If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer thought he had written the biggest moment in Manchester United’s European history when he scored the winning goal in the 1999 final, Marcus Rashford wrote one that may prove to be every bit as significant in the 93rd minute of an astonishing last 16 tie in Paris last night.
With the seconds running out on a thrilling 2-1 United win, one that would have taken the French side through by a goal after their first leg victory, Diogo Dalot’s hopeful shot struck the arm of Presnel Kimpembe.
Slovenian referee Damir Skomina initially awarded a corner, quickly consulted the VAR and, after a three-minute delay and multiple views, pointed to the spot.
What drama and what poise from Rashord who waited for the delay, and some jostling in the area, before depositing a magnificent finish into the PSG goal.
Thus was sealed United’s ninth away win in ninth games under Solskjaer, the job presumably already secured but now guaranteed to be his — possibly before the end this month — following this stunning, unpredictable, supremely-executed win that was set up by two goals from Romelu Lukaku.
It took just 114 seconds for United supporters to dare to dream, the length of time it took the English side to race into the most implausible of leads.
Without 10 potential first team starters, Solskjaer had cobbled together a mix-and-match starting line-up, one he would have to rip up and re-design on the fly well before the interval, and one which had five teenagers on the bench, two of them 17-year-olds. So how and why did the Parisiennes start the tie in such a heady mix of complacency and incompetence, Thilo Kehrer completely mishitting a back-pass inside the opening two minuets as he came under pressure from Rashford?
Lukaku pounced, showing the cunning and agility that has not always been a trademark of his game this season, reacting ahead of Thiago Silva, gathering the ball and dribbling around veteran Gianluigi Buffon and converting from a semi-difficult angle.
It was a magnificent start, one that the first leg defeat at Old Trafford had offered no suggestion might be possible, especially given a casualty list that would have brought the average NHS A&E department to its knees.
Solskjaer had gambled and, whisper it quietly, made a big error in one regard, slotting central defender Eric Bailly into his defence at right-back, pushing Ashley Young into midfield, rather than opting for teenage Portuguese defender Diogo Dalot, who excelled when coming off the bench in the weekend’s victory over Southampton.
It became apparent, almost instantly, that it was a decision that was about to backfire as PSG poured down United’s right flank and Bailly floundered like a fish hooked straight out of the Seine.
Angel Di Maria, former Red and public enemy number one after his role in both PSG goals at Old Trafford, linked effectively with Juan Bernat down that side, almost setting up Kylian Mbappe for a simple tap-in before the home side scored a deserved and predictable equaliser, still with only 11 minutes gone.
Mbappe drilled a cross through Chris Smalling and the United penalty area towards the far post where Bernat had easily lost Bailly, rooted to his spot 10 yards from the action, and tapped in a simple goal past the beaten David de Gea.
It was all Paris, wave after wave of pressure, Di Maria laying off for Bernat to shoot at de Gea, Di Maris unleashing a terrific long shot that flew just wide, but, as impressive as they were moving forward, the French looked susceptible at the other end.Kehrer vying with Bailly for the title of worst right-back on the field, inexplicably gifted the ball to Rashford who broke upfield only to cross disappointingly beyond the far post when Lukaku and Young could have offered scoring options.
And, on the half-hour, it was another figure at the back — more accurately, goalkeeper Buffon — who gifted United and Lukaku a second goal.Rashford unleashed an optimistic shot from outside the area which should have offered the veteran 41-year-old a simple smothering stop but the Italian amazingly fumbled the ball, spilling directly into the path of the ever-alert Lukaku who forced in the third goal of the evening.
What an astonishing half of football, what another remarkable chapter being written in this managerial fairytale to end them all under the Norwegian caretaker who has exceeded even the most wildly optimistic predictions about his abilities.
Maybe even the football gods were going to be on his side on this occasion. It looked that way after 36 minutes when Bailly picked up an injury and limped off, a blessed relief given his efforts to that point, and finally Solskjaer was able to do what he should probably have done from kick-off, put Young at full-back and the buccaneering Dalot wide right in midfield.
Perhaps predictably, the second half began in altogether more cautious fashion, as if the insanity of first half proceedings had finally sunk in during the interval and brought about a more sombre tone to proceedings.
Di Maria had the ball in the home goal after 10 minutes, but from a clearly offside position which was instantly called back by the referee and confirmed by VAR, although there was also a slightly concerning knock to Lukaku which forced a brief hiatus during which Solskjaer could be seen reshaping his side into a 5-4-1 formation.
It was a necessary response to the French dominating possession, and threatening down the flanks, an effort by Solskjaer to ensure that his team remained in the tie until the final 20 minutes, his pre-match aim and one which, given his own track record in the competition during his playing days, made perfect sense.
United achieved that goal but the size of their task was summed up as the tie entered its final 10 minutes and, while Solskjaer sent out 19-year-old Tahith Ching, with 28 minutes of FA Cup football and one in the Premier League to his name, the French warmed up Edinson Cavani.
The drama, correspondingly, ramped up with de Gea saving well at the feet of Mbappe as he bore down on goal and Bernat hitting a follow-up shot against the post but, admirable as their efforts were, there was. for once, no final flourish for United.
Buffon 5; Kehrer 4 (Paredes 70, 6), Thiago Silva 8 (Cavani 90), Kimpembe 6, Dani Alves 7; Marquinhos 7, Verratti 6, Bernat 9; Draxler 6 (Meunier 70, 6), Di Maria 8, Mbappe 7. Subs: Areola, Choupo-Moting, Kurzawa, Dagba.
MAN UTD (4-4-2):
de Gea 6; Bailly 4 (Dalot 36, 6), Smalling 7, Lindelof 7, Shaw 7; Young 7 (Greenwood 87), McTominay 7; Fred 7, Andreas Pereira 7 (Chong 80, 7); Lukaku 10, Rashford 9. Subs: Romero, Rojo, Garner, Gomes.
Damir Skomina (Slovenia) 7