MANCHESTER – Paris Saint-Germain could have feared the worst going into their Champions League trip to Manchester United without both Neymar and Edinson Cavani, but coach Thomas Tuchel deserves plaudits for finding the right formula as they came away with a commanding victory.
Second-half goals from Presnel Kimpembe and the devastating Kylian Mbappe secured a 2-0 away win and PSG now have a comfortable advantage heading into the second leg of their last-16 tie in three weeks.
Winless on their previous three trips to England, this time PSG outclassed Premier League opposition despite the absences of the world’s most expensive player as well as the club’s all-time top scorer.
Appointed with a brief to take PSG further in Europe than they have been before under their Qatari owners, Tuchel might have felt he had been cursed by an injury jinx with right back Thomas Meunier also sidelined.
But instead, full of energy on the touchline and with some evidently strong words to his players at halftime, he saw his side send out a clear message.
“We are a team with Neymar and Cavani, two international-class players, but we are a team without them as well,” said German star Julian Draxler.
Central to PSG’s victory was the performance of Mbappe. The 20-year-old usually showcases his lightning pace out wide, but here he followed Tuchel’s instructions and adapted to a central attacking role without Cavani.
“He told me it would be different to what I usually do, that I might touch the ball a lot less often, that I couldn’t drop too deep, because I was the only player who could get in behind,” said Mbappe.
“I listened to him, even if it was a bit difficult because it was new, and I am still learning in this position.”
Back at Old Trafford where he endured a nightmare single season in 2014/15, Angel di Maria returned to haunt his old side, setting up both goals.
A flexible line-up featuring a 35-year-old Daniel Alves on the right wing was held together in central midfield by Marquinhos, the Brazilian outstanding as he stepped up from defence, and Marco Verratti.
That meant the absence of Adrien Rabiot, frozen out over his refusal to sign a new contract, was not felt.
“Those two were superb together, incredible, but we can’t play the whole season with just those two in midfield,” pointed out Tuchel.
It would be dangerous for PSG to get carried away, just two years after they destroyed Barcelona 4-0 at the same stage, only to lose the return leg 6-1 away.
This time should be different, however – the second leg will be at home, and this Manchester United are not Barcelona.
Neymar and Cavani are both expected to again be missing for the return on March 6, but PSG have shown they can cope without them.
“People need to stop being afraid. Of course Neymar is hugely important, and Cavani is fundamental to us, but football is played on the pitch, and we showed that,” Mbappe said after the game.
The pressure on Tuchel was considerable, with his predecessor Unai Emery paying the price for defeats at the same stage to Barcelona and Real Madrid in the last two seasons.
But the German has shown a tactical flexibility, along with a strength of personality, and it got the best out of his team on Tuesday, leaving the quarter-finals within sight.
“To win at Old Trafford, against a team who had won 10 out of 11 and were unbeaten under (Ole Gunnar) Solskjaer, deserves a mention among the best away results for a French side” in Europe, wrote veteran commentator Vincent Duluc in sports daily L’Equipe.AFP