EUROPEAN football has become too predictable in recent years, with the major leagues being dominated by a handful of super-rich clubs. In Spain, Germany, France, Italy and to a lesser extent, England, the title winners can more or less be easily anticipated.
On the bigger stage, the past five years have seen a similar group of clubs dominate the UEFA Champions League, namely: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. While the quality of the latter phase of the competition cannot be doubted for quality, the unexpected rarely happens.
It is no coincidence that, with the exception of Atletico Madrid, whose on-pitch performance has also been accompanied by impressive financial transformation, the clubs dominating European football are in the top 10 when it comes to market valuation (KMPG European Elite report 2016): Real Madrid (#1), Barcelona (#3), Bayern Munich (4th).
Paris St. Germain are one of the pretenders to the throne of established giants like Real and Barca. It has been building for some years but after watching the French club dismantle a Barca team that included the holy trinity of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, you have to wonder if PSG’s time has finally come.
Beating such opponents by 4-0 was a stunning achievement by any standards. PSG not only had more energy and guile, but they could also second-guess a lumbering Barca side that barely had a shot on goal. And they did this without Thiago Silva in defence, one of the symbols of PSG’s rebirth along with the now departed Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
PSG have exited the UEFA Champions League at the quarter-final stage in the last four seasons, losing to Manchester City, Chelsea and Barcelona (twice). They have failed to win their group in the past three seasons, but they have come up against Real Madrid, Barca and Arsenal. The fact they have fallen short of the required standard in this period – the defeat against City was especially galling – suggested a lack of experience as much as anything they may or may not have had on the pitch. Four seasons of relatively easy Ligue 1 title wins may not necessarily prepare them for the rigours of facing the finest teams in Europe, but PSG may have reached a tipping point in their evolution in 2016-17.
For a start, they have adjusted to life without the talismanic Ibrahimovic, largely due to a revived Edinson Cavani. Secondly, they are being pushed in France this season, which may sharpen their appetite and increase their focus. And thirdly, they may have signed the final piece in their jigsaw in Julian Draxler, who joined PSG in December 2016 from Wolfsburg. The 23 year-old has two good feet, pace, trickery and plays with an intensity that unsettles defenders. He cost PSG a mere £34m but after his display against Barcelona, his value appears to have rocketed beyond EUR 60m (£50m).
Draxler is not the only young player deserving of praise. Adrien Rabiot and Presnel Kimpembe, both 21, had excellent games against Messi and co. and really represent the future of PSG. It is a future that aims to be run on a more sustainable basis. PSG were ranked number six in Deloitte’s Football Money League for 2015-16 in terms of revenues (EUR 521m). Revenues at the club have grown quite dramatically in recent years, from EUR 221m in 2012 to the current level. Champions League football has a lot to do with that, but PSG have also succeeded in transforming themselves into the club of the French capital, using the slogan, “ici c’est Paris” to good effect. PSG is also becoming a very marketable name – Brand Finance placed the club among the top 10 of the world’s most valuable football brands in 2015.
The question is can PSG become a genuine European force? Unless something dreadful happens, Barcelona are all but eliminated – PSG might like to be reminded of the motto of their own city, Fluctuat nec mergitur (tossed but not sunk) – but the last eight of the Champions League will provide daunting opposition. That could include Real Madrid, Juventus, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Dortmund, Manchester City and Bayern Munich. If they want to be considered serious contenders, getting past Barcelona has to be seen as just the start of the journey. On the evidence of that impressive first leg, we may be seeing the birth of something very special.