Tuanzebe delivers flawless performance against PSG
What's the last thing in the world you'd like to do as a professional footballer, after 10 months on the sidelines through injury?
There can be no definitive answer, but I'd wager that taking part in a foot race against Kylian Mbappe wouldn't be your first choice of activity on your return.
Especially if you're a centre-half.
But that was exactly the situation that Axel Tuanzebe found himself in at the Parc des Princes on two memorable occasions during United's superb 2-1 win over last season's Champions League finalists Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday evening.
And the amazing thing? Tuanzebe beat the rapid French prodigy. Twice.
It's been a hugely challenging year for Axel, who's struggled with numerous injury complaints since first suffering a hip problem in the warm-up before our Premier League game with Liverpool in October 2019.
His last appearance for the team came in a Carabao Cup game against Colchester last December.
And then there he was, lining up in Paris, replacing our injured captain Harry Maguire in a revamped five-man defence, alongside Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw in the three centre-back positions.
On 34 minutes came the first big challenge. Mbappe sprung away down the left flank.
Momentarily he looked to have escaped Axel's clutches, but then the Academy graduate's long strides began to regain ground. He caught the World Cup winner just inside the area, and then used his imposing strength to shrug Mbappe to the ground. Job done.
It outraged Neymar, who seemed unable to believe anyone could match his speedy team-mate. The Brazilian picked up a yellow card for his outburst.
In the second half, on 72 minutes, the 22-year-old was booked - somewhat harshly - for pushing Mbappe in the back after missing his attempted header to a long goalkick. But that didn't dint his confidence at all.
A couple of minutes later, with the game balanced on a knife edge at 1-1, Mbappe latched on to a through ball, and would have been bearing down on David De Gea's goal and about to make it 2-1 to the Parisians but for Tuanzebe's attention to detail.
He anticipated the run, and again ate up the ground to chase Mbappe down. The Frenchman sprawled to the ground, but he had been fairly challenged, and outmuscled once more. A dangerous situation culminated with the ball rolling harmlessly to a grateful De Gea.
And they were only the showstopping moments during an extremely impressive and assured return to first-team football at the very highest level.
There were seven clearances made by Axel too, as United repelled everything PSG had to throw at them, from crosses, one-on-one duels, and even the odd tantrum or two from the French champions' star players.
“To be honest, he [Tuanzebe] has been unbelievable today, against some of the best players in the world: Neymar and Mbappe,” said Man of the Match De Gea.
“He did really well; I’m really happy for him. He’s had difficult moments with the injuries, so he now he showed today that he is capable of playing big games.”
Frank Sinatra once sang of New York, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere." Well, this was Paris, on the other side of the Atlantic, but for Axel Tuanzebe, the lesson is the same.
If you can stop Mbappe and Neymar, after just two weeks' training, in your first match for 10 months, you can do it anywhere, against anyone.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, clearly delighted, reacted after the game: “Axel's a tremendous defender, a great leader. He's come through the Academy and we've known for years that he's going to be a top player for us and he's got the character and the attitude that a Man United player should have.
“Sometimes you’ll get in a foot race with Mbappe and you have to run with him and we know Axel’s qualities, he’s a top defender. It’s his first game in, I don’t know, 10 months or something which is testament to the quality he has.”