If a week is a long time in politics, then eight weeks is an eternity in football.
After Manchester United and Paris St Germain emerged together from the Champions League sorting hat, the general feeling on both sides of the Channel was that the Red Devils would be the underdogs when the two clubs met for the first time.
The sense was PSG’s wizardry would be too much for a side that struggled through the group stage.
Within a matter of hours, however, United had sacked their manager and results since confirm the impression that Jose Mourinho’s dark arts had been holding the players back.
Meanwhile, the French champions have suffered a loss of confidence and a dip in form, along with an injury crisis that probably means that United are now slight favourites to go through.
When the draw was made PSG had only lost one match, at Liverpool last September. But two defeats in a month, at Guingamp and Lyon, have led to questions, even though they are cruising towards their fifth league title in six years, 10 points ahead with two games in hand.
Last week, away to third division Villefranche in the cup, PSG were unable to score in normal time, despite bringing on Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani to reinforce their attack in the second half.
In extra time the home team finally cracked and PSG ended up winning 3-0, but their inability to score over 90 minutes, despite dominating the game, was surprising for a team that was scoring for fun in the autumn.
PSG’s last big win was huge — a vengeful thrashing of Guingamp, the team that knocked them out of the League Cup 10 days earlier.
But the telling fact about that nine-goal romp was that six of them were scored by players who are now injured and unavailable: Belgian defender Thomas Meunier, and two of their attacking stars, Neymar and Cavani.
Neymar’s absence was almost predictable — it is the second year running that the Brazilian has missed a crucial last-16 tie with the same metatarsal injury. But the loss of Cavani is more down to careless management.
He was meant to be rested in the cup, but manager Thomas Tuchel then felt obliged to bring him on 10 minutes from the end, and Cavani duly responded with PSG’s third goal. The intention was also to allow him some rest against Bordeaux on Saturday. Cavani duly scored again, from the penalty spot just before half time. But in scoring the Uruguayan damaged a tendon badly enough to be in danger of missing both games against United.
Losing one goalscorer is unfortunate, losing two is careless. You can argue that Neymar is not a critical factor — PSG even seem to perform better as a team without him — but a lot now depends on Mbappe and his combinations with Julian Draxler and Angel Di Maria.
Tuchel’s natural solution is probably to stick with his preferred 4-2-3-1 line-up, with Mbappe up front, Di Maria and Draxler in support, and the veteran Dani Alves on the right. A more solid defensive option is to change to three at the back, with Marquinhos on the right alongside Thiago Silva rather than in the midfield two. It’s a formation PSG have employed several times this season, sometimes switching during matches, with the advantage that goalkeeper Gigi Buffon is very comfortable with it.
Either way, a lot depends on Marco Verratti in the central midfield role. Verratti was out for three weeks with an ankle sprain, and missed last week’s cup tie after another ankle problem. He played on Saturday, but came off after an hour, to be replaced by PSG’s new Argentinian signing Leandro Paredes.
Even with this injury worry PSG have stand-ins such as Lassana Diarra — once of Chelsea and Arsenal — and the youngster Moussa Diaby, and still feel able to leave Adrien Rabiot out of the squad because of his contract dispute with the club.
The man with most to prove in this match has to be Di Maria. He will be 31 on Thursday, and has never quite recovered the star quality that made him man of the match for Real Madrid when they beat Atletico Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final.
He was one of the most coveted players in Europe that summer. PSG courted him, Carlo Ancelotti tried to keep him at the Bernabeu. Eventually he went to Old Trafford for an English record fee of €75.6m. Another €15m would have been due had Di Maria performed to expectations, but it was one of those big deals that look right but don’t work out.
The player blames Louis Van Gaal, another view is that he fell out with Wayne Rooney and lacked the mentality to deal with it. He has been better at PSG, but never an essential first-choice player.
Tonight he is back in the spotlight, but there are still questions about whether he can cope. “He feels most comfortable when he’s part of the team dynamic,” was one comment in L’Equipe yesterday, “but PSG are in a state of uncertainty, and he’s not really known for a steely mentality when the pressure is on.”
United must fancy their chances of having a lead when they visit Paris in three weeks’ time, but David De Gea will need to be as alert as ever to the risk of an away goal.
Allianz League Review Podcast: Can Kerry play Dublin every week plus Cork GAA's efforts to ease stress levels of young players