Even by the standards of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s career, this was astonishing.
Manchester United should have had no chance of reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League, of becoming the first side in the history of the competition to lose a first leg 2-0 at home and still go through. And yet, thanks to an injury-time penalty from Marcus Rashford–and thanks to another epic wobble from Paris Saint-Germain–it did.
A second-minute goal from Romelu Lukaku had given United hope, but Juan Bernat restored the two-goal margin amid a welter of PSG pressure. A mistake from Gianluigi Buffon, though, gifted Lukaku a second and the incredible suddenly became possible.
PSG had dominated possession in the first half, and it dominated it again in the second. United seemed out of ideas, its squad so threadbare it was forced to bring on two substitutes who had between them had played for the club just twice before.
And yet the further the clock ticked down, the more it began to feel that Solskjaer would work his curious magic. Sure enough, a wayward Diego Dalot shot struck the elbow of Presnel Kimpembe in injury time and, after a VAR review, the penalty was given. Rashford, who had not had a great night up till then, was unerring and PSG was out on away goals after a 3-3 aggregate draw.
A VAR-given penalty settled the day's other tie as well. Tiquinho had given Porto the lead on the night and made it 2-2 on aggregate, only for Daniele De Rossi to restore Roma’s lead from the penalty spot. Moussa Marega, back far earlier than expected from injury, leveled in the second half to take the game to extra time, in which a penalty awarded after a VAR review allowed Alex Telles to give Porto the win.
Man United and Porto join Ajax and Tottenham in the quarterfinals, with the final four berths to be decided next week.
Here are three thoughts on a VAR-aided day in the Champions League:
The PSG curse continues
PSG was dreadful at Anfield in its opening group game, all the problems that have been so familiar in previous season brutally exposed. The forward line was almost entirely dislocated from the midfield, and the reluctance of Neymar to do any defensive work meant Trent Alexander-Arnold had the run of that flank. This was the apotheosis of the lazy celebrity football PSG seemed to have invited with its transfer policy. Six months on, the difference could hardly be more marked. Thomas Tuchel’s side was a touch fortunate in both group games against Napoli, but there were times in this tie when it looked spectacularly good.
PSG looks like a better-balanced side without Neymar. Kylian Mbappe, flanked by Angel Di Maria and Dani Alves, has pace and creativity and works hard. There was a ruthlessness about the way Di Maria and Juan Bernat destroyed Eric Bailly in the unfamiliar position of right back until he was withdrawn 10 minutes before the halftime break–injury perhaps ensuring what Solskjaer would have done anyway.
And yet there was also a weird sloppiness at the back. That had been apparent in the first leg when Kimpembe looked hopelessly adrift and probably should have been sent off, while Thilo Kehrer looked oddly skittish here. More troubling, though, was the general sense of anxiety every time United went forward, despite the fact PSG was almost entirely dominant.
All three United goals were the results of unforced errors, from Kehrer, Buffon and then Kimpembe. Allied to a general air of entitlement, the fury every time a United player made a challenge, there was, yet again, the sense that this is a team that doesn't like and is not comfortable with being challenged.
PSG is perhaps closer now to being a Champions League-winning side than ever before, and yet it remains desperately flawed.
Solskjaer's magic touch
Any line of reason before the game said United could not go through. All reason during the game said United could not go through. And yet somehow Solskjaer pushed all the right buttons, and it is United in the quarterfinal, despite being almost embarrassingly outplayed for the opening half hour.
Yet once Bailly had gone off for Dalot with Ashley Young switching to fullback, United held PSG at arm’s length relatively comfortably. And when PSG threatened to take control in the second half, Solskjaer’s switch to a 5-4-1 calmed the situation down. His reputation continues to grow.
Even to be in the game with 10 minutes to go, to know that a single goal could take it though, was an achievement. That final 10 minutes exposed the limitations of this United squad–although most squads would be exhausted by 10 absentees. Would Solskjaer have liked to have had Marouane Fellaini to throw on and go long, as Jose Mourinho used him to steal the group game away to Juventus? Perhaps, but Fellaini is gone, and so all Solskjaer could do was introduce Tahith Chong, 19, for this third United game, and Mason Greenwood, 17, for his first.
United got lucky. Bernat hit the post. Mbappe was not quite at his lethal best. David De Gea made a handful of saves. And then came the penalty and the impossible finale that in the end felt strangely inevitable. Fortunate, yes, but United had the tactical system and the belief to take advantage–and that is a large part of management.
More VAR drama sends Porto through
VAR’s reputation has taken a hammering in recent weeks, but here was an example of how it may work to improve the game.
As Fernando Santos moved at the far most to meet Maxi Pereira’s low cross, his shirt was tugged by Alessandro Florenzi. It was a subtle pull and one that he probably would have gotten away with, but on the replay the offense was clear.
Perhaps Fernando wouldn’t even have reached the ball, but that’s irrelevant. Florenzi cheated, and the decision was correct. Alex Telles converted, sending Porto through.
It shouldn't be forgotten that VAR wasn't even a part of the group stage. It was fast-tracked and introduced for the knockout stage of this competition by UEFA, and what an instant impact it has proven to have.