Angel di Maria is running down the wing, frothing and fuming, like an artistic steam engine on 5000 units of horsepower. Like a fallen angel leading a devil’s workshop, he is a gypsy dancer who wants to hit vengeance with bull’s eye.
At the other end, Kylian Mbappe is dancing, tripping, salsaing — turning heads and United’s centre-backs square — on a merry-go-round trip to La La land. He might as well be in a ballroom in des Champs-Élysées, waltzing to Mozart with a champagne glass, but here he is on a football field, almost too embarrassed to be pulling tricks on teenagers, who are almost his age but miles apart in ability.
For the most part, di Maria and Mbappe have been like two prongs on fire, simmering, tossing and barbecuing the United defence. For the most part, Cavani growled like an angry lion from the bench, hungry for the kill and just waiting to be unleashed on a pack of hapless teenagers. And for the most part, Ashley Young and Chris Smalling were pulling a drowning act, holding on to lifeboats and gasping for breath, as they cleared balls and consoled the teenagers that life is worth fighting for. This was not a football match, it was a frigging bullfight with one team getting hammered and clobbered to death.
For the most part, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stood on the touchline with a grim and forlorn expression, like a captain standing on the burning deck of his sinking ship. If this had been his predecessor, this was the moment he would have been quietly drafting his post-match speech. There are moles in the dressing room who let out we would go in with five at the back, the referee — as always — was against the men in red, this has been United’s ‘heritage’ since the inimitable legend walked into twilight. His predecessor might have even considered it to be a moment of schadenfreude to parrot his self-professed greatness — look, we fielded teenagers and still didn’t get clobbered.
But not Ole. Not Ole, whose Houdini act in the dying moments against Bayern Munich two decades ago made Ferguson famously say: “Thanks for giving me the best night of my life; it was better than my wedding night.” Not Ole, who knows a thing or two about being battered, bruised and outplayed, but not dead and beaten.
On Tuesday night, United’s midfield looked like a dead man walking. McTominay and Tahith Chong ran around like bemused mice keeping the big cats at bay, never for once stricken by the enormity of the occasion, but delaying the inevitable. But mice can be men.
And Ole was time-travelling, drawing heavily on the ghost of the past and choosing to believe. And believe they did when Lukaku latched on to a half-cooked backpass to jig past the goalkeeper and drive home from an acute angle. And believe they did when a speculative long punt slipped out of the evergreen Buffon’s grasp — a take so easy that the former Juventus legend could have grasped on to even in sleep. Even this time, Lukaku was waiting.
For the most part, United without even stringing together two passes and starved off the ball for minutes on end, chose to believe. And PSG, with all the showboating and hamartia, choked on their own flamboyance.
In injury time, with United fans writing their obituaries, Dalot chose to shoot for the stars. A Kimpembe block sent the ball parachuting into orbit, yielding a hopeful corner for the men in red. But this was no ordinary corner, this was the longest corner, this was perhaps the biggest corner in United history. This was the corner which VAR changed to a penalty.
Some may call it poetic justice arguing that Kimpembe should have been sent off in the first leg. Some would call it footballing blasphemy, something PSG’s beleaguered keeper is all too familiar with as it was a similar decision that had led to his sending off and ended his Juventus career. “Clearly you cannot have a heart in your chest, but a bin… you cannot ruin the dreams of a team,” Buffon had told Michael Oliver back then.
So, this was heresy or Houdini, depending on which side you are on. This could even be life or death.
In the middle, a dogfight had broken out as PSG players stomped and shouted in indignation. This was a fight in the dust pit, this was rugby as players tugged at the ball and others refused to let go. This was everything but football. And amid the melee, yet far from the din and bustle, stood Rashford meditating like a Zen. When he woke up from his trance, Buffon was down on the ground, and the ball straight back into the heart of the net. Football, bloody hell.
Back home, my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing. My friends are in tears. United fans the world over, who had forgotten how victories like these tasted, are rediscovering the colour of their dreams. My body is shaking in disbelief as the players in orgasmic fantasy dive in to celebrate with the fans at the away stand.
PSG is still trying, but it does not matter. Everything is a mess already. Everything is beautiful. You live for nights like these. Even Sir Alex and Eric Cantona are celebrating in the dressing room.