WATCHING MAN UNITED BEAT PSG WAS LIKE WATCHING A BUNCH OF YOUR MATES
Paris Saint-Germain v Manchester United was on my laptop at work last night, probably about thirty seconds behind actual time. And then, Paris Saint-Germain v Manchester United was on my phone screen on the bus home. Buffering and glitching, but it was there. And then, when I got home, it was on a laptop on the kitchen table between a couple of scary-looking letters that will never be opened and a gang of dirty plates and some cutlery outsiders that will be washed up next week. Me and my housemate whacked open a very nice 660ml bottle of Heineken, slopped it into two glasses, and then Paris Saint-Germain v Manchester United reminded us why we love football.
Looked like they’d won it, really, PSG. From pitch to stand to box, they thought they’d won it. Kylian Mbappé, Ángel Di María, and Dani Alves were moving the ball around on fast-forward, the Ultras had their kit off and their flags waving and were singing that song over and over, and Neymar was sat next to a boy with blue hair called Ninja. But there were signs. Mbappé kept slipping over and kicking the ball too far for even him to catch up with it, Thiago Silva played well, but like usual looked like a kid on the verge of tears at his own birthday party, and I really dunno who blue haired Bob was. Ole, bibbed up like a floater during a passing drill, and Big Mike saw these things. These little creases in the winning ticket. Ole and Big Mike did big things that won Manchester United the game.
I like having José Mourinho in the Premier League. It’s always been fun and funny, and it means David Squires draws him more. But it became so miserable. It turned into watching your mate having to go bowling with a new stepdad he didn’t want to go bowling with. But Ole came in and took the whole class to Laser Quest with unlimited Panda Pops. And last night, in a pastel pink and white uniform, he took the whole year to Paris. He subbed Bailly at the right time (injured or not). He had Dalot in front of actual ex-winger Ashley Young to keep things schtum and then played five at the back to keep it extra schtum. He brought Tahith Chong on, and for twenty minutes, he kicked every ball, headed every header, and tackled every tackle within 100 yards of his glorious mop. There was a kind of delicious snarling pragmatism about them, Ole out Mourinho'd Mourinho: let them out the traps at the right time in the right way. He told them to wait and wait and wait, and they did wait and then with five to go he told them right lads, off you pop. And pop off they did.
The players, constantly jerking their head over to see where Ole was waving his arm towards next, got it. Understood it. Lukaku, who so rightly called out parts of the media this week, was in the right places at the right times. Not because he happened to be there, but because he chose to be there. He’s clever, you see, he scores goals because he’s clever. He took the denim jeans off that Twitter idiots had squeezed onto him, burned them in front of their eyes, and scored goals in the smoke. And Rashford. Manchester's Rashford. Our Rashford. Your Rashford, grabbing the ball with conviction and then kicking it so hard and true past Buffon that on the slow-mo reply of the connection you could see a piece of grass vaporise and spell the word GOAL, went from Babby Rashford to Daddy Rashford. Chris Smalling was imperious, Luke Shaw fast and strong, and Fred played passes with a kiss and a fizz. Mason Greenwood came on and called for the ball constantly while trying to remember how an oxbow lake is formed for his Geography lesson after lunch break tomorrow. Magic. And yet, despite all of this, United hardly touched the ball. For large parts of the game, the ball was magnetised to Paris boot.
It felt era-defining. The Champions League is hyper-football and makes me drunk on bright green pitches and bright white goal nets and players I’m used to seeing on FIFA doing things I can only do on FIFA. But, it's always felt slightly voyeuristic for me: watching the big boys with their big toys playing football juiced up on Gazprom. Last night, though, there was a group of people out there that I really wanted to do well.
Watching Jesse go tonto around his flat and facetime Marcus like a girlfriend he missed, watching Pogba awash with glee and joy and triumph, watching Lukaku comfort Kimpembe at the end: millionaire footballers became sweet kids. They were you and you and you. And, as the ref trotted over to look at his SNES screen and confirm the ball did actually canon off Kimpembe’s splayed arm, Neymar was him. Your nemesis. The boy from Year 11 waiting for you after school because he heard you’d been DMing his girlfriend who happens to be your mom’s best friend’s daughter. He was livid and handsome and, really, a bit of a softie beneath the hat and the ear piercing and the expensive trainers. You and the rest of the year weren’t going anywhere. You and United were going through.
It was the coming out of Ole as an Actual Football Manager, not just your mum’s new boyfriend. Solskjær’s taken United from a bunch of amazing players who didn’t really look like they wanted to play with each other very much, and turned them into a group of players who look like all they want to do every minute of every day is play football together. And that, really, is that. Football is about kicking a ball around or watching other people kick a ball around, with your mates. United’s fans, players, and manager last night all looked like mates. On a laptop in a kitchen with a dirty floor in Hackney last night, they were our mates too.