A depleted Manchester United are hoping to pull off another remarkable Champions League comeback when they face Paris Saint-Germain in their last 16, second leg on Wednesday after a 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford last month.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side will have taken heart from the way Ajax recovered a 2-1 first-leg deficit to beat the holders Real Madrid 4-1 away on Tuesday and advance to the last eight.
However, that was just the third time in the Champions League era that a team has gone through in the knockout phase after losing the first leg at home, the second time Ajax have done so.
United are three-time European Cup winners, but they have never won any tie in continental competition after losing the first leg at home. And while Real are a shambles just now, PSG appear an ominous prospect, with Kylian Mbappe in rampant form.
The English club had also never lost a home European game by more than one goal, although last month’s loss to PSG remains their only defeat in 16 matches since Solskjaer replaced the sacked Jose Mourinho.
“It’s never mission impossible,” insisted the Norwegian, who was on the bench for the 1999 semi-final, second leg when United fell 2-0 down away to Juventus but came back to win the game 3-2 and go through.
“Of course it is more difficult, but we have to get the first goal and then anything can happen.
“Football is a technical and tactical game but it is also a mental game — goals always change games, and if we get the first one, we will be believing even more, and they might start doubting themselves.”
Solskjaer has managed to remain optimistic despite being without 10 first-team players due to injury or, in Paul Pogba’s case, suspension. Five academy players have helped make up their squad.
Despite their strong position, PSG could be forgiven for having doubts given the importance of Champions League progress to them and their failure to get to the quarter-finals since 2016.
They fell to Madrid at this hurdle last year, while in 2017 they were humiliated by Barcelona, winning the first leg 4-0 but losing 6-1 in the return, although that was away.
“There are so many examples of teams that can change results like this,” added Solskjaer, who has overseen eight straight away wins.
– Cavani back? –
However, it seems improbable that Thomas Tuchel’s side — themselves fresh from eight straight wins in all competitions — could be eliminated here, even without Neymar.
The world’s most expensive player is still recovering from a metatarsal injury and on Monday was pictured at the Rio Sambadrome enjoying carnival celebrations. He is expected in Paris for Wednesday’s game, however.
“Everything can happen, it is always possible that a team like Manchester in a last-16 tie can score the first goal and we must be ready for that and ready to show a reaction,” warned Tuchel, who said his team should forget the first-leg result.
“These guys will be ready for everything. They will believe because it’s a strong club with a strong history, with a very strong record under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, so we must prepare for the best Manchester United.”
He said he would make a last-minute call on the fitness of striker Edinson Cavani, who has not played since before the first leg.
– ‘Pride hurt’ –
Mbappe — described as “lightning” by Solskjaer — has been the main man for PSG recently though, scoring six times in four appearances since netting at Old Trafford.
As well as the banned Pogba, United are missing Anthony Martial, Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia, Matteo Darmian, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Ander Herrera, Nemanja Matic and Alexis Sanchez. The latter is out for up to six weeks with a knee injury.
“We’ll never approach any game as a lost cause,” Solskjaer insisted.
“I think our pride was hurt last time we played them, so we are going to see players that are going to give their all, and if we get nine or 10 at least playing up to the top standard we have a good chance. We can carry one or two, maybe.”