It’s one of the many quirks of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United tenure that his record in cup competitions is so good, until it comes to the moments when the pressure is really on.
Before Wednesday’s defeat to Paris Saint-Germain at Old Trafford United had won 25 of 37 cup fixtures under Solskjaer, but too often they’ve been found wanting when it really matters.
That was a problem last season when United reached the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and Europa League only to stumble against Manchester City, Chelsea and Sevilla when silverware was in sight.
Now United are in danger of throwing away smooth progress to the last-16 of the Champions League in a manner that might that take them even longer to get over.
Solskjaer has been adamant that his team has learnt from the treble of last-four heartbreaks last season. Now they have a chance to prove it in Germany next week.
United always looked like they were going to be up against it in a Champions League group that included last season’s finalists in Paris Saint-Germain and semi-finalists in RB Leipzig, but two matchdays in progress looked to be gift wrapped in time for an early Christmas.
Victory in Paris and a 5-0 demolition against RB Leipzig had United cruising in Group H. Now they must go to Leipzig and secure a positive result against the side sitting second in the Bundesliga to make sure a dream start doesn’t turn into a Europa League nightmare on Thursday nights in the New Year.
Solskjaer will be wondering how it has possibly come to this, but the answer lies in two of United’s biggest issues: inconsistency and freezing on the big stage.
United surrendered total control of this group when they produced a wretched performance in Istanbul to lose 2-1 to Basaksehir and now their failure to make pressure count against PSG has left them standing on the precipice.
United had shown character to stem the tide after the fast start from PSG and for an hour between Marcus Rashford’s deflected equaliser and Marquinhos’ goal to restore the visitors lead they were the better side, but they failed to make territory count and missed good chances, something they were punished for.
In terms of performance there was enough to encourage Solskjaer, but now his team have to prove him right by showing they have progressed from those semi-final defeats last season. There might not be a final on the line next week, but defeat will sting just as much given it would end United’s Champions League involvement before Christmas.
It will be one of the biggest challenges for Solskjaer’s United so far. RB Leipzig might have been taken apart late on at Old Trafford, but they are one of Germany’s best sides and they will be a major test. United will also know they are probably not secure enough defensively to try and shut up shop and play for the point that will do them.
It could be a defining night for Solskjaer, too. This is the second season of his three-year contract and failing to progress from a Champions League group they had prized open so early will be a mark against the Norwegian.
United go to Germany in top spot in the table, something they would probably have taken at the start of the group stage, but now they also travel with the pressure all on them. They’ve gradually allowed PSG and RB Leipzig to claw them back in.
If they get the result they need and secure qualification that they undoubtedly deserve it could yet prove to be a significant night in the evolution of this team. But if it goes wrong they will wonder how they have possibly ended up back in the Europa League so quickly. All roads will lead back to Istanbul in an inquest.