PSG breaks its glass ceiling. Now comes the hardest part.
By Rory Smith
In that second half, the cavalry kept coming, wandering off the bench and onto the field one after the other. As Atalanta’s players blinked back the sweat, it must have felt as if Paris St.-Germain could draw from a bottomless well of talent.
First, the boy wonder, the next best player in the world, with his blistering speed and his glistening menace and his adhesive touch. That was bad enough. Then came the German winger who would walk into all but a handful of teams in the world, and the playmaker not long since regarded as Argentine soccer’s coming star.
True, there was a sliver of solace to be found in the desperation of it all. The clock was ticking on Thomas Tuchel, PSG’s coach: 30 minutes until yet another humiliation in the Champions League; 20 minutes left to save his job; 10 minutes before all that talk of a curse came rumbling back.
Tuchel has a reputation as cold and aloof, as a coach who thrives in the sideline battle of wits: a tweak here, a touch there, a smart shift that changes the dynamic of a game. He is a tactician, more than a rouser or a cajoler or a motivator. But there was no subtlety on Wednesday, no grand idea beyond throwing everything and everyone forward and seeing what happened.
Sometimes, though, material resources trump mental ones. With scarcely more than a minute left to play, Atalanta was nearly there, in the semifinals of the Champions League, the grandest stage on which it had ever played, in the darkest year its Italian hometown, Bergamo, has ever experienced. The great fairy tale — the sort of story that soccer’s vulture economics are now specifically designed to prevent — was on.
And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. Marquinhos bundled home an equalizer. Atalanta sagged. Neymar slid the ball into Kylian Mbappé’s path and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting stabbed a winner past goalkeeper Marco Sportiello. Atalanta collapsed.
Sportiello glared at the scoreboard, hanging from the roof of Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz, as if he was accusing it of lying. Some of his teammates crumpled on the grass. Others seemed to freeze, their eyes locked in thousand-yard stares. PSG, for the first time in a quarter of a century, had made it into a Champions League semifinal.
The alternative was unthinkable. This competition has brought PSG nothing but trouble in recent years. The club exists, effectively, solely to win it. Its backer, Qatar Sports Investments, does not regard strolling to yet another Ligue 1 title as a particularly effective way to win hearts and minds or express the global relevance of the Gulf state, or whatever the purpose of its lavish, multibillion-dollar investment might be. The glory, the status, is in the Champions League.
But so is the pain. PSG thought it had its breakthrough moment in 2017, when it demolished Barcelona at the Parc des Princes; a few weeks later, it was humiliated at Camp Nou, its defeat orchestrated by Neymar. No matter; lesson learned.
That summer, Neymar moved to Paris, his fee more than double the previous world transfer record, a figure unlikely to be beaten — in a post-pandemic world — for some time, if at all. Just to be sure, not long after, the club added Mbappé to its ranks.
Still, these things are not quite that simple. Real Madrid knocked PSG out with ease in 2018. A late rally from Manchester United did the same a year later. Until the very last moment, Atalanta seemed set to add to that list.
The fact that PSG might have been able to point to genuine, and significant, mitigating circumstances — an injury to Mbappé, as well as the absence of Marco Verratti and Angel Di María; the fact that France’s decision not to resume play after the coronavirus-induced hiatus meant it had played only two competitive games in five months — would not have mattered. This would have been another choke.
That it is not is down, in part, to the fourth outfield reserve Tuchel called upon in that last great roll of the dice, the player who turned out to be the scorer of the goal that finally broke what seemed to be the French champion’s glass ceiling, and a symbol of a lesson PSG might finally be starting to heed.
Choupo-Moting, it is fair to say, is not the sort of player who fits PSG’s typical transfer model. There was no line of fans snaking outside the Parc des Princes desperate to get their hands on his replica jersey when he signed, from a Stoke City team just relegated from the Premier League, in 2018.
Choupo-Moting, of course, is not as richly gifted as some of his teammates. He is not rewarded quite so handsomely. He was not, even, the inspiration behind PSG’s revival against Atalanta. That was very much Neymar, excellent in all but his finishing throughout, and Mbappé, a burst of pure purpose after his injury-delayed introduction.
But there is a reason that Neymar, elected as the game’s best player, handed his man-of-the-match trophy to Choupo-Moting afterward. PSG must surely have learned by now that glamour alone will not deliver the Champions League title.
The Galactico model, as honed by turn-of-the-century Real Madrid, has its limits. That team, after all, did not win the trophy it craved after Ronaldo and David Beckham joined Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane. Stardust alone is not enough. Workhorses and support acts and water-carriers are needed, too, players who are not there to add moments of wonder but to do the one thing they are good at, to be in the right place at the right time.
This is, of course, only the first step for PSG. Either RB Leipzig or Atlético Madrid awaits in the semifinal; the latter, certainly, would most likely be less daunted by the sight of Tuchel marshaling his reserve troops on the sideline. Pass through that and there is the small matter of the final: Bayern Munich or Barcelona or Manchester City or Lyon.
All of those teams — with the respectful exception of Lyon — can match PSG for star power. They can stand toe to toe with Tuchel’s side in terms of the depth of their squad, the wealth of their resources.
What will make the difference, more than anything, is how those resources are deployed; whose squad is built most intelligently; who has the breadth, not the depth, of players at their disposal. Players like Neymar win tournaments. More often than you think, though, it is players like Choupo-Moting who win games.