LONDON • For around 20 minutes at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, it felt like the Champions League glory days were back for Manchester United.
The capacity 74,000 crowd was in full voice, United were attacking Paris Saint-Germain down the flanks with speed and aggression and their opponents looked shaky.
That feeling lasted until the French champions began to get a grip on the game and, by the end of the night, a 2-0 win for PSG in the last-16, first-leg clash served only to highlight the gulf that remains between this United team and the European elite.
"It's a reality check, you can see the strength they have," United's caretaker boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said after they lost to two quickfire second-half goals from Presnel Kimpembe and Kylian Mbappe.
"They had the momentum after the first goal and controlled the game. You could see we hadn't played at this level for a while and we will have to learn.
"That's the level we want to get to. We've been talking about top four (Premier League), but we also want to be at the top (in Europe)."
The Norwegian has finally tasted his first defeat since taking over 12 games ago in December.
But while United were outclassed technically and outwitted tactically, it could also be said that they were not helped by referee Daniele Orsato, who arguably should have sent off Kimpembe for a second bookable offence before his goal.
Instead, United midfielder Paul Pogba saw red in the 89th minute after receiving a contentious second yellow card, in a match which Orsato dished out 10 yellows in total.
United also lost forwards Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard to muscle injuries and replacements Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata failed to step up.
In the absence of Martial and Lingard, United had little pace and dynamism and lost the high press they used so successfully early on.
PSG had to cope without the injured Neymar and Edinson Cavani, yet remained a threat throughout.
That is the kind of strength in depth United will need to build if they are to return to being the kind of force in Europe that they were under former boss Alex Ferguson.
PSG's quality was in full display and coach Thomas Tuchel also had his tactics spot on.
The defeat is United's first by a margin of more than a goal at home in European competition.
Solskjaer insisted, however, that the loss will not wreck the momentum United have built up in the Premier League and their confidence ahead of the FA Cup fifth-round tie against Chelsea on Monday.
"No, not at all because at this club we have to bounce back. The Champions League is always going to be difficult, but our bread and butter is the (domestic) league so (I'm) not afraid of that," he said.
"When we go to Paris, we'll give it a go. It is a difficult mountain to climb, but not impossible. Mountains are there to be climbed."
Only once since the 2010-11 season have United won a Champions League knockout game and, with Pogba suspended, the odds are stacked against that changing in the French capital on March 6.
THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS