Manchester United have been close to perfect away from home under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but on Wednesday night they face their most difficult test yet.
The Reds travel to the French capital, where they are tasked with overturning a 2-0 deficit from their Champions League round of 16 first leg against Paris Saint-Germain. They must do so, too, with a host of key players unavailable due to suspension and injury.
PSG will be the favourites given the players at their disposal – even with Edinson Cavani and Neymar likely absent – but United might be quietly confident.
Good form, good omens
They have won eight out of eight away games under Solskjaer, including victories at Tottenham in the Premier League and Arsenal and Chelsea in the FA Cup. Such strong form on the road suggests a dramatic turnaround in Paris is not impossible.
“They’re confident going into the game, even knowing we’re 2-0 down,” Solskjaer has said of his players. “We know it’s going to be difficult. We played them here and they’re a good team, and we’ve got loads of injuries, but there are a few boys here who will want to be a part of it.”
Both sides head into the second leg in good form. PSG, after winning at Old Trafford, have won their last five in all competitions, scoring 14 and conceding just two.
United, meanwhile, have beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, battled to a hard-fought draw with Liverpool and beaten Crystal Palace and Southampton.
The concern for Solskjaer, given PSG’s potency in attack, will be his side’s lack of clean sheets. The Red Devils have let in four goals in their last two and know that a repeat of such lapse defending on Wednesday night will prove costly.
United have had no such issues at the other end of the pitch, though. Both sides, of late, have been free scoring, so this is a game that could be decided by the performances of two of the world’s best goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon and David de Gea.
PSG, for all of the focus on their prolific attacking trio, are a more accomplished defensive outfit under Thomas Tuchel. Though they conceded nine goals in the group stages, the French champions were dominant at the back at Old Trafford last month, restricting their hosts to an expected goals total of just 0.3.
When that defence is breached, though, Buffon is invariably there to keep out the opposition. The veteran Italian, now 41-years-old, remains one of Europe’s best and still has his sights on an elusive Champions League trophy.
On Wednesday night, his opposite number will be De Gea, who has continued to perform at an excellent level throughout the season. In the first leg, the Spaniard made two standout saves to deny Juan Bernat and Kylian Mbappe.
He will expect to be busy during the second leg, too, given PSG’s goal scoring record this season and United’s questionable defending in recent weeks. In the Champions League this season, De Gea has faced an average of 13.85 shots per game, compared with Buffon’s 11.57.
And in the league, De Gea has needed to be more alert than Buffon: PSG’s tally of 0.96 expected goals conceded per game is amongst the lowest in Europe, while United’s 1.42 is less impressive.
De Gea, then, makes more saves than Buffon: 2.66 per 90 in the Champions League to Buffon’s 1.75. His save percentage is better, too: 80 per cent compared with Buffon’s 70 per cent.
De Gea, of course, has 13 years on Buffon, who is approaching the latter stages of an illustrious career. It means that he is more agile, more athletic, better suited to making spectacular flying saves.
But Buffon remains a reliable performer. He brings experience and organisation to PSG’s defence, and he is determined, perhaps more than any other player on the pitch, to get his hands on Europe’s most prestigious trophy.
“For me the Champions League will forever be the highest level, the best tournament to play in,” Buffon said in a recent interview with the Telegraph. “I say thank you for all the emotion that the Champions League has given me. But I hope to have another opportunity to win it because it would be the perfect end to my career.”
If Buffon is at his best on Wednesday night, and his teammates can find a way past De Gea, PSG will be one step closer to the biggest prize.
*all odds are subject to change
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by Tom Bodell