By far one of the clashes of the tournament. The french champions go against a high flying Man United side. It’s a tie that could go either way and it’s very difficult to even predict this, but I’ll try my best.
Let’s start with Manchester United, who three months ago, would have made this fixture so easy to predict. Under Mourinho, this side were absolutely awful.There was no clear future and seemed to change how the team set up in every game. In the end, why even blame the players when the manager was doing so much wrong. Now under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they look like a completely different team. They attack much faster and take advantage of the incredibly talented attackers they have. Who knew that playing Martial and Pogba, two of the most talented players in the team, would help win games? Since the Norwegian has taken over, United have closed an 11 point gap, to overtaking Arsenal and only a win away from top 4. They are unbeaten and even beat Asenal and Tottenham in the process. Even looking at xG, only the Tottenham game can be seen as a game where United rode their luck, but you can do that when you have one of the best keepers the game has ever seen. I think what’s most impressive about Solskjaer so far is just how quickly he identified the problems. He brought Herrera back into the team and made Martial and Rashford key players in what he was trying to do. This is the best United have been playing since Sir Alex retired, and is arguably the most likeable United have ever been.
Their key player for this fixture is not even a debate, and that is Paul Pogba. The Frenchman’s form has been next level in recent months. He has more goal contributions than any other Manchester United player, and is performing at the level we all knew he could reach. Pogba has always been incredible for United, but now he’s adding those goals and assists that all of his critics have been craving. His numbers have been absolutely sensational this season. He’s taking 3.5 shots a game, making 1.6 key passes and completing 1.9 dribbles. No other United player ranks higher in these departments. He is essentially carrying the attack and he seems to be loving it. He is especially good when it comes to counter attacks. It’s an approach that the team have been using in the tougher games, and thanks to Pogba’s strength and vision, it’s working. While Pogba as been the best player, Marcus Rashford isn’t far behind. The forward was one of few players who showed a lot of fight even when Mourinho was at the helm. He has been the first choice number 9, since Lukaku just doesn’t look up to it in this system. Rashford’s speed and ability to interchange with the other forwards making an unpredictable threat. His shot numbers since Solskjaer took over have gone to Harry Kane numbers. He’s averaging 5 shots a game, and is really looking like a player I never thought he would be. It’s great to finally see the 21 year old look like a player who truly is deserving of starting for the club.
Let’s look at Paris, who while having a record breaking start to the season, amassing 14 wins in a row, seems to be surrounded by off the pitch problems. The first seems to be Thomas Tuchel’s transfer demands. The former Borussia Dortmund coach seems to have this reputation of having high demands. He fell out with the Borussia Dortmund board because of the issues he was having regarding transfers, and it seems to have continued him into the French capital. Before the season started, Tuchel made it very clear that full backs he had were in his view, not good enough. With Thiago Motta retiring, it left Paris without their best defensive midfielder. What made things even worse was Rabiot’s contract situation. He was refusing to sign a new deal, because he wanted to play for Barcelona. The board did not like this, so Tuchel is now not allowed to play him at all. The problem is none of these issues have been resolved, and it has left Tuchel very frustrated. Juan Bernat was the only full back that was signed in the summer, and only last month the club decided to replace Motta, with Leandro Parades, a player who I really like. The problem is it should have never been left this late. They are still a midfielder short, and with their failed attempt to bring in Idrissa Gueye from Everton, it has left Tuchel wondering if his club really want to win the Champions League. Their performances in the league have been amazing, but you expect that. When you some of the best attackers in Europe playing in the worst out of the top 5 leagues, of course they are going to perform exceptionally. If you just focus on their performances in Europe, there is a significant difference. That is going to happen when playing better opposition, but it’s staggering how much of a difference there is. Mbappe, Neymar and Di Maria have stayed consistent, but the likes of Bernat, Cavani, Kimpembe and Marquinhos all look worse. It does address a problem this side have. Many of their players just aren’t elite. They have these high ambitions of winning the Champions League, but you look at the other top teams, like Juventus, Barcelona and Manchester City, they have talent in every area of the side. Paris’s full backs aren’t good enough, and have a lot of players starting to age out. It isn’t their fault entirely. They play in a league where attracting talent can be difficult, but it begs the question why not focus on their domestic league? Ligue 1 is not as competitive as other leagues, but you can go into every single team and you would be able find one talent that is stand out. Sangare, Thuram, Pepe, Thauvin, Aouar, Atal, Lala. My point is they should be smarter regarding bringing in talent. It has hurt Bayern to an extent, but Juventus and Lyon have all excelled when finding domestic talent. They are the only top club in Paris, so why do they not use that pull to bring the best talent in the country?
