I am writing this in southwestern rural France, an hour before the start of ‘Le Crunch’, as the French call their annual rugby highlight against the elderberry-smelling English hamsters.
This is the very proud patriotic heartland of working class French rugby and warriorship, once conquered by Richard the Lionheart but later won back at the Battle of Castillon. Yet no one here gives the Frogs a chance. By the time you read this, you’ll know if their defeatism was warranted. (For the record: I support France at both rugby and football, so I’ll be as gutted as you Irish readers should les rosbifs have won). There’s one other thing they are near-certain of around here; that in the other Anglo-French Crunch of the week, Manchester United are going to rip Paris a new St Germain.
I was last in this Aquitainian spot eight weeks ago, and back then you couldn’t have found a pro-United voice in any bar, no matter how anti-Parisian the general sentiment. (And believe me, everyone dislikes Paris here). Such has been the shift in both clubs’ fortunes since the New Year. What was once seen as a near-formality for a then-unbeaten PSG side has been transformed. Part of that is due to the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer effect, of course; the rest is down to Parisian bad luck with injuries, and a general loss of club confidence after their shock last minute League Cup defeat to the division’s bottom side in December.
Watching both the PSG and United games on Saturday, one could not help being struck by the gulf in zest. I did predict last week that United would stroll it at Fulham but even I was surprised by the ease and near-flamboyance of the afternoon’s proceedings.
Paris, meanwhile, were angst-ridden and unconvincing as they squeezed past a mediocre Bordeaux via a dodgy decision. Cavani’s injury was just the cherry on the cake.
So of the feared front trident we thought we’d be facing when the draw was made, Cavani, Neymar and Mbappé, only the last spike is left standing unbroken. Ole is clearly the luckiest of generals, as Napoleon might’ve noted.
Not that Mbappé won’t be enough.
I have nightmares of him bombing on against the trundling likes of Phil Jones.
But the potential difference is this; we know that United can feed Martial, and/or Rashford, especially if Pogba gets his quarterbacking helmet on. Whereas Paris are worried that Mbappé won’t get fed at all.
United games are well-watched via RMC Sport in France, and French connoisseurs have been impressed by the sudden solidity and fight shown by Herrera, Matic and Pogba since Mourinho’s defenestration.
PSG are not totally soft in midfield but the suspicion is that they don’t get tested enough week-to-week; a more battle-hardened United may well be their undoing.
Beyond the football on the pitch hangs the question of what it might all mean for Solskjaer.
The ‘Give It to Ole’ campaign has gone into overdrive, and rumour in Salford upper circles is rife that The Decision has already been taken.
By which I mean Avram Glazer and Ole’s agent supposedly met with SuperTed Woodward at Craven Cottage and rubber-stamped the succession agreement, with only the timing of the announcement to be determined.
I have no idea whether this is true or not, and also believe it would be both unwise and unnecessary not to wait until May to decide, but this is certainly one of the whispers being amplified by some respected voices today.
Just to further muddy the waters, I can reveal that top United suit Richard Arnold has been nipping in and out of Saudi Arabia recently, feeding ongoing rumours that the Arabs are finally going to make their much-vaunted ‘investment’ move this summer.
You can see how the conjunction would appeal to the corporate PR men; new boss, new (co-)owners, new (fat) budget, new era...
But for now, all is blinded by tomorrow night’s floodlights. There is a schoolboyish excitement to be had at the prospect of seeing the World Cup’s thrilling young superstar at Old Trafford, reminiscent for me of first seeing those Dutch and Italian legends in the flesh when United went back into Europe in 1976. Just please don’t panic, Corporal Jones...”