When it comes to the Knockout stages of the Champions League, you can’t ask for much more than what we’ve seen over the last couple of days. Tuesday night saw the holders and kings of Europe, Real Madrid, exit the competition after being outplayed by a young Ajax side. A shock like this would have been extremely difficult to beat the following evening, but Manchester United may have just done exactly that. Porto and Roma only added to the entertainment of the night, their close encounter going right down to the wire.
There’s one obvious place to start when discussing the action from last night, and that’s with Manchester United’s trip to face Ligue 1 leaders PSG. Following the first leg, the encounter almost looked like a bit of a nothing game. Being 2-0 down on aggregate may not seem like it would require a huge comeback, but it had never been achieved in the history of the Champions League, just displaying the size of the task on United’s hands. They were up against one of the best teams in Europe with an extremely weakened side, the likes of Pogba, Matic, Herrera and Lingard, to name a few, all absent for various reasons. In fact, Solskjaer’s squad for the evening included just 10 senior players suggesting that one or two youth prospects would be making an appearance at some point in the game. Even without their 2-0 lead, PSG looked like huge favourites but the French giants were under pressure right from kick off, the in-form Lukaku opening the scoring just two minutes into the game. As you can imagine, Solskjaer’s men were fired up and ready for the occasion only to be brought back down to earth by Bernat’s swift reply. Although it may not have felt like it at the time, this might have been a blessing in disguise. United now knew that two-goals without reply would see them victorious, and when Lukaku scored again before half time, you felt a major upset could really be on the cards. They had plenty of time to find the all important goal but seemingly looked to be running out of it, throwing on youngsters, Chong and Greenwood, to influence the game in any way they could. This was until they received a penalty virtually out of nothing, a long range Dalot shot striking the arm of Kimpembe in the box. Up stepped Rashford who, despite a long, tense wait due to a VAR review, calmly dispatched the penalty into the top corner. United managed to hold out for the remaining few minutes to secure their place in the Quarter-finals, against all odds.
As if Solskjaer hadn’t already done enough to win over any doubters, completely turning round his side’s domestic form, he most certainly has now. The loss to PSG in the home leg of their round of 16 encounter was the only blot on what would otherwise have been an almost perfect start to the Norweigans United career. Having managed to completely flip the tie on it’s head in the second leg, if you consider the tie as a whole, Solskjaer can almost be considered unbeaten during his time at the club. Of course, the way PSG played and the mistakes they made were real contributing factors to United pulling off this surprise result; Buffon made a rare mistake to hand Lukaku a goal and Mbappe was far less clinical than he was in the first encounter. However, this should not take anything away from the Red Devils’ performance. When you’re playing such a strong opponent, not expected to get any sort of result, you have to take advantage of the mistakes they make, and United did exactly that. In the end, they are the side who will be remembered for making this comeback and who will be playing in the next round, not PSG. Whether you believe this was entirely deserved or not is completely irrelevant. After this result, it’s hard to believe that there’s any chance Solskjaer won’t get the job permanently but, as you’d expect, he was very diplomatic in his post-match interview, simply suggesting we’ll see what happens at the end of the season. The United boss will only be focusing on the upcoming fixtures and eagerly awaiting the Champions League Quarter-final draw to be made.
The drama of events in Paris last night greatly stole the limelight away from what was another extremely tight encounter between Porto and Roma. Had PSG vs Manchester United gone the way many of us would have expected, with PSG progressing comfortably, then this cracker of a match would have been getting all the attention. It was finely balanced even before any football had been played with Roma leading 1-2 from the first leg. There was no guarantee that it would stay this way though, the away trip always likely to prove more difficult for the Italian side. This became apparent when Porto took a deserved lead in the 26th minute. Despite playing well, the hosts suffered a set-back when De Rossi converted a blatant penalty not much after. This looked as if it could potentially be extremely damaging to the Portuguese side, going from a position where they would have gone through to knowing they would have to score again just to take the game to extra time. Nonetheless, they did mnage to score again not much into the second half. The drama in the remainder of the 90 minutes didn’t include any more goals; the key flash point being a coming together between Edin Dzeko and the infamously feisty Pepe. Whilst Pepe did appear to lean in with his head, the centre-back wasn’t really in the wrong, for once. The contact between the two players was never enough to warrant the reaction Dzeko gave. The Bosnian clashed with Pepe and stood there for a good few seconds before dramatically dropping to the floor holding his face. Although theatrical, it’s the sort of thing that we’ve seen referees fall for before; this might have happened again had the ref not been standing right next to the pair when it happened. Thankfully, this pathetic behaviour didn’t take anything away from what was otherwise a fascinating game, with extra time still yet to play. All 120 minutes were required to decide this one, a decisive moment coming just 3 minutes earlier when Porto were awarded a penalty after VAR spotted a needles tug of the shirt from Florenzi. Telles cooly tucked away the second penalty of the game to secure his side a place in the Quarter-finals.
After witnessing such a thrilling two days of Champions League football, it’s something of a shame that we have to wait until the same time next week for some more. We have plenty of Europa League games tonight however, to somewhat quench our hunger for European football, and a few more days to eagerly anticipate next weeks drama. It’s hard to believe that we’re only halfway through the round of 16 second legs in the Champions League, but we are, and there’s certainly plenty more drama yet to come.