It’s approaching 600 days since the Parisian night which suggested that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was returning Manchester United to the high plain of football that Sir Alex Ferguson’s players once strode.
That breath-taking Champions League win over Paris Saint Germain in March last year was about youth, courage, ambition and audacious hope.
The club will come full circle this week on Tuesday, when they return to Parc des Princes in the same competition, and though they are still staring up the face of a mountain in their drive for the top, here was a reminder that those qualities still reside within.
Manchester United prepared for their PSG midweek challenge with a 4-1 win at Newcastle
United will return to Paris 600 days after they crushed PSG in the Champions League last-16
Marcus Rashford, Daniel James and Aaron wan Bissaka played with the kind of instinct and fearlessness which the young know best. Juan Mata was magisterial – the game’s best player and United’s cognitive core. Bruno Fernandes worked the midfield spaces with Mata in a way which went some distance to extinguishing the horrors of what occurred at Old Trafford, two weeks ago.
It helped that Solskjaer initially dispensed with a player whose insolence towards the club bears out all the suspicions Ferguson had about him and his agent.
With Paul Pogba safely reduced to the bench, there was scope for Scott McTominay to demonstrate the presence and stature at the back of midfield which makes United a better team when he is in it.
The likes of Juan Mata and Bruno Fernandes (above) show that United do have some talent
United rested Paul Pogba on Saturday allowing Scott McTominay (left) to impress in the north
You imagined Ferguson nodding appreciatively somewhere, as his young compatriot located Daniel James with probing passes in the channels in the first half.
A healthy dose of perspective is needed about the way the night then went. As Arsene Wenger observes in the new autobiography, the watching world always wants to bracket managers – and teams ‘brilliant or rubbish.’ Harry Maguire was proof that the truth lies somewhere in between.
The 27-year-old was facing an unyielding scrutiny and the look of distress on his face as Manchester United fell behind inside two minutes made you wonder how much more of this any individual could take.
Harry Maguire (above) also impressed as he netted an important equaliser in Saturday’s win
Yet by the end of the night he had deconstructed the narrative – bringing composure around his own area, escaping the attentions of Jamaal Lascelles to deposit an equaliser and then speaking eloquently and humbly in front of the cameras.
He would have scored again had Jonjo Shelvey not cleared his second half header off the line.
But there were some difficult moments for Maguire which would probably have elicited closer scrutiny had Sky Sports delivered the same quality of analysis for its £14.95 Box Office customers that it does for its Main Event channel.
The cross Allan Saint-Maximim lifted from the byline for Callum Wilson around the hour mark was beyond Maguire’s capabilities. He helplessly watched it sail over his head to present the young striker with an opportunity to extend a boot and send Newcastle into the lead. It required the best of David de Gea to keep the shot out.
Maguire (left) impressed for the Red Devils but still needs to up his game before the PSG game
Maguire cut out several of the balls down the right which Wilson might have run onto but he and Victor Lindelof are a pale imitation of the impenetrable rearguard Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic provided for so long.
What wouldn’t Maguire, or Solskjaer, give for a Vidic? Instead they have Victor Lindelof, whose role in those catastrophic early minutes was grimly significant.
The deflection off Luke Shaw’s knee which sent United ahead was unfortunate but the real story of the opening goal lay in its early stages – Callum Wilson spinning around Lindelof and finding Allan Saint-Maximim, who threaded the ball through Fred’s legs and set Jonjo Shelvey racing into wide open spaces United had vacated.
The look on Lindelof’s face was one of blind panic as Saint-Maximim threatened. He is beginning his fourth season at United and would have been long gone were Ferguson still at the helm.
Maguire’s centre-back partner Victor Lindelof (left) struggled heavily in the Newcastle game
The Swedish centre-half was at fault for Luke Shaw’s (right) own goal in the second minute
When Fernandes missed a penalty, it looked like another unconvincing night was in store, though the recovery revealed a psychological strength and, when United’s second goal came, sublime football.
It was not just Fernandes’ finish which took the breath away but the 50 yards of turf he cleared.
He navigated Danny van der Beek’s ball to Mata with his heel from just in front of his penalty area, raced those yards to take it back from Marcus Rashford’s own heel, then drove home the winner. Wan Bissaka’s goal reflected his own ambition high up the field.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka also impressed in scoring a vital third for Manchester United at Newcastle
The week ahead will be one of reflection on how far United have travelled since that fateful last journey into Paris. Not far enough for a club of their immense wealth and spending.
There will be more bumps ahead because Chelsea and Arsenal, both better structured sides, lie up the road.
But this night showed potential and a direction of travel, at least. After all the past month has brought, they’ll take that.