This was billed as the perfect time to play Paris Saint-Germain.
No Neymar. No Edinson Cavani. No Thomas Meunier. A half-fit Marco Verratti. Defenders playing in midfield. A dip in form. A manager speaking openly about implementing “Plan D”.
But despite all the positivity of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era and the away wins over Tottenham and Arsenal, this was always going to be a different kind of test: Champions League knock-out football against quality opposition.
In the event PSG were all about who was on the pitch, rather than who wasn’t. It was about Kylian Mbappe’s bursts of pace, Angel Di Maria’s delivery and the solid spine provided by Marquinhos and Thiago Silva.
Thomas Tuchel came into the tie under intense pressure. A PSG manager is not judged on domestic form – it’s all about the Champions League – and a trip to a rejuvenated Old Trafford was a daunting task. He left with a perfect result: a controlled 2-0 win, a red card for the opposition’s star and a frustrated atmosphere.
The German employed a perfect game-plan, relying on his experienced side to retain shape, deny space and hit on the counter via the guile of Di Maria, Julian Draxler and the electric speed of the irrepressible Mbappe.
The first half may have been most notable for its stop-start nature, with five of 10 yellow cards dished out, but what was also in evidence was the Parisians completely shutting United’s attack down.
Barring a simple save at the near post for Gianluigi Buffon from Marcus Rashford’s speculative attempt and an exhilarating but fruitless burst down the right-hand side from Paul Pogba, United had nothing to show for their play.
That arms-length ease continued throughout the tie as the hosts failed to muster another attempt on Buffon’s goal.
Injuries to the industrious Jesse Lingard and threatening Anthony Martial either side of half-time may have robbed Solskjaer’s side of their impetus but in truth they simply came up against better drilled opposition. A first defeat in their 12th match under the Norwegian hadn’t been foreshadowed but was entirely warranted.
The Old Trafford crowd would have hoped to see their side improve and hit the ground running after the break, but instead the French champions brought the tie into a stranglehold and never let go.
David de Gea pushed Mbappe’s header around the post, but from the resulting corner Nemanja Matic lost Presnel Kimpempe and the centre-back cushioned in Di Maria’s corner for 1-0.
PSG smelt blood and piled on the pressure with Marquinhos and Verratti picking apart the United midfield from deep and Juan Bernat and Dani Alves stretching the play out wide.
They doubled their lead seven minutes later as Marquinhos and Bernat combined in the centre of the pitch to send Di Maria scooting down the left. The one-time United flop played in a lovely low cross for Mbappe, who timed his eye-popping acceleration to perfection to guide the ball past De Gea for his 23rd goal of the season and banish any residing thoughts of Neymar and Cavani.
The 20-year-old could have made it 3-0 but De Gea kept out an attempted chip before things went from bad to worse for United.
A frustrated Pogba raked his studs down Alves’ leg to receive a second yellow card, which will rule him out of the second leg in Paris.
The coup de grace for PSG means if Solskjaer is to work his magic and conjure a turnaround on 6 March he will have to make history: no team has ever managed to progress following a 2-0 home defeat in the first leg of the Champions League knock-out phase.
If the United caretaker manager were to do that then the full-time job would surely be within reach.