Manchester United are just one point away from sealing their place in the last 16 of the Champions League with a game to spare ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with last year’s runners-up Paris Saint-Germain at Old Trafford.
The Red Devils sit top of Group H and know that simply avoiding defeat in one of their final two games will see them through, although on Wednesday they face a PSG side out for revenge and knowing that only a win will really do.
Many Manchester United fans would have feared the worst when Group H was drawn, with last season’s runners-up PSG and semi-finalists RB Leipzig considered bigger favourites than the three-time winners of the competition to progress.
Now, though, the Red Devils need only one point from their remaining matches against those two teams to seal their place in the knockout stages, while victory on Wednesday coupled with Leipzig dropping points against Istanbul Basaksehir – or even a draw coupled with Leipzig losing in Turkey – would secure top spot for United with a game to spare.
In many ways, United’s Champions League campaign has encapsulated the inconsistency which has led to a series of highs and lows this season; few would have been expecting victory in Paris on matchday one or a 5-0 thrashing of Leipzig on matchday two, but similarly they were not expected to then lose against an Istanbul Basaksehir side that had never won a Champions League game – or even scored a Champions League goal – before.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side did get their revenge for that with a 4-1 win at Old Trafford on matchday four, reassuming control of Group H as PSG edged past Leipzig.
While the Champions League has shown hallmarks of United’s inconsistency across all competitions, there are still sharp contrasts between their European exploits and their Premier League fortunes.
Those are most obvious when it comes to home form, with United having won just one of their last seven home Premier League games but having won each of their last seven European outings on home turf by an aggregate score of 24-2.
The Red Devils have not enjoyed a longer run than that since September 2006 to April 2008, although it should be noted that many games in this latest run did come in the Europa League last season.
In the Champions League alone Man United had lost four and only won one of their previous six games at Old Trafford before this season, although they have been much better so far in 2020-21.
Indeed, they have scored nine goals in their two Champions League home games this term, compared to only three in five home Premier League outings, and only three clubs in the entire group stages have scored more overall heading into matchday five.
Solskjaer’s side should also be full of confidence following their rousing second-half comeback against Southampton on Sunday as Edinson Cavani – a legend and record-breaker for PSG – inspired the turnaround after coming off the bench to seal a fourth successive win for the Red Devils.
The nature of United’s comeback may be of particular concern to PSG, who were on the wrong end of a similar turnaround not long ago as they threw away a two-goal lead to lose 3-2 to Monaco in Ligue 1.
Thomas Tuchel‘s side squandered another lead on Saturday to ultimately draw 2-2 with Bordeaux, leaving the perennial champions now only two points clear at the top of Ligue 1.
Saturday’s result continued an inconsistent spell for PSG, who have now won two, lost two and drawn one of their last five games in all competitions and failed to win back-to-back games at all in November – by no means enough to constitute a crisis but certainly disappointing for a team usually so dominant.
It would be regarded as a crisis should PSG fail to progress from Group H, and likely one that would cost Tuchel his job, but that is a very real possibility heading into the penultimate matchday.
Leipzig will be expected to beat Istanbul in an earlier kickoff on Wednesday, which could leave PSG third and three points off second place heading into the final matchday.
Qualification from that position is still possible, of course, but in that scenario it would require an already-qualified Man United to win away to Leipzig and for PSG to uphold their end of the bargain by beating PSG, and even then it would come down to their marginally-better head-to-head record against Leipzig.
The prospect of failing to even make it through the group stages one season after finally making it to the final for the first time will not bear thinking about for the club’s owners, who still regard this trophy as the holy grail.
A win for PSG at Old Trafford makes their task a great deal easier, but they have only won one of their last four away Champions League games and have lost their last two away outings across all competitions.
It is a different story in the group stages alone, with their loss at Leipzig on matchday three their only such away defeat in their last seven, while they have at least scored in 30 consecutive away group games.
Indeed, in the Champions League as a whole PSG have only failed to score in one game since the start of the 2016-17 campaign – last season’s final against Bayern Munich.
Manchester United Champions League form: WWLW
Manchester United form (all competitions): LLWWWW
Paris Saint-Germain Champions League form: LWLW
Paris Saint-Germain form (all competitions): WLWLWD