If Manchester United do not qualify for the Champions League last 16, they will point to two profound aberrations in an otherwise positive group stage.
Firstly, the 2-1 defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir, when Demba Ba was allowed to score a goal after receiving the ball in his own half without a United player between him and Dean Henderson’s goal, all from United’s own corner.
Secondly, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s unfathomable decision not to substitute Fred in Wednesday’s 3-1 loss to Paris Saint-Germain.
Nobody watching could quite work out why Fred was not sent off when he pushed his head into Leandro Paredes’. The PSG man’s reaction was embarrassing, but Fred’s offence was clear to everyone, including the VAR officials. Yet referee Daniele Orsato saw fit only to book him.
Perhaps Orsato had been replaying the scene in his mind when, less than a minute after Marquinhos had put PSG 2-1 up in the second half, he showed Fred a second yellow card for a challenge on Ander Herrera. Fred got a clear foot to the ball first, but the decision was not changed, leaving the United man to trudge disconsolately down the touchline.
4 – The away side has won all four Champions League matches between Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain; excluding games played at neutral venues, it’s the first fixture in the competition’s history to see the first four meetings all won by the away side. Invasion. pic.twitter.com/K4oXNuLJK8
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 2, 2020
The consensus seemed to be that Fred would be taken off at half-time. He might have gained possession a team-high eight times in his period on the pitch, but United needed only a point here and had Scott McTominay to provide the combative midfield presence.
There was nothing essential about Fred’s place in the side, no pivotal game plan that could not have been carried out by Donny van de Beek, or Paul Pogba, or Nemanja Matic. Yet out he came for the second half: emboldened, determined, disastrous.
This was another match between United and PSG where VAR proved critical to the result by enforcing questionable decisions, much like that famous 3-1 win for the Red Devils in Paris two seasons ago, but also by the key decisions at key moments from the men in charge.
Solskjaer’s side, having pulled level through Marcus Rashford’s deflected shot after Neymar’s opener, were tearing into the visitors on the break. Anthony Martial missed two glorious chances for 2-1, one of which came after Edinson Cavani’s stunning chip hit the crossbar.
Thomas Tuchel saw the danger and acted. Moise Kean and Paredes went off for Herrera and Mitchel Bakker, adding cover to PSG’s left flank and shutting down the United threat. The new back three allowed Marquinhos to venture forward with more abandon for set-pieces and it was the captain’s close-range finish from a half-cleared corner that put them in front. Neymar made it 3-1 in added time after Fred’s red had killed United’s spirit.
4 – Manchester United have now lost more of their eight home games in all competitions this season (4) than they did in 28 matches at Old Trafford last term (3). Wheel. pic.twitter.com/XJv9VZ4caZ
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 2, 2020
In the opposite dug-out, Solskjaer was passive. The system and personnel did not change to combat PSG’s tactical tweak, and they were down to 10 men before Pogba, Van de Beek, Mason Greenwood and Odion Ighalo were summoned from the bench. The second yellow was harsh, but Fred had had it coming. The game as a whole was like those seconds in Istanbul on matchday three, when assistant Mike Phelan pointed and screamed at Ba to no avail: United and Solskjaer saw the threat and did nothing to stop it.
“Fred shouldn’t put his head towards him,” Solskjaer later told BT Sport. “I don’t think he touched him, but he shouldn’t do that, so he’s a bit lucky, it’s either nothing or a red card. I thought maybe he was a bit lucky to stay on.
“Yes [I thought about taking him off]. But Fred played really well. We spoke about staying calm, staying on your feet and the second yellow card is nowhere near a foul. Ander knows that as well, he definitely knows.”
Herrera also knew Fred was one misstep from a lonely walk down the tunnel. So did Solskjaer. And only one of them acted.
So, we go to a showdown on matchday six, United, PSG and Leipzig all on nine points and all able to qualify. A point will still be enough for the Red Devils but there is no room for error against a Leipzig side who must win. PSG, for all the pressure on their coach and star performers, are now one win away from topping the group.
United have played some excellent football in this competition and only three other teams have scored more than their 13 goals. They have beaten all three sides in this ‘group of death’, convincingly too. And yet, they head into next week with their European fate in the balance, when a simple covering defender from a corner and a half-time substitution could have changed it all.
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