Another year, another meek Champions League exit for Paris Saint-Germain.
It may not have been the “spectacular ball of flames” like last year’s unprecedented capitulation against Barcelona, but the end result was no less galling. In fact, that sharp shock may have been preferable to Tuesday night’s slow, inevitable slide into the familiar catatonia of Champions League elimination against a better side.
From start to finish, it was scarcely believable how readily PSG were prepared to give in and accept their fate. Granted, it should not be forgotten that they were facing defending champions twice over Real Madrid, but this was not a team prepared to even fight. The early promise that was shown in the first leg never returned at any point over the course of the 90 minutes, and the French side can have no complaints that they are out of Europe in early March yet again.
Heads will roll for this, of course. Manager Unai Emery can win all of the trophies he wants in France (and is likely to come out with a domestic treble this year) but that’s not why he was hired. Three consecutive Europa League titles with Sevilla showed that he possessed European pedigree, and Europe was the one area that PSG had left to conquer.
In many respects, Emery was lucky to survive his first season in charge. Despite plunging almost €140m into the first team in that campaign, not once did PSG top Ligue 1, and the manner of their European exit to Barcelona, throwing away a four-goal lead from the first leg, was unrelentingly humiliating for the club.
They won’t make the same mistake twice, and Emery is now surely just going through the motions between now and the end of the season.
Will he have a leg to stand on when the time comes for his dismissal? Probably not, truth be told. A major part of his remit was success in Europe and he has fallen some way short of delivering that. It’s his job to steer the PSG ship towards the Champions League trophy and he hasn’t come close to doing that.
What Tuesday also taught us is that this PSG ‘team‘ is that in name only. It is a collection of individuals banded together by financial circumstance and not enough effort has gone into meshing those individuals together.
Individually, the French side possess many fine players – it wasn’t as if they were facing Real Madrid with a bunch of kids. Thiago Silva, Dani Alves, Thiago Motta, Angel Di Maria and Edinson Cavani are all players with years of top-level experience. Even Kylian Mbappe, the second coming of the infant Christ if some of the hype is to be believed, reached the latter stages of this competition with Monaco last season.
The problem, of course, is that this isn’t FIFA or PES. These players might look fearsome on paper but when you see them in action it soon becomes apparent that while this might be enough to smash the likes of Dijon 8-0 on a regular basis, against opponents with the type of European pedigree that Real Madrid possess, then it just won’t cut it.
Levels, as the new saying goes.
And that’s before we come to the elephant in the room. His domestic season might be over, but the shadow of Neymar still envelopes this team, and not in a good way. Could it have been different if the Brazilian forward had featured against Real Madrid on Tuesday? Perhaps, but it’s hard to see where that impact could have come from. It’s hard to see how he would have inspired the toothless midfield to dig deep instead of – and this is the more likely scenario of the two – frustratedly throwing his hands up in the air and shouting at them.
The indulgence of Neymar is part of the problem at PSG, and is part of the reason why it is hard to take them seriously. They’re acting like a club that feels like they’re lucky to have him, rather than the other way around.
Mercenaries in the team are all well and good, but it has to benefit the team as well as the individual. The Real Madrid side of the early 2000s are a prime example of this. Despite boasting the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Raul, Luis Figo, Iker Casillas, Roberto Carlos and David Beckham at one time, Real were regularly crashing out of Europe at the first knockout round after 2003 because they simply didn’t know how to play as a team. The Galacticos were undoubtedly brilliant players individually, but lousy as a unit. The more they added, the worse it got.
Neymar is a Galacito, in every sense of that word. The €222m man moved to Paris to win a Ballon d’Or, of that he could have been more clear, and PSG were only too happy to make a statement of intent by wresting the player out of Barcelona’s hands. 28 goals in 30 games in his debut season in France is good – very good, in fact – but it’s not going to win a Ballon d’Or, especially when the club are barely making a ripple in the Champions League. How long before he demands to move on again because he feels that PSG are below his level?
What the Ligue One seemed to forget when they were buying him, is that when they were getting Neymar the player they also got Neymar the person. The person who trains when he wants, the person who picks fight with Edinson Cavani out of jealousy, the person who (reportedly) demands that his club sign Philippe Coutinho because Mbappe – still a teenager, remember – apparently isn’t worthy of the honour of being his teammate.
PSG need to build a team, not just keep buying fancy car parts and then wonder why it won’t start without an engine. Spending €400m on two players is all well and good for “causing ripples in the football world” but that’s nothing without the success to back it up.
Players like Neymar should be the layer of paint on the car itself but if mercenary vanity signings like his are to be the foundation of this side going forward, then they have no hope of ever winning the Champions League.