PSG are an entitled group, unused to being made to battle
We’ve seen this before, most notably when a 4-0 lead was squandered two years ago
Thiago Silva remonstrates with the referee after a penalty is awarded to Manchester United. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Football still, it turns out, has the power to fight back. Money is a lot of things but it isn’t quite everything, not yet.
Although before we get carried away, it should be acknowledged that it really is a lot of things, most things even, almost everything. The leagues of Italy and France are a walkover yet again. Spain and Germany will probably have very familiar champions. So distorted has the modern view become that not only are Ajax, grandees of the Dutch game, transformed into plucky giant-killers, but somehow Manchester United can be cast as improbable outsiders. It was a great week for the puckish charms of football and its ability to confound hubris but nobody should kid themselves: it’s losing the war against greed.
And yet Paris Saint-Germain’s demise was still an extraordinary spectacle, a lesson in the corrupting effect of money and arrogance. There have been signs this season that Thomas Tuchel is beginning to transform them into a proper side, not just a team that can perform their party pieces while dominating Ligue Un, but one that can actually compete with the elite. The difference between the shameful display at Anfield, when they were extremely fortunate to lose only 3-2, to the first leg at Old Trafford was vast.
It probably helped that Neymar was missing. The Brazilian is, of course, a supremely gifted footballer, but he is also a master of self-indulgence who keeps on costing his teams trophies. When he is there, there is no guarantee of tactical coherence and while teams packed with gifted players can get away that – as Real Madrid keep proving in Europe – it is a major hindrance. Even against Napoli in the group stage (twice), PSG were fortunate.
The qualities that had made PSG effective in the first leg were apparent in the opening half-hour on Wednesday. Ángel Di María is arguably the best in the world in transition, in knowing when to carry the ball and when and to whom to release it. His link up with Juan Bernat devastated Eric Bailly, cast in the unfamiliar role of right-back until injury did what Ole Gunnar Solskjær would surely soon have done anyway and ended his night nine minutes before half-time. Marquinhos and Marco Verratti snapped and snarled around midfield. Kylian Mbappé is terrifyingly quick.
The capacity to shift from a back three to a back four suggests the impact Tuchel has made. In a season when all the usual suspects have shown signs of vulnerability, this should have been a great opportunity for PSG finally to win the Champions League they have spent £1bn on trying to win over the past eight years. And that’s even before considering the first leg.
They were 2-0 up after the away leg. No side has ever lost a Champions League tie from that position before. They were playing a United without 10 players, with a bench full of teenagers. As second legs in European ties go, it should have been as easy as it comes. Sit back, wait and use Di María and Mbappé’s ability on the break, as they had at Old Trafford. And still they lost.
In part, it’s true, that’s down to the frankly inexplicable magic of Solskjær, Dorian Gray as the Milky Bar Kid, living his eternal 1999. But it’s also down to the fact that PSG are the opposite of what Solskjær represents. He is romance and fun and loyalty and doing your job even if it frustrates you; open them up and where the heart should be you’ll find a foetid roll of banknotes. When it comes to the crunch, doing it to enhance the reputation of a faraway state seems not to stir the loins. We’ve seen this before, of course, most notably when a 4-0 lead was squandered two years ago. PSG, just as much as Solskjær, will always have Barcelona.
A few seconds in, Andreas Pereira fouled Dani Alves. His challenge was a fraction late, but it was nothing especially serious. But Alves was soon on his feet, finger wagging, head shaking. You don’t, the message seemed to be, do that to us. That spirit pervaded the whole performance. It was there when Marquinhos hurled himself down after a hand-off from Scott McTominay. It was there in a dozen over-reactions, dives and whines. It was there as Thiago Silva led a group of players pleading hopelessly with the referee Damir Skomina to overturn a penalty decision he had spent nearly five minutes making, there as others scuffed at the spot, there as Leandro Paredes wandered into the box to create a further distraction. And it was there in Neymar’s post-match Instagram post. This is an entitled group, unused to being made to battle.
The flip side of that was panic. Thilo Kehrer was every bit as jittery as Presnel Kimpembe had been in the first leg. United didn’t go forward much but, when they did, there was panic. But perhaps that’s understandable: this is not a team much used to having to defend, not much used to things not going their way.
PSG probably will win the Champions League eventually. Money gives you that: toss enough brilliant players together and eventually something will happen. But right now, it’s what’s holding them back. Neymar may be the most obvious offender, but he is only part of a much wider culture of decadence.