Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain go into this season’s Champions League group of death facing off against the less glamorous but smarter RB Leipzig.
Leipzig have lost Timo Werner, but have spotted Alexander Sorloth’s renaissance after his miserable spell at Crystal Palace. The rest of the team remains intact, and with time on their side another year’s experience could make them more dangerous in 2020/21. The same can't be said for either of their big-name rivals in Group H. Istanbul Basaksehir, no clowns, will not be an easy place to go for any side, and with points at a premium any lack of mental resilience will be exploited. It is far from inconceivable that both PSG and United will find themselves fighting it out for a Europa League spot.
PSG manager Thomas Tuchel has made it plain he is disappointed with his club’s efforts in the transfer market. Yes, there is the coronavirus, but what is the point of all the world’s petrodollars if they can't be spent in a crisis, he may wonder. Thiago Silva, Thomas Meunier and Edinson Cavani have departed. Alessandro Florenzi from Roma is the only significant outfield arrival, but that is cancelled out by the injury to Juan Bernat. Emergency action is required.
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“In a season like this, with players who will be playing a lot for their national teams, with the coronavirus, without a pre-season, with a schedule like we have, I am worried that we will pay the price in October, November, December and January,” Tuchel said this week, and he is right to be worried.
His side played right until the end of the Champions League season, and do not have the bounce that comes from winning the tournament. Instead they have lost three major players without serious replacement. They start this season weaker than they ended the last. Of course, with players like Kylian Mbappe, Marco Verratti, Neymar, Mauro Icardi and Angel Di Maria they remain one of the most dangerous sides in Europe. Should Dele Alli arrive, it would be no surprise to see him rejuvenated back to his best away from the misery enforced by Jose Mourinho.
While PSG have a Champions League squad that has regressed, United have a squad that very nearly missed out on qualifying for the tournament itself. United have not even managed to lose enough players to make a difference to the bottom line. Alexis Sanchez and his glum boat have been shipped off permanently, and Andreas Pereira has been loaned to Lazio. But Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Diogo Dalot, Fred, Daniel James, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata remain at the club when they should have been shown the exit as soon as possible (in fairness to James, he could do with a chance on loan, but that is due to performances now around 12 months ago).
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United went into the coronavirus with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looking at the financial distress of others as an opportunity. Instead it appears the club are too scared to spend big. That’s fair enough, as the crisis is having a huge effect on the economics of every club in Europe, but the problem with United is not so much the amounts they are spending as what value they get from their outlay. They have spent hundreds of millions under Ed Woodward to achieve, well, not much. Smaller, cleverer clubs have consistently outperformed.
As discussed elsewhere, United need strengthening across the squad. Fans would this year have understood if Jadon Sancho was out of reach, but then the club should not have trailed their interest for six months. Instead, they could have identified more targets like Donny Van de Beek. Within their grasp, available because of weaknesses at other clubs, and able to swiftly improve the side. Alex Telles is that, so is Ismaila Sarr. All for less than Sancho would have cost. Even if the players or those like them arrive, it will be weeks into a season when fitness work is more important than ever. Solskjaer, like every post-Ferguson manager, is being hamstrung by the incompetence above him. His job, yet again, may rest on his performance in Paris in unfavourable, unforgiving circumstances.