For supporters of Manchester United
the best thing about the Champions League
draw — made in those dark, closing days of Jose Mourinho
's management — was that it would take them on a trip to Paris. The football itself promised to be unmemorable.
That draw was made on December 17 and was watched by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the sofa at home in Norway with his son Noah.
On Monday, Solskjaer sat behind a table at Old Trafford as United's manager and spoke about the prospects of beating the French champions in this week's last 16 first leg. Nobody laughed.
Of all the things that have happened in United's great history, not many have been as revelatory as Solskjaer's seven-and-a-half weeks in charge.
The Norwegian has not only shown himself to be a proficient motivator and organiser of footballers but has also shone a light on just how destructive a force Mourinho had become at the club.
United remain a team with holes in it. On Tuesday, Paris Saint-Germain will try to pick at some of those holes. But Solskjaer holds a wand in his hand right now and it promises to take United to places they could not have dreamed of as recently as mid-December.
Players who under-performed under Mourinho are now playing above themselves under his replacement and it is this sought-after sense of belief and purpose that United will take into this tie as their greatest weapon.
Solskjaer continues to duck and weave in the face of questions about his chances of landing the job in the long-term. Of course he does. The life of the caretaker — or interim as they call them these days — comes with no pressure attached. It's a free hit.
Only when you get the gig full-time at a club like United do the walls start to close in and as such the former United striker will hope to continue to ride a wave of bravado and freedom when PSG face his team for Tuesday's game in Manchester.
Man United vs French opposition:
PSG's win percentage with Neymar and Cavani:
Without Neymar and Cavani:
Manchester United have won only one of their last nine Champions League knockout games. The only victory being their 3-0 win against Olympiacos in March 2014.
Paul Pogba is Manchester United's highest scorer in the Champions League this season with two goals. He also has the most assists for the club and has created the most chances.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is one of three managers left in the Champions League to have won it as a player, along with Pep Guardiola and Santiago Solari.
'Of course I didn't know this would happen back in December,' smiled Solskjaer. 'I was watching the draw with Noah and we said, "Wow that is a tough challenge".
'But we have given ourselves the best possible opportunity in the way we have gone into this game because we're confident. I have found out what kind of team we have here. We are looking a team, we are agreeing on how we should approach games so if there was any time to go into big games like this it is now for us.
'Confidence was low when I arrived but the players have responded fantastically and I don't think we could be in a better frame of mind with confidence and form so we are looking forward to the next few games.
'The squad is very capable of winning against any opponents.'
First and foremost, it was nice to see a United manager offer something resembling a genuine smile on Monday. After the nervous suspicion of David Moyes, the self-satisfaction of Louis van Gaal and the sheer malevolence of Mourinho, Solskjaer carries the look of a man who is actually enjoying himself. It has been a while.
The 45–year-old has his own Champions League history, of course. It is 20 years ago in May since he won United the trophy with almost the final kick of the game in Barcelona. United played poorly that night and may have to be better on Tuesday evening and when they visit Paris for the return next month.
PSG are a strange and unpredictable side and will be weakened by the absence of the injured Neymar and Edinson Cavani.
When they played at Liverpool in the group stages last September, the French were desperately vulnerable without the ball and conceded three. In Paris against the same opposition, they were altogether more visceral and were far too good for Jurgen Klopp's team.
So it stands to reason that United most hope to establish a lead on Tuesday and then hang on to it in Paris.
For all their enormous improvement under Solskjaer, United are still too easy to open up for a side with European aspirations and they must defend better than they routinely do in the Premier League if PSG are not to leave Old Trafford with an away goal.
On Monday Solskjaer was joined in the interview room by Anthony Martial. The young French forward is in that group of players — joined by Paul Pogba, Victor Lindelof, Marcus Rashford and Nemanja Matic — who have improved beyond recognition during the Norwegian's time in charge.
Martial said that Solskjaer had encouraged him to play forwards and that said much about just how muddled things had become before Mourinho departed. Solskjaer's greatest achievement has been to restore clarity and simplicity to United's methods. Whatever happens on Tuesday, they will not go to Paris as tourists.