There were a lot of heroes for Manchester United at the San Siro last night but one man in particular turned the match for the Red Devils: substitute Paul Pogba.
United recovered from the setback of a last minute equaliser from AC Milan in the first leg of their Europa League clash and from a woeful first half performance in this game, devoid of ideas, intensity and belief.
Having just returned from a six-week layoff, the Frenchman was not fit enough to start the game but he hit the ground running after replacing Marcus Rashford at half time, scoring within three minutes of the restart and dictating the whole second half with a display of strength, creativity, intelligence and hard work.
‘We’ve missed Paul,’ the master of understatement, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said.
‘He’s been out for almost two months and any team would miss a player like Paul Pogba. He is very important for us and he’s going to give us a big boost. He makes a very big difference.’
‘Paul of course needs to get football back into his system. You could see what he gives us when he’s on the pitch,’ the boss told MUTV.
‘Technically, he’s one of the best footballers around. It was a very good slot.’
Pogba’s brilliant performance also impressed some of England’s leading football journalists.
‘There was a time not too long ago when Manchester United supporters were lining up to offer to pack Paul Pogba’s bags for him,’ said The Telegraph’s James Ducker.
‘Tired of his attempts to force a departure and his persistent failure to live up to his reputation on the pitch, plenty had resolved that the club was better off without him.
‘What the future holds for Pogba as he nears the final year of his contract at Old Trafford is unclear but there is unlikely to be a rush to push him out of the door now.
‘The France midfielder had been playing some of his best football in a United shirt before injury stopped him in his tracks but he needed only three minutes on his return after a six-week absence to turn this game – and tie – on its head against AC Milan three days after celebrating his 28th birthday.
‘Pogba’s arrival on the pitch was akin to a skilled surgeon retrieving a knife from a quivering intern and calmly leading him away from impending trouble.’
The Times’ Paul Hirst was equally adulatory.
‘It was Pogba who provided the spark, the leadership and the drive to turn this tie around.
‘Just as encouraging for Solskjaer was the fact that Pogba covered a heck of a lot of ground. He tracked back to help out Shaw, made runs from deep and scrapped for the ball. This version of Pogba is well worth pushing the boat out for to keep him at the club beyond the end of next season, when his contract expires.’
Pogba is in many ways like the team he plays for; unpredictable and mercurial. Brilliant and capable of beating anyone in the world one minute, apparently disinterested, lazy and frustrating the next. If Solskjaer can find the key to getting more of the former and less of the latter from both his star and his side, then there is no telling how far they can go together.