No Neymar, no problem: Angel Di Maria, PSG change narrative with 2-0 win at Manchester United

París Saint Germain’s Angel Di Maria celebrates a goal during PSG’s 2-0 win over <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/manchester-united/" data-ylk="slk:Manchester United">Manchester United</a> on Tuesday. (EFE)
París Saint Germain’s Angel Di Maria celebrates a goal during PSG’s 2-0 win over Manchester United on Tuesday. (EFE)

Narratives are a funny thing.

When Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United were drawn together in the Champions League round of 16 back in mid-December, the Parisians were the overwhelming favorites. They had lost just once all season to that point and were cruising both domestically and in Europe. United, meanwhile, was in freefall, and would fire manager and mass-producer of controversy Jose Mourinho the day after the draw. So dysfunctional was the tailspinning megaclub that even placing in the top six of the Premier League seemed like a stretch.

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On the eve of Tuesday’s first leg, it all looked very different. PSG had been beaten twice already in the new year and, worse still, lost superstar forward Neymar to a long-term injury. Disastrously, striker Edinson Cavani was out as well. And post-Mourinho, United had been in torrid form under interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, winning 10 of 11 games and drawing the other.

Suddenly, United could reasonably be called the likelier team to win its home tie.

So, naturally, PSG won 2-0, thanks to second-half goals from Presnel Kimpembe and Kylian Mbappe. Paul Pogba was sent off for United in the late going.

And, of course, PSG is now favored to advance with a pair of away goals on its ledger on its way to Paris. Then again, PSG blew a four-goal first-leg lead to FC Barcelona at this same stage two seasons ago.

But if PSG does advance, it could finally make that elusive deep run in the Champions League. It’s the competition that matters most to its moneyed Qatari owners, who didn’t sink all those hundreds of millions of euros into a once-middling club just to dominate France. Yet after straight quarterfinal eliminations from 2013 through 2016, PSG has only regressed by going out in this round of 16 the last two seasons.

For its part, United may well finish in the top four of the Premier League and rescue a Champions League berth for next season. It’s now looking unlikely that anything will redeem this campaign though. And absent an incontestable achievement in Europe, Solskjaer is unlikely to be retained permanently.

For its outsized impact on either team’s trajectory this year, the game itself was a disappointment, because, well, not all big matches can be good ones.

In a particularly fetid first half, free of corner kicks until the 45th minute, five yellow cards made for an attritional battle between even teams. Mbappe had the best chance in the 28th minute, but missed the target with his sliding finish, perhaps not doing justice to the opportunity.

The most notable thing to happen in the first act was Italian referee Daniele Orsato sparing Kimpembe a second yellow card within the first half hour and then declining to send Ashley Young off for shouldering Angel Di Maria into fencing surrounding the field, when he’d been cautioned already as well.

There was a lot of this….

A good bit of this…

But in the 53rd minute, Mbappe’s snap header to the near post was saved well by David de Gea. On the ensuing corner, however, Kimpembe was left unmarked at far post and finished well.

Dani Alves’ volley was then deflected just wide. Yet the second PSG goal soon arrived regardless. On a quick transition, Di Maria delivered a low, inch-perfect cross into the path of Mbappe, who finished cleanly.

De Gea kept United in the contest with two more big saves, most notably when Mbappe tried to chip him point-blank, the 20-year-old getting a bit too cute.

But United crumpled in the second half. And all was already lost when Pogba was quite deservedly sent off in the 89th minute for his umpteenth hard challenge.

Oh, about those narratives. Di Maria was as much the winner as PSG, in the end. He’d once been United’s most expensive signing of all time but flopped at Old Trafford. After a hot start, meddlesome Dutch manager Louis van Gaal seemed to go out of his way to misuse Di Maria tactically, and destroy the famously complex Argentine winger’s confidence. His two assists – he also delivered the corner for Kimpembe’s goal – redeemed him before a crowd that he only inflamed further by lobbing some choice words at it.

There are three weeks until these teams meet again at the Parc des Princes.

Plenty of time for the narrative to swivel again.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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