When the Champions League group draw was made, Group H looked to be the most open and intriguing, the closest thing to a Group of Death in the competition–and it has delivered.
After Wednesday's results, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig will go into the final round of games locked on nine points, with one of them destined to fall agonizingly short of the knockout stage. Man United holds a slight edge over RB Leipzig with its earlier 5-0 home win over Julian Nagelsmann's side likely decisive in any head-to-head tiebreaker, and would progress with at least a draw in Germany next week. But PSG is probably in the best position, facing the bottom side Istanbul Basaksehir at home and with a better head-to-head mark against both United and Leipzig.
In effect, this is likely to be a straight shootout between Leipzig and United, but the truth is all three sides are deeply flawed. As in both games against Leipzig, PSG took an early lead at Old Trafford. Neymar was a little fortunate that Kylian Mbappe’s shot deflected to him at the back post, but once it had he finished brilliantly to give PSG a sixth-minute lead. But as in both games against Leipzig, having started well, PSG sunk deeper and deeper. The game might have been up for United had Fred been sent off for a little thrust of his head into the face of Leandro Paredes. The Argentinian overreacted preposterously, but it’s nonetheless the sort of thing that almost invariably draws a red card. Italian referee Daniele Orsato, who took charge of last season’s Champions League final, though, presumably deemed the contact negligible and showed only a yellow card.
Given Fred might earlier have been booked for a foul on Mbappe that wasn’t even given as a free kick, and then stood on Paredes as the Argentinian lunged at him to collect a yellow of his own, his continued presence until collecting a second yellow (slightly harshly in the end) for a challenge on Ander Herrera was frankly baffling. Quite why Solksjaer didn’t withdraw a player very obviously on a tightrope was mystifying.
United took full advantage of the initial Fred reprieve and, by the time it came after 32 minutes, probably just about deserved its equalizer, with Marcus Rashford’s shot deflecting in off Danilo. It had other chances as well, with Anthony Martial blazing over and Edinson Cavani hitting a delicate chip off the bar, but when Thomas Tuchel brought on Mitchel Bakker for Moise Kean and went to a front two, United was slow to react.
It was a Bakker shot, well saved by David De Gea, that brought the corner from which, ultimately, Marquinhos restored PSG’s lead. Neymar completed the win on the counter in injury time with a valuable goal that gave PSG the head-to-head advantage between the two sides, should it come to that.
Leipzig had, just about, done its part of job earlier in the day, with an extraordinary 4-3 win over Besaksehir. Twice it seemed to have the game won, but ended up level at 3-3 going into injury time when Alexander Sorloth smashed in a winner, his first goal for the club. Not for the first time this season, questions have to be raised about just how open it was at the back, and just how prone to panic. Even at 4-3, goalkeeper Peter Gulasci spilled a cross in the six-yard box. Nagelsmann’s men had seemed in control as Youssef Poulsen deflected in a Marcel Sabitzer shot, and then fullback Nordi Mukiele scuffed in with his wrong foot after a fine move.
Irfan Kahveci pulled one back with a well-placed shot from a clever corner routine in first-half injury time, but Dani Olmo’s quick feet made it 3-1 midway through the second half. Kahveci added a neat second with a curler and then completed a hat trick of goals from outside the box with a brilliant free kick with six minutes remaining.
Sorloth had been top-scorer in the Turkish league for Trabzonspor last season, but as against PSG last week, his introduction from the bench for Leipzig seemed to disrupt its rhythm. He did, though, inadvertently hit the bar as Mert Gunok flapped a Sabitzer free kick against his head and then, a minute into injury time, he used Carlos Ponck as shield, blinding the keeper as he thrashed home a shot from the edge of the box.
It was thrilling stuff, but not necessarily the kind of football that will consistently prosper–and those defensive flaws are likely to be exacerbated next week by the absence of Dayot Upamecano, who will be suspended against Man United after collecting a second yellow card.
The Red Devils, though, will wonder how it came to this. After winning in Paris and demolishing Leipzig at home, it seemed on course to go through after two games, only to be undermined by that sloppy defeat in Istanbul. Solskjaer still, two years into the job, cannot find any consistency–and it could cost his side a place in the knockout rounds.