes and Kylian Mbappe’s first direct run at the United defence. Cutting inside from the right and, after a quick exchange of possession with Neymar, he had United’s entire six-man defence and midfield surrounding him. That is the danger he poses. That is the attention he requires.
These massed ranks of red shirts were enough for Mbappe’s shot to be blocked on its route to goal but the deflection off Victor Lindelof’s leg looped unpredictably in the air and fell kindly for Neymar at the far post. Once Moise Kean had shown due deference and moved out of his team-mate’s way, all that was required was a finish.
As Bruno Fernandes lay prone, complaining of being struck in the face, Fred entered into an off-the-ball contretemps with Leandro Paredes. Their head-to-head jousting ended with a deft flick from the United midfielder – hardly a Glasgow kiss but clearly enough to constitute a sending-off offence.
It was not a surprise that referee Orsato only briefly glanced at his pitchside monitor – once he found it, having first run over to the wrong end of the pitch – but nobody inside Old Trafford honestly expected him to only produce a yellow card. Even Fred looked slightly sheepish. He had escaped, somehow, and the momentum suddenly shifted.
United proceeded to push Paris into their own half and were level within 10 minutes. Again, they could count themselves a little fortunate. Anthony Martial did well to force Keylor Navas to parry into danger, but the Paris goalkeeper had Rashford’s follow-up covered until Danilo’s deflection, which sent the ball in the opposite direction, into the bottom right-hand corner.
The score level, tempers continued to simmer. Fred might have seen a second yellow for standing on Paredes’ foot, only for the Paris midfielder to be cautioned instead. Scott McTominay grew increasingly weary of Neymar’s histrionics.
With that in mind, you might have expected to see Fred substituted at the break. Instead, he was the first out of the tunnel and Harry Maguire’s calls for yet more aggression were answered. Martial might have been better off showing a cool head when, shortly after the restart, he concluded one rapid United counter by finding space at the far post but blazed over from 10 yards.
Edinson Cavani has composure but, at 33 years of age, little pace. That was why he attempted to chip Navas from outside the penalty area when sent through one-on-one, as Paris defenders closed in. The Uruguayan – Paris’ all-time leading scorer – at least came close, clipping the crossbar, and Martial’s follow-up was blocked.
United were creating chances on the break, but the contest was on a knife’s edge. At any moment, Paris’ patient possession could produce a breakthrough. It came from a corner, when United old boy Ander Herrera’s wayward shot was diverted back into the penalty area by Abdou Diallo. Solskjaer’s defence was slow to come out and Marquinhos hung around. At point-blank range, once he finally brought the ball out of his feet, all he needed to do was tap it past the scrambling De Gea.
Merely a minute later there came the most predictable moment of an otherwise volatile contest. Fred’s challenge on Herrera was the least offensive of all the fouls he committed but his foot undoubtedly clipped his former team-mate. He hung around on the touchline for a while to protest his innocence, but on the balance of the whole evening, he could have few complaints.
That hindered 10-man United’s attempts to fight their way back into the contest and their efforts to defend one late Paris attack. It was their turn to be caught on the counter, as one flowing transition from defence to attack ended with Rafael drawing De Gea out and squaring for Neymar to guide the ball into an empty net.
That goal could prove crucial if United and Paris are drawn into a head-to-head, but the task remains simple: avoid defeat in Leipzig and they qualify. United’s destiny is still in their hands, but their grip on a place in the last 16 is slipping.