Paris Saint-Germain fans were no doubt brimming with confidence about facing Manchester United when the Champions League draw was made nearly two months ago.
Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe were scoring with ease, Marco Verratti was pulling the strings in midfield, and the club had secured impressive back-to-back wins against Liverpool and Red Star Belgrade to qualify for the last 16 at Napoli’s expense.
United was struggling under then-coach Jose Mourinho, and creative players like Paul Pogba were not suited to his gritty and tactically stifling approach.
Now the tables have been turned, and injury-hit PSG’s trip to Old Trafford has taken on a daunting dimension. United is unbeaten since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took charge and Pogba, so unhappy under Mourinho, can’t stop smiling.
Pogba got one of France’s goals in the World Cup final win against Croatia last year , and always had an eye for goal when playing for Juventus.
Even more so now.
He netted twice in Saturday’s 3-0 win at Fulham and has 11 league goals so far.
While Saturday afternoon was good for United, Saturday evening proved to be awful for PSG .
In a matter of hours, the complexion of Tuesday’s game changed even further.
Already missing Neymar because of a right foot injury , the French champion lost two more players.
Cavani, PSG’s all-time leading scorer, damaged a tendon in his right hip in the 1-0 win against Bordeaux, and goal-scoring right-back Thomas Meunier sustained a mild concussion. These injuries follow on from midfielder Marco Verratti’s sprained ankle three weeks ago.
Facing a pumped-up and revitalized United lineup at Old Trafford would have been difficult enough with everyone fit, but PSG coach Thomas Tuchel has problems in every position except goalkeeper. There, at least, he has the reassuring presence of Italy great Gianluigi Buffon .
But Tuchel is missing two of his best three forwards, and he isn’t even sure if Verratti will be ready for a game of such intensity having played only 58 minutes against Bordeaux on his return from injury.
Circumstances and choices, not just injuries, have made for an increasingly difficult situation at PSG.
The problems in midfield, for example, could have been resolved far earlier by bringing Adrien Rabiot back into the side.
But Tuchel has been told that Rabiot — who is in a disagreement with sporting director Antero Henrique — is not to be selected because of a contract wrangle that has dragged on .
With Neymar and Cavani out it means that Mbappe, the French league’s 17-goal top scorer, is certain to start at center forward.
While United’s shaky defense will fear facing another of France’s World Cup stars , they may be less worried about his strike partner. If Tuchel goes with a 4-4-2 formation that is likely going to include the ineffective Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting.
He has scored only once in 12 league matches since joining from unheralded English side Stoke and did not stand out against a mediocre Bordeaux team. In one second-half moment, he even passed to an opponent.
Tuchel could be tempted to innovate by using Julian Draxler in a 4-5-1, with the Germany winger effectively operating as a playmaker behind Mbappe. But Draxler’s versatility suits Tuchel elsewhere and he could be chosen in central midfield, especially if Verratti does not start.
COPING IN DEFENSE
United’s attack is brimming with confidence.
PSG’s defense must cope with speed, skill and power when facing internationals Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku.
Stopping the midfield supply line to them, or to Chile star Alexis Sanchez if he is selected, is vital. Tuchel, therefore, needs strong holding midfielders against Pogba, Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic — an impressive trio blending strength, tenacity and technique.
It might mean moving defender Marquinhos into the center of midfield, alongside Verratti, Draxler or the recently-signed Leandro Paredes.
Yet picking Marquinhos would deprive PSG of its best and most consistent center half. Tuchel may have no choice, especially considering Paredes has played only three games for the club — two as substitute — since joining from Zenit St. Petersburg.
It’s all potentially confusing for Tuchel.
But while Tuchel has mitigating circumstances, he was hired to reach at least the semifinals of the competition, after Unai Emery and Laurent Blanc were fired for their perceived failures in Europe.