The night of Wednesday, March 6, 2019 will never be forgotten by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the Manchester United players who pulled off one of the greatest Champions League comebacks.
The city of romance was flush with United red that night, it was the moment the ascension of Solskjaer from convenient caretaker to leading a cultural revolution was all but confirmed.
To quote Gary Neville when he spoke to Solskjaer at the Parc des Princes just after United had completed their theory defying resurrection: “How long would you like your contract? What would your salary like to be? And where would you like the statue?”
Tomorrow night United return to Paris and 595 days on this will be considered an easy benchmark to test the progress of Solskjaer’s United, especially at a time when his future has been the source of much conjecture recently.
It’s fair to say the statue is on hold at the moment. United’s stuttering start to the season was eased somewhat with the 4-1 win at Newcastle on Saturday, a game which produced easily the most complete performance of the Premier League campaign to date.
But it will take more than a convincing win against a compliant Newcastle to completely erase the memories of the 6-1 defeat to Tottenham at Old Trafford two weeks ago. Saturday night was a start, but Solskjaer will want to see that kind of display repeated, beginning in Paris.
This will be a very different trip to the French capital. For starters this is the first of a six-game group campaign, so the pressure isn’t as intense as it was back in March 2019, when a spot in the quarter-finals was on the line and PSG held a 2-0 lead from the first leg at Old Trafford.
Defeat for either tomorrow night will not be terminal, but it will be a good barometer of exactly where United are at in Europe this year, given PSG were contesting the Champions League final less than two months ago.
It’s also inevitable that this fixture will be a time for looking back at Solskjaer’s reign, for judging progress so far and what more there may be to come, but we should avoid snap judgements if the result doesn’t go United’s way on Tuesday.
The Norwegian still has questions to answer, especially given the home defeats to Crystal Palace and Tottenham this season, but there has been progress. Even if he was to depart tomorrow, he would leave a legacy, having cleared out some of the hangers-on in the squad, although not all of them, and drastically reduced the average age.
Sign up to our free MUFC email newsletter
Get the latest breaking Manchester United transfer news and analysis every day direct to your inbox with our free MUFC newsletter
The other issue with comparisons to the 3-1 win at PSG during Solskjaer’s temporary reign is the nature of that victory. United rode the luck throughout and Solskjaer got the team selection wrong, with Eric Bailly run ragged as a makeshift right-back before an injury ended his night early.
During the second half United’s plan was to hold on and hope to muster one decisive attack, which they managed to do in the dying seconds, with VAR coming to their rescue after Diogo Dalot’s shot truck an arm.
The scenes in the away end were joyous when Marcus Rashford scored from the spot and it was a night to remember, but it wasn’t a performance that hinted at a grand plan from Solskjaer. There was a significant element of luck involved.
United could quite easily play better than they did then on Tuesday night and lose. At least now there is a clear pattern to the side and a greater quality in attack. Romelu Lukaku, the two-goal hero back in March 2019, has gone and United’s attack is more of a collective now, fired by the brilliance of Bruno Fernandes.
The defence hasn’t particularly improved, but United do look a better side than they were in Solskjaer’s honeymoon period, despite the impressive results picked up in those first three months.
Progress might not have come as quickly as hoped for, but there has been progress all the same. Whatever the outcome on Tuesday night, snap judgements shouldn’t alter that.