It was the comeback to end all comebacks. A comeback secured in stoppage time. And a comeback that was tinged in controversy with the most dramatic of VAR decisions.
The game was on a knife edge, one Paris Saint-Germain goal and it was game over for Manchester United, while Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side needed to score once to go through.
As the clock ticked into stoppage time, VAR took center stage and referee Damir Skomina awarded United a penalty.
Marcus Rashford stepped up confidently, seemingly the calmest man inside the Parc des Princes stadium and slammed the ball high into the top corner.
It was all too much for some. Standing with a look of indignation on the sidelines, PSG’s Brazilian star Neymar could scarcely believe what he had witnessed.
“It’s a disgrace,” Neymar, who was forced to miss the game through injury, wrote on Instagram immediately after the match. “Four guys who know nothing about football watch a slow-motion replay in front of the television.
“What can [Kimpembe] do with his hand while his back is turned? Go f**k yourselves!”
As Rashford and the United players celebrated wildly, PSG fans and players began to relive their worst nightmare.
Two seasons ago, the French side led Barcelona 4-0 after the first leg in Paris but contrived to throw away the tie in one of the all-time great Champions League chokes, losing 6-1 at the Camp Nou.
Many questioned whether that traumatic elimination would continue to haunt this side as it attempted to defend the 2-0 lead earned in Manchester three weeks ago.
Those demons began to resurface at the Parc de Princes inside two minutes, after Thilo Kehrer’s error was capitalized upon by Romelu Lukaku.
Juan Bernat drew PSG level 10 minutes later after good work by Kylian Mbappe, but an error from the unlikeliest of sources gifted United a lifeline.
Gianluigi Buffon – one of the players PSG bought in an attempt to win the Champions League title it craves so much – spilled Rashford’s fizzing shot into the path of Lukaku, who passed the rebound into the net.
PSG will have been eager to batten down the hatches and weather an early United storm, the painful memory of the last time they attempted to defend a first-leg lead still raw in the minds of many of these players.
History was hugely weighted against United. In the 63-year history of the European Cup, no team has ever lost the first leg 2-0 – as United did at Old Trafford three weeks ago – and gone on to qualify, in 106 attempts.
But history is for making and the improbable is possible, as United’s temporary manager Solskjær knows all too well.
In 1999, the Norwegian was part of a United squad that found itself 2-0 down against Juventus in Turin – having drawn 1-1 in Manchester – and miraculously came back to win 3-2. Then two late goals secured a remarkable Champions League final win over Bayern Munich.
That is the same belief and fighting spirit Solskjær has been trying to instill in his players in the weeks since the demoralizing defeat at Old Trafford, the only loss of his tenure so far.
The belief looked to be there, and PSG was rattled, wildly misplacing passes and losing every individual battle all over the pitch.
Kehrer looked nervous after his early error, and Rashford began exploiting the weak link down the right of PSG’s defense.
Despite his earlier assist, Mbappe was looking a shadow of the player he has been for much of this season.
The 20-year-old has 29 goals in 32 games this season, a record bettered only by Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, but as the match entered the second half his touch let him down on more than one occasion when clear through on goal.
In the absence of 10 first team players, including Paul Pogba Anthony, Martial, Alexis Sánchez, Ander Herrera, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Nemanja Matic, Solskjær was forced to bring on 17-year-old Mason Greenwood and 19-year-old Tahith Chong as United chased that crucial third goal.
It was another of United’s teenage substitutes – Diogo Dalot – than earned his side the decisive penalty, firing a shot towards goal which struck Presnel Kimpembe’s arm in the box.
After a consultation with VAR, to the shock and dismay of most inside the stadium, Skomina pointed to the spot after taking several minutes to make his decision.
Rashford, remarkably taking his first penalty for Manchester United, fired past the 40-year-old Buffon, who may have just played his last Champions League game.
Porto edge stoppage time thriller
After earning a hard-fought 2-1 win at the Stadio Olimpico, Roma traveled to Porto confident of reaching the quarterfinals.
This was, after all, the team which provided us with one of the great Champions League moments last season, coming from behind to knock out Barcelona.
An early goal for Porto’s Tiquinho turned the tie in Porto’s favor, but Roma’s evergreen captain Daniele De Rossi coolly slotted home a penalty to edge the Italian in front in the tie.
The lead lasted all of seven second-half minutes, as Moussa Marega volleyed the home side in front once again and forced the tie into extra time.
But it’s beginning to feel as though no Champions League tie is complete without some VAR controversy.
In the 117th minute, with just three minutes remaining, referee Cuneyt Cakir awarded a penalty after the video assistant referee spotted that Porto’s Fernando Santos had his shirt pulled in the box.
Few Roma players could have any complaints as Alex Telles scored the winner from the spot.
However, questions will again be asked about VAR’s consistency after Roma’s Nicolò Zaniolo was tripped in the penalty minutes later, only for the referee to review the incident and fail to give the penalty.