Monday 25 March 2019

Roy Curtis: 'On an evening of magic in Paris, the last foul remnants of Mourinho were evicted'

Manchester United's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (C) celebrates
Manchester United's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (C) celebrates
Manchester United's Norwegian headcoach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gestures at the end of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second-leg football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Manchester United at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris on March 6, 2019. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP)ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images

Roy Curtis

EVEN the devout at the ancient Parisian prayer houses of Notre Dame or Sacre Coeur could not have believed the City of Lights would ever witness a miracle such as this.

When Marcus Rashford fired the late, late killshot, as the 21-year-old fixed PSG in his crosshairs and coolly, emphatically squeezed the trigger, all that seemed missing from an immortal night was an accompanying thunderbolt from the heavens.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Norwegian dream maker, achieved something eternal and divine.

On a night of cosmic achievement, one touched by the supernatural, he carried Manchester United back across two decades, reminded a storied club of who they once were.

And, who they might again be.

High in the Parc Des Princes (the wildly vibrating Box of Sound), an old Glaswegian laird beamed proudly at this long awaited flicker of familiar recognition.

Alex Ferguson’s kingdom was built on an ability to convert impossible odds into the highest grade psychological fuel.

To shape any situation to his advantage.

The same bone deep conviction, an identikit sense of destiny, a Xerox of that capacity to persuade his players that there is no set of odds they cannot defy, oozes from his still baby-faced 46-year-old heir.

On an evening that belonged to another world of magic, the last foul remnants of Jose Mourinho were evicted from the fabric of English football’s great aristocratic house.

United’s advance to the Champions League quarter-finals was outrageous, phenomenal, unaccountable.  It brought the travelling Theatre of Dreams audience suspiciously close to rapture.

Only the most embedded Parisian partisan would, when, eventually, the shock of another shattering European meltdown subsides, fail to recognise the sheer preposterous, enormity of United’s conquest.

The French have their own words for it:  Incroyable; tour de force; magnifique.

A wonder of the sporting world unfolded by the Seine, a skyscraping, steepling miracle of sporting art, towering into the night sky above the City of Lights, dwarfing even the 1,063 feet elevation of Gustav Eiffel’s landmark tower.

A team bereft of first choice players, lumbered with a first leg deficit that has proven an impossible Champions League Everest to scale, somehow found a way to plant their flag at the summit.

United escaped Alcatraz; they broke out of Shawshank; they stormed the Bastille.

And they did it without Pogba, Matic, Martial, Mata, Lingard, Sanchez and Herrera, with Solskjaer investing his trust on this gigantic night, in a 17-year-old debutant.

For sure, the visiting team rode their luck; perhaps the penalty that yielded Rashford’s dramatic late winner, that rendered PSG’s billions obsolete, was harshly awarded.

Still, Solskjaer’s returning of United – a club so recently lost and forlorn in a Mourinho engineered cul de sac - to the high road is a story that tugs at the tresses of Lady Credibility.

Mourinho trifled so heavily with their core philosophy.  Viewing the world through his own narcissistic prism, he hollowed out a club that under Busby and Ferguson had established a fearless attacking blueprint.

Jose extracted all the joy from the Stretford End.  His unapologetic pragmatism yielded two trophies, but it infected United’s soul with poisonous sludge.

Rashford, the hero last night, was among those whose confidence was systemically broken down by a manager whose need to nourish a monumental ego always came first.

Romelu Lukaku, who made it six goals in three games with a predatory double strike, was another whose confidence was impaled on the wildly flashing Mourinho rapier. 

Solskjaer has re-infused joy and belief and a sense of identity into Manchester United’s bloodstream.

He decommissioned negativity and conflict, posted a bailiff’s notice that all excuses must immediately leave the building.

The results have been authentically startling:  14 wins and two draws in 17 games; the lone 90 minute defeat – at home to PSG – now brilliantly avenged.

United, denuded of so many superstars, gambolled across this great coliseum like frolicking thoroughbred colts.

They illustrated – as Ajax had at the Bernabau the night before – that for footballers liberated from fear, there is no such thing as a hopeless case.  Impossible is nothing.

Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof, broken men under the departed Portuguese autocrat, were immense in defence.

United brought down their absurdly wealthy, nouveau riche opponents with a starting midfield that read McTominay-Fred-Pereira.  It is beyond fantasy. 

Solskjaer’s greatest achievement has been to so effectively de-fumigate England’s most successful club, to evict the fetid and suffocating fumes of the Mourinho era.

Twenty years ago, he was a key figure as Roy Keane carried United on his back to the Champions League final.

In his autobiography, Ferguson spoke with something close to reverence of the Corkman’s semi-final performance in Turin that left Juventus destitute and down and out.

“I didn’t think I could have a higher opinion of any footballer than I already had of the Irishman but he rose even further in my estimation at the Stadio Delle Alpi. The minute he was booked and out of the final, he seemed to redouble his efforts to get the team there.

"It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player."

Looking down from the VIP seats as a nuclear shock wind carried United to a euphoric climax, Ferguson must have been tempted to update that citation.

And to give thanks that the club he remade in his likeness is at last again steered by a kindred spirit.

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