Playing in an uncompetitive league is said to leave PSG underprepared for major continental challenges, but sometimes it does the exact opposite. PSG dispense with well organised, effective teams who lack outstanding individuals every week in Ligue 1. Now, oddly, that habit has helped Thomas Tuchel’s side win two games in one of the most pivotal weeks in the club’s short 50-year history.
Despite reaching a sizeable milestone in making the Champions League final, the manner of PSG’s progress in Europe carries with it a number of caveats. When QSI acquired the club in 2011, the aim was not only to win the competition – an ambition that has since become an all-consuming obsession – but to compete directly with Europe’s established elite. It was assumed that one would naturally lead to the other but, bizarrely, that may not be the case.
Mental frailty has long been a problem for PSG in big Champions League ties. There was a lack of leadership in their cowering collapse at Barcelona in 2017. Nerves and individual mistakes (as well as an extremely unfortunate penalty decision) instigated the stunning defeat to Manchester United last year. However, wins over Atalanta and RB Leipzig show that Tuchel has made some progress in this regard.
PSG beat two effective, tactically astute, expansive sides without showing any signs of the usual psychological weaknesses. Uncharacteristic Parisian grit and gumption brought two late goals after a fluctuating display against Atalanta in the quarter-final last week. In the semi-final, it was not PSG but the relatively inexperienced Leipzig team who were forced into individual errors. In the past, such pressurised scenarios would have given PSG a chance to wilt, but they were unwavering in their belief and ruthless in capitalising on those mistakes. As Ángel Di María put it: “We ate them up from minute one.”
In ousting Leipzig, PSG produced their most complete display in the Champions League since their 4-0 drubbing of Barcelona in the first leg of their last-16 tie in 2017. Di María was the man of the match the last time he played in a Champions League final, for Real Madrid in 2014, and he was the outstanding performer in the semi-final against Leipzig. He has been a quietly crucial creative influence under Tuchel, who should be credited with revitalising the player’s career after his disappointing stint at Manchester United.
Kylian Mbappé and Neymar were reunited from the start to devastating effect. Fast friends off the pitch and often telepathic on it, their link-up play in tandem with Di María ensured that PSG’s attacks carried a fluidity that was painfully absent when Mauro Icardi and Pablo Sarabia led the line against Atalanta.
Neymar’s newfound contentment, both in Paris and with his role in the team, was abundantly clear – as it had been against Atalanta. Again, PSG appeared more cohesive and relaxed as a group. The draw has been lopsided in their favour, but that should not take away from the fact that they have broken down key barriers in the last week. Cowardice, mistakes and weakness have been replaced by ruthlessness, fluidity and harmony.
Whatever the outcome, Tuchel deserves significant praise. He has given the squad a unity that neither Unai Emery nor Laurent Blanc could find and has moulded them into a streetwise and versatile outfit, moving away from the ponderous possession play of previous eras and helping the players overcome the flimsiness that plagued previous campaigns.
Amid all the praise, there must also be questions. Do PSG truly have the ability to outperform the continent’s established powerhouses – the clubs they see as their peers – in season-defining knockout ties? Their resources and squad (on paper at least) have been the match of their more storied competitors for some time, yet PSG were outplayed by Real Madrid over two legs in 2018 and put in an infuriatingly meek display at Manchester City in the quarter-finals in 2015.
Whether Tuchel’s revolution extends so far is as yet unknown. Games against Atalanta (who were without the skilful Josip Ilicic) and Leipzig (who were without their top scorer this season, Timo Werner, who has joined Chelsea) were perhaps the most agreeable obstacles to a European Cup final that PSG could have hoped for. Both sides have obvious qualities but they were hardly favourites to win the competition. Leipzig had never reached the knockout stages before and Atalanta had not played in the Champions League at all before this season. Whether PSG would have reached the final had they been lumbered with Lyon’s knockout ties – Juventus, Manchester City and Bayern Munich – is another matter.
Tuchel’s players can only beat what is put in front of them but, considering the gap in resources between the French champions and both Leipzig and Atalanta, it should be noted that anything other than two victories would have been another disaster, especially given the opportunity presented to them by the draw. Frustratingly, with Lyon possible opponents in the final, PSG may win the Champions League on Sunday without providing a true gauge of their sporting progression. Both of their victories in the last week have fallen within their comfort zone. A final with Lyon would be more of the same. Only by beating Bayern in the final can PSG prove they have truly arrived as a European power.
For Ligue 1 observers, a meeting between PSG and Lyon would be a dream final – something that was close to incomprehensible a month ago. Yet, from a Parisian point of view, that match-up may mean their greatest ever achievement comes with an asterisk. If beating Lyon would be frustrating, losing to them would be even worse. The feeling of finally reaching a Champions League final and then being beaten by another French club – over whom their omnipotence has supposedly been proven beyond doubt – would be devastating. It would be an almost laughable state of affairs – and one that feels very possible given Lyon’s recent run of improbable victories.
A meeting with Bayern Munich might provide answers about where PSG truly are as a team but, in light of the mauling Barcelona suffered against Bayern, that option may also provide PSG with the ultimate reality check. At least they seem more prepared for such a challenge than ever before. The belief they showed in their injury-time turnaround against Atalanta and their ruthless display against Leipzig prove that PSG are finally progressing under Tuchel. Just how far they have come is as yet unknown. Their newly discovered harmony and cohesion could yet be undone. PSG may be starting to look like true champions, but genuine proof could still be beyond the horizon.
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