By Iwan Lehnert
Where even to start after one of the greatest nights in Manchester United’s European history? The injuries? VAR? Marcus Rashford blasting a late penalty beyond Buffon with interest? A day after a glorious, incomprehensible and unexpected triumph in Paris, the sheen from Wednesday’s 1-3 win against Paris Saint Germain is far from wearing off.
Even typing this, trying to wrap one’s head around a result that seemed so unlikely and so fanciful after that clinical first leg display by the Parisians at Old Trafford is difficult. Perhaps that’s partly down to the way in which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has transformed the club’s fortunes in three short months; he’s taken a squad deemed unfit for purpose, lacking form, shipping goals and rarely scoring into a stunning throwback to the most glorious era in United’s history.
The Norwegian made his name at a time where this club was instilled with a built-in defiance whenever the odds were stacked against them; fans expected the unexpected and always had belief in what United could achieve under Sir Alex Ferguson. Now, almost six long and frequently tumultuous years since his retirement, fans are confronted with the reality that, for at least the time being, United are, for want of a better term, back.
How else to describe the spirit of last night? Watching the likes of the oft-derided Fred and Scott McTominay press, harry and withstand consistent waves of PSG pressure, observing Chris Smalling rise to a challenge many thought beyond him and see a squad down to its bare bones, filled with academy products overcome that 0-2 deficit to make European Cup history…it’s impossible not to stand with mouth agape at the job that Solskjaer has done. That his team, this slightly flawed but highly talented side could rise to such a challenge in such circumstances says more about his ability to tap into what makes this club so special than any job interview ever could.
Because make no mistake about it, Solskjaer should be the next United boss. The current caretaker manager was asked to conduct a salvage operation in December yet in a few short months has suddenly got this team dreaming of trophies and gunning for top four finish, both of which looked unthinkable as Jose Mourinho’s side lurched from dispiriting performance to off-field drama with numbing regularity.
Pragmatism has its place in this conversation; United haven’t won anything or sealed Champions League qualification just yet and with a packed fixture list alongside a raft of injuries to deal with, bigger tests will await between now and the end of May.
But that’s missing the point. Try telling the away end at Parc des Princes that Solskjaer has yet to achieve anything; try telling the players who can’t stop themselves from endorsing him whenever a mic is placed in front of them. No, the Molde man has yet to win a trophy, but he’s made Manchester United, a side that has spent almost six seasons drifting without an identity believe in itself again.
Anything feels possible, even if United surely can’t keep this remarkable streak going forever. But the change has been apparent in almost every game under Solskjaer; the belief that games are never over has been evident against Burnley, Southampton and now, away in the French capital. This squad does need more reinforcements, but these players been given a boost that only few people in the world could possibly have provided to the point where shortcomings can be overcome, mistakes aren’t fatal and United keep finding ways to succeed. It’s gone on too long to be some new-manager bounce or a reaction to the bile-filed regime that he succeeded; it’s a remarkable, tangible turnaround led by someone who gets the club inside and out, and that’s not something that just any former player could rock up to Carrington and provide.
After the all the poison, passivity and pondering of the last half decade, the fact that simply enjoying watching Manchester United again would be enough for plenty; that Solskjaer’s revival contains proper substance and belief is beyond anything we could have hoped for when his temporary appointment was made in December. Who knows how United will end this campaign, but at this exact moment, it feels like United fans have our club back. That alone should earn the scorer of one of United’s greatest ever goals the job that he’s been dreaming of.