Anyways, lets look the players that Manchester United should truly be worried about. There is no other place to start than arguably the best young talent in the history, Kylian Mbappe. The World Cup winner has actually taken his game to a whole new level this season. With Neymar mssing both fixtures thanks to another injury, the pressure is on the young forward to step up on the big stage. While Neymar was comfortably their best player in the group stages, Mbappe was still amazing. He started all 6 games, and finished the group stages with 7 goal contributions, the same as his Brazilian teammate. No other player in this side was taken more than his 3.1 shots per 90. He was thir most lethal player in the box. With Neymar dropping incredibly deep in some games, it left Mbappe as one of the most advanced players. He was also creating 2.3 chances a game, and even completing 2.5 dribbles a game. He will be a massive handful for which ever defenders are selected for the game.
With Neymar out, there was also concern that Marco Verratti would also mix the tie. Thanfully for Paris, he will be available for this game. Verratti has been the best midfielder in France and one of the best in Europe. He has been in the Ligue 1 team of the season every year for the past 4 years (Don’t quote me on that). Even after initial problems with Tuchel, with the German claiming Verratti was overweight, he is back to his best this season. In the Champions League, he was averaging 85 passes a game. No other player in the squad was making more than the Italian international. He also had the highest pass accuracy than any outfield player to start more than 1 game. He was winning the ball back more than any other Paris player, with Verratti making 4 tackles a game, twice more than anyone else. He is the reason why the French champion’s midfield is even functional. His distribution and ball winning ability make him essential in linking the defense and the attack together. Without him, they look so much slower and have less of that drive in the midfield. He is a vital player to PSG.
If Manchester United want to progress to the next round, there is one thing they must do. Play on the counter attack, in a similar fashion to how they did against Arsenal. They play full backs that love to go forward, but don’t have the speed to get back if United move the ball. Rashford, Martial and Lingard have to start this game. If Rashford and Martial split wide, it will make life very difficult for their defense. A lot also rests on Paul Pogba. Their midfield isn’t the strongest. If the Frenchman can use his incredible athletic ability and passing range to find the forwards, it’ll mak United very difficult to deal with. They are missing their best player, so it’s vital that they take advantage of that.
If Paris wish to advance to the quarter finals, they must attack more centrally. While Herrera and Matic have both been good under Solkjaer, Herrera has this habit of going out of position to recover the ball, and Matic is also very slow. You expect intelligent passers like Verratti and Parades to find the holes to get through the wall. It also helps that United’s defense has this habit of making mistakes. Mbappe and Cavani have to make sure whoever is playing with Lindelof is the one receiving the ball. Lindelof is the only one with the confidence to try and break out of the line. If you limit United to goal kicks and long balls into the channels, it makes dealing with their attack much easier. While they have improved, there is definitely still a Mourinho-sized shadow looming over some of these players.
This tie is so hard to predict. Paris can beat anyone on their day, but their inability to deal with sides with good wingers makes them quite easy to beat. Liverpool and Napoli proved that beating this side is not difficult. United have proved that they know how to deal with tough away games and come back with the 3 points, as seen by their wins in North London, but Europe is an entirely different stage. I think I’ll go for a United win. Tuchel still hasn’t got this side as good as it should be, and with their midfield looking worse than the Red Devil’s, it is just the perfect time to play them.
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