LONDON: Manchester United’s stunning return to form under interim coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will receive its toughest test yet when they host Paris St Germain in a Champions League last-16 first leg on Tuesday.
AS Roma host FC Porto in Tuesday’s other game but most eyes will be fixed on Old Trafford when United’s run of 10 wins in 11 games since Solskjaer replaced the sacked Jose Mourinho will be given a stern examination by French champions PSG.
When Mourinho was fired in December, it looked like United could need to win the Champions League as the only way to qualify for the tournament next season.
But Solskjaer has reignited United’s top-four challenge since being appointed manager until the end of the season.
Lifting the European Cup, just as Solskjaer did as a player with United in 1999, would make it hard for the club not to hand the job to the Norwegian on a permanent basis.
United were 11 points off fourth place when Mourinho was fired, but the side has only dropped two points since then.
United’s hopes are boosted by Neymar being out injured while fellow PSG striker Edinson Cavani is also out after hurting his hip in Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Girondins Bordeaux, where he netted a penalty.
PSG coach Thomas Tuchel has to decide whether to pair Ligue 1 top-scorer Kylian Mbappe with the ineffective Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting —who has scored only one goal in 12 league matches and was poor against Bordeaux in a 4-4-2 — against United.
Tuchel could push Julian Draxler further up in a 4-5-1, with Draxler effectively operating as a playmaker behind Mbappe.
Draxler could also find himself in a central midfield role if Marco Verratti is unable to play against United. Verratti only just returned from a sprained ankle and played about an hour of the game against Bordeaux.
If Verratti doesn’t play, Tuchel is likely to put central defender Marquinhos as one of his two holding midfielders along with either Draxler or the newly signed Leandro Paredes.
United are set to bring striker Marcus Rashford and defender Victor Lindelof back into their starting line-up.
The pair were rested for the weekend 3-0 win at Fulham while scorers Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba also left the field early to preserve energy.
Forward Alexis Sanchez said United should be confident of going further in the competition.
“United is a club with so much history and is capable of beating any rival,” the Sunday Mirror reported him as saying.
“If we win at Old Trafford and we don’t concede, then I think we would be favourites for the second leg. I think we can do that and I see this United team with a lot of chances to score in Paris.”
The trip to Rome’s Stadio Olimpico should hold no fear for Porto after an impressive campaign so far. Group ‘D’ winners Porto are undefeated in the Champions League since losing to Liverpool in the first leg of last season’s round-of-16, while they haven’t lost in the Portuguese league since a 1-0 defeat at Benfica in October.
Porto have won their last five Champions League matches to match a club record and claimed 16 points — more than any other team in the group phase.
Porto will be without several players including Moussa Marega, who netted five goals in the group phase like Roma’s Edin Dzeko.
Last season’s semi-finalists Roma had a seven-game winning European run at the Olimpico until it was ended by a 2-0 defeat to Real Madrid in Group ‘G’.
Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2019