Manchester United have been thrashing about wildly in the transfer market since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson – buying players with all the strategy and calm of a schoolyard Panini sticker collector.
Paris Saint-Germain, meanwhile, have been relentlessly stockpiling real talent. It has been an expensive project but here we saw the fruits of all that investment as PSG finally produced a performance of note on English soil.
The French champions will take two away goals back to Paris knowing that they have secured something valuable and if they came to Old Trafford having identified key weaknesses in their opponents then maybe it was to be expected.
Manchester United remain a team with flaws in it despite the work of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
They remain uncertain across the back and against a very good side that was brutally exposed
United are a team with flaws in it and here they were, exposed brutally and efficiently during a 20-minute spell of second-half football from the French champions that reminded us just how far the Old Trafford rebuild still has to go.
What Ole Gunnar Solakjaer has done in his eight weeks back in Manchester has reintroduced spirit and purpose and brought some kind of clarity of vision to United’s football. It has been enough to move his team back into the top four of the Premier League but it has done nothing — how could it? — to repair some basic weaknesses of personnel.
That will have to wait until the next transfer window and will no doubt extend into two or three beyond that as well.
United, for example, remain uncertain across the back. They do not defend corners and free-kicks very well and against a very good side — a side that came to Old Trafford with the courage to play on the front foot — that was made very clear.
PSG won the game and in all likelihood the tie in that spell at the start of the second half. They scored twice and could have scored five.
It was a devastating spell of handbrake-off football and spoke of the difference in quality between the two teams. Back in the autumn, the French champions were blown away by the ferocity of Liverpool’s intense high press in a group game at Anfield. When Jurgen Klopp’s team pounded on their doors, they gave way.
During a 20-minute spell the French champions scored twice and it could have been more
During that period United could not cope with the directness and pace of Kylian Mbappe
Here, United began with similar energy and ambition and for a while it was impressive. Gone was the cautious European mindset of Jose Mourinho’s United and here in its stead was an altogether more aggressive and confident approach. United were the home team and at last they did their best to resemble one.
But what we cannot avoid is that for all their intent and possession and occasional speed on the counter, United didn’t really create a proper chance.
They didn’t really fashion one all night and when injuries forced Solskjaer into a reshuffle at half-time, the whole nature of the game changed.
Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial had been an integral part of what United had done in the opening period, playing high on the PSG back four. At times they helped to spread a little panic.
Twice, for example, PSG goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon played the ball straight out of play under penalty box pressure from red shirts.
Nor indeed could United deal with the intelligence and trickery of Angel Di Maria
Once Jesse Lingard (pictured) and Anthony Martial had gone so had a vital part of the plan
But neither Lingard or Martial were available for the second half and their replacements, Juan Mata and Alexis Sanchez, were never going to replicate their energetic menace. Maybe this represented Solskjaer’s first mis-step as United manager.
With two key players gone, perhaps the 45-year-old needed to find another way for his team to play.
Maybe it was time to try and close the game down, remove its ebb and flow. Instead, United simply began to concede possession and then territory and with a sniff of ascendency in their nostrils, PSG rolled all over them.
The Italian midfielder Marco Verratti was PSG’s best player but Kylian Mbappe scored his team’s second goal and was terrific also. The young French forward is seriously quick but intelligent too.
This was a night for the United faithful to reflect on with disappointment but not dismay
The timing of his acceleration on to a low cross to score from six yards looked simple but was not. Mbappe served notice of his burgeoning talents during the World Cup and it would appear his development is now entering its next phase.
So, too, may be PSG, at least in terms of their European story. Last year’s Champions League campaign was ended at this stage by Real Madrid, the year before it was embarrassment, a 6-1 defeat at Barcelona.
If they complete this job, it will feel significant. Defeat for United would be equally instructive, just in a different way.