While Ole Gunnar Solskjaer talked on Monday about how Manchester United could “maybe surprise” the rest of the Champions League this season, the message has been even stronger in the dressing room. He has been telling the players to have no fear of Paris Saint-Germain, and to instead only have a sense of seizing the day. Solskjaer has similarly been playing on the fact United have an infinitely greater European pedigree than the French champions.
All of this is actually all the more important – and all the more intentional from the United boss – because PSG are now widely seen as having a better team.
Solskjaer knows better than anyone the effect psychology can have on such ties, and how capricious the Champions League can be. But then so do PSG.
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For all the prestige and gravitas that comes from winning the tournament, such weighty status can actually come down to moments you genuinely have no control over. Even the competition’s immortals must be grateful for instances of immense fortune.
A ball simply bouncing a different direction would have prevented PSG suffering the result they are most associated with in the competition, at Camp Nou in March 2017. But the same would be true of United and Solksjaer and their most famous match, in the same stadium in May 1999.
But therein lies something else that the Norwegian has been considering. It’s not just about fortune. It’s about then responding to it.
This is what Liverpool did in 2005. This is what Chelsea did in 2012.
This is why, despite United’s previously dysfunctional season as well as so many other super-clubs on superior form and obsessed with winning it, outright victory is rightfully privately seen by Solskjaer as a very justifiable aim. This is Manchester United.
He already has them back playing like Manchester United, but with the kind of well-timed form that Real Madrid have made such a virtue of in the Champions League of late. That has everyone in the squad primed for the prestige occasions of Europe, as happened with Liverpool in 2005, and Chelsea in 2012.
This is where Solskjaer’s “knowledge of United” – something someway mocked when he got the job – is important, and can have a tangible effect. He does know how to set the tone. He knows what nights like this mean. He’s been telling the players to feel energised by it, that unique electricity to such games.
There’s then that genuinely crucial feeling of other elements just falling your way, fortifying the assurance and application of the team.
This is what happened with Chelsea in 2012 under Roberto Di Matteo in particular.
In this case, it’s the injuries to Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Thomas Meunier.
United will be facing a much weaker PSG than usual, even if it is still a side bolstered by one of the strongest and most expensively assembled squads in football.
In that sense, it couldn’t have gone better.
It’s just, as capricious as the Champions League and any knockout can be, football more often has a sense of setting things right; of totally exploding a “feeling” with exacting reality.
And it doesn’t come much more “real” than Kylian Mbappe running full pace at Phil Jones, Chris Smalling or whoever else starts in what remains a suspect United defence.
All the talk in the world can be rendered irrelevant by ability like that, by a contrast like that.
But defence is just one area of the United side Solskjaer has already improved, and in truth the only any-way suspect area of the side.
This still remains one of the best teams in world football, no matter what Jose Mourinho tried to argue. That is why he is out of a job.
United similarly have a much better squad than Liverpool 2005, or Chelsea 2012. They have real talent.
Solskjaer has reminded them of that, and got them back to the performance level they should be capable of.
That’s the genuine importance of his psychological effect, especially in the Champions League.
It is why they are capable of a “surprise”, and maybe more.
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