IF ANYONE was capable of turning around a 4-0 deficit it was surely going to be a team that contained Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. We all wrote-off Barcelona after their first leg crushing in Paris, even Barca did, judging by the strangely-timed announcement that Luis Enrique would be stepping down at the end of 2016-17. But although the 6-5 aggregate victory was astonishing, it also owed much to Paris St. Germain’s inability to cope with life at the very top.
A little hard on PSG? Not really, because if they fancy being European champions, and indeed they do, then they have to live with the pressure of facing a rampant team like Barcelona, whose European pedigree goes back to the very start of UEFA.
PSG’s failure is almost comparable to Chelsea’s angst at not being able to break into the winners’ enclosure, a saga that started in 2004 and took eight years to come to fruition. PSG are in a similar boat, and so too are Manchester City. In other words, the Johnny-Come-Latelies have many advantages when it comes to hard cash and acquisition power, but developing European class comes with experience, with failure and with mental toughness.
PSG’s owners must wonder when they will make the breakthrough
PSG’s fifth successive quarter-final exit represents the worst possible collapse and asks questions about their preparations and game plan – they had a four-goal lead, how much more do you need to ensure progress? Chelsea, between 2003-04 and 2008-09, went out in the semi-finals no less than four times. Manchester City have made in-roads into building a European reputation, but they have still to find the key to the door. For clubs like PSG, Chelsea and City, the burning desire for credibility means that every failure is amplified and as a result, questions will be asked about the validity of their challenge every time they fall short. Clubs like Barca, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich know they will be realistic contenders in the following season, but any billionaire’s club becomes more and more anxious by the year. Right now, PSG are probably conducting a post-mortem and it would not be a surprise if it costs jobs, such is the level of expectation and intensity at the club.
Once again, though, Barcelona’s success highlights the stranglehold Spain has on the major European competitions. The Spanish have dominated in the past three seasons, six out of six, with four clubs, Barca, Real, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla reaching the finals. And in the UEFA Champions League, the last eight has seen three Spanish clubs involved in each of the last four years. Aside from Germany, PSG represent the only real alternative to a Spain-Germany axis – Italy and England have fallen away in recent years, although Juventus may yet prove to be the “fourth man” in the new order in Europe.
What is Spain’s secret? It naturally helps to have two of the half dozen or so “super clubs” in the world in their ranks. This does help set a very high benchmark for the rest of the league and has doubtless been the catalyst for the success of both Atletico Madrid and Sevilla. If both of these clubs come through the last 16 in this season’s Champions League, then Spain will account for 50% of the last eight.
There’s little doubt that technique and coaching has a lot to do with it, Spain’s international success and Real and Barca’s pre-eminence is closely aligned. Simply, they get the best players and they have a strong core talent pool, although it should be noted that Real Madrid’s 2016 Champions League winning team included just two Spanish players and Barcelona’s had four in 2015. Nevertheless, Spanish clubs have enormous experience in European competition and they know what success looks like. Put all of these ingredients together and you have the answer – Spain’s top clubs are strong on most levels.
Clubs like Atletico Madrid and Sevilla are regularly tested by having the big two in their backyard. PSG do not have the same type of regular competition on the domestic front, although in 2016-17, they have been stretched more than at any time since the oil money was injected into the club. How well prepared are PSG for an evening under attack by some of the world’s best players in front of a heaving Catalan crowd? PSG’s dominance in France peaked in 2015-16 when they won Ligue 1 by a massive 21-point margin. They scored 102 goals, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic netting 38. With Zlatan gone they have lost the talisman that symbolised the ambition and pulling power of the new PSG. Edinson Cavani, who had scored 53 Ligue 1 goals for PSG before 2016-17, has stepped out of the master’s shadow, but PSG didn’t replace Ibrahimovic when perhaps they should have. The arrival of Julian Draxler may prove to be the most important signing for 2017-18 and beyond.
With their vast resources and talent already on their books, it would be a fool that bets against PSG eventually being crowned champions of Europe. Their first leg victory over Barcelona cannot be erased – they can exhilarate and compete with the best. At the moment, they don’t have the nerve for the big occasion, perhaps. For the time being, Spain remains at the top of the tree and PSG are pretenders to the throne. Let’s not forget, they have a Spanish manager, and he knows how to win European trophies, albeit the UCL’s ugly younger sister. It’s probably safe to assume that he cannot wait to get back into UEFA Champions League action to redeem himself. They will have to qualify for it first and he may have to avoid some of the slings and arrows that may come his way if the capitulation in the Nou Camp is seen as a dealbreaker.
French clubs and Europe
|Stade Reims||1955-56||Final||Real Madrid|
|Stade Reims||1958-59||Final||Real Madrid|
|Saint Etienne||1974-75||Semi-Final||Bayern Munich|
|Saint Etienne||1975-76||Final||Bayern Munich|
|Marseille||1990-91||Final||Red Star Belgrade|
|Marseille||1992-93||Winners||Beat Milan 1-0|
|Paris St. Germain||1994-95||Semi-Final||Milan|