PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN’s last-ditch victory over Atalanta, as exciting as it was, provided further proof there is nothing more compelling than sudden death knockout football. It gives us shocks, minor surprises, a sense of urgency and high tension. PSG may have won, but they were literally just a couple of minutes away from a transformational result that threatened to temporarily derail the Paris project.
For the past 25 years, UEFA have been evolving the Champions League into an elite competition that favours the rich and famous. Football’s key tenet is leagues rarely lie and the uncertainty of the knockout format is more likely to serve-up romantic fairy-tales of the unlikely. The current structure of the competition is tailor-made for clubs like PSG, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester City. The Champions League delivers the most skilful, intense and exciting football on the planet, but it is largely the two-legged stages that offer the greatest drama. Taking it one step forward, one-off games on neutral territory not only give the format the air of a special occasion like a World Cup, but also introduces the possibility of the one-off giant-killing.
Atalanta were the underdogs and doubtless, the viewing public will have wanted them to beat the evil sons of mammon, PSG. Commentators were quick to remind us that Atalanta’s entire wage bill was the equivalent of Neymar’s pay at PSG. This goes to prove that Neymar is grossly overpaid but also that the difference between modestly paid and very highly paid footballers, in terms of ability and application, is not as high as the fee differentials suggest.
The evening was largely focused on Neymar – his underperformance, his time in Paris, his mission to make PSG European champions and speculation on where his future might be. This was why the game in Lisbon was so important for him, his club and coach Thomas Tuchel.
Neymar showed some excellent touches, but his finishing was quite dire for a player of his profile. PSG’s inactivity since lockdown may have had something to do with their lack-lustre first half, although they sprung to life a little after Atalanta opened the scoring in the 28th minute through Mario Pašalić.
Atalanta were all about a system, while PSG, for long periods, looked like a team that didn’t fancy a scrap. Neymar’s frustration was evident, at his own poor finishing, at the over-attentive Atalanta defenders and at his team-mates. Atalanta were not just seen as underdogs by many people, they were also minnows, yet for two seasons, they have finished third in Serie A. Their 98 goals in the league was an indication of their effectiveness. This was not Liverpool versus Stevenage, even though the media would have you believe it was a David and Goliath tale.
The constant put-down of Ligue 1 questioned if PSG’s dominance prepared them well enough for Champions League combat. However, comments from pundits that “French football is not as strong as it was,” were ridiculous. France is one of Europe’s top five leagues (it arguably wasn’t 30 years ago) and the country has produced a lot of talent for the rest of Europe. Nine of France’s 2018 World Cup-winning 23-man squad were playing in Ligue 1 at the time of the nation’s triumph. France provided two teams for the last eight (versus one apiece from England and Italy and two each from Germany and Spain).
There was a sense of inevitability about the final outcome. Neymar, as he left the dressing room after the interval, was “geed-up” by a tall, besuited figure in a face mask, possibly someone strategically visiting from the ownership camp, This highlighted how everything depends on ensuring the club’s talisman is kept happy and in the mood to perform.
PSG had brought on Kylian Mbappé for the last half hour and he made a difference. Neymar and his younger team-mate were involved in the frenetic dying embers of the game and PSG produced two heartbreaking goals, first a scruffy equaliser by Marquinhos and then a tap-in by Cameroon international Jean-Eric Maxim Choup-Moting.
It was harsh on Atalanta, who made PSG work for their win. Fortunately, the team from Bergamo have already qualified for the 2020-21 Champions League. They may have ended without a trophy, but Atalanta are surely one of 2019-20’s teams of the season.
PSG, if they go all the way, could pick up their fourth piece of silverware, having already won all three of France’s domestic honours. If Atalanta had held out and PSG had fallen, it is perfectly feasible Tuchel and Neymar would be on their way. Any question marks about their futures have been put on hold. For the time being.