Manchester United are thoroughly up against it when they open their 2020/21 Champions League campaign in Paris on Tuesday night, with a depleted team facing last season’s finalists.
United are without captain Harry Maguire, fellow centre-back Eric Bailly, teenage starlet Mason Greenwood and new signing Edinson Cavani either through injury or lack of fitness.
Cavani will be particularly disappointed to miss out on facing his former club, while the absence of Maguire and Bailly leaves United defensively stretched, especially with a shift to a back-three system on the cards.
With Phil Jones still injured (again), Marcos Rojo completely frozen out and Chris Smalling gone, Axel Tuanzebe’s return to the fold could not have come at a better time. He and Victor Lindelof are the only two recognised centre-backs in the squad that has travelled to France.
Tuanzebe is expected to start alongside Lindelof, with Luke Shaw potentially drafted in as the third centre-back, a role that he has played on occasion for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before – alternatives among the travelling squad for that role also include Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay, who now plays as a centre-back for Scotland, or Timothy Fosu-Mensah.
The back-three will likely be flanked by wing-backs Alex Telles, marking a debut for the £15.4m transfer deadline day signing after he was left on the bench for the weekend win over Newcastle, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who scored his first United goal in that Newcastle game.
For Tuanzebe in particular, this is a (re)baptism of fire in the most challenging way. The 22-year-old, who has long been held in such high esteem by staff at Old Trafford, hasn’t played for 10 months because of injury and his last start came against Colchester in the Carabao Cup in December.
Now, he faces a very different set of opponents in PSG forward line featuring Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, the two most expensive players in history at a combined cost of €400m, and two of the best attackers in the world. There will be no grace period to adjust to being back on the pitch.
To underline the enormity of the task, PSG have a habit of starting well in the Champions League. They have progressed from the group stage in all of the last eight seasons since they returned to this level, have topped their group in five times and have scored 59 goals in their last 18 group games.
United have a potentially strong midfield and can welcome Anthony Martial, currently suspended for domestic games, back to strengthen at the top end of the pitch. But United will have to hold out defensively if they are to have a chance of a positive result, or at the very least take the game to PSG in order to limit the opportunity that Mbappe, Neymar and the rest have to inflict damage.
Although the overriding circumstances are very different, as are many of the individuals involved, United can take optimism from having been in a similarly depleted situation against PSG before.
In March 2019, United travelled to Paris looking to overturn a 2-0 home defeat from the first leg, which had never been done before in the Champions League. But Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard were all unavailable in midfield, while Eric Bailly was also forced off injured in the first half at the back.
Already trailing by two away goals, elimination looked a foregone conclusion, especially when Juan Bernat restored PSG’s aggregate lead after Romelu Lukaku got an earlier opener. On that occasion, United held strong, with Lukaku getting another before half-time and an ice-cold Marcus Rashford stepping up deep into stoppage time to convert that decisive penalty.