FOR RB LEIPZIG it was probably a semi-final too soon, for Paris Saint-Germain, the accumulated experience of a series of setbacks and slip-ups finally came good. Now only Lyon or Bayern Munich stand in their way of achieving what Qatar Sports Investments have strived for all along, the biggest prize in European football.
There were few doubts it would end any other way, especially after PSG took the lead in the 13th minute. Before Marquinhos headed them in front, Neymar had hinted he was in the mood when he struck a post. Alas, Neymar’s shooting boots were still parked somewhere between Paris and Lisbon.
Pre-match, the inevitable predictions were that Neymar and his foil, Kylian Mbappé, would run RB Leipzig ragged. Neither got on the scoresheet, but they reminded us of the immense power of their front-line coupling, like two thoroughbreds harnessed at the front of a golden coach. Angel Di Maria was the star man, though, creating the first goal and scoring the second and making the third. Did Manchester United give up too easily on the Argentinian? On the evidence of the form he showed in this game, they might have persevered with him.
PSG, realising that their time had come to reach the final, never let up and Leipzig either looked in awe of the occasion or simply lacked the confidence to compete. Of course, if they had been able to field Timo Werner in their line-up, things might have been different.
While UEFA will surely be hoping that it will be Bayern Munich and not Lyon that make it through to meet PSG, the prospect of an all-French final will probably horrify them. It would, for sure, leave some egg on the face of pundits who have described Ligue 1 as a “farmers league” and the ludicrous comment made by one former pro who said “French football is not as strong as it was”.
PSG aside, France are the world champions, Ligue 1 crowds average more than 22,000 with PSG, Marseille and Lyon all drawing 45,000-plus and there are a lot of very fine stadiums across the country. Moreover, France is also one of the foremost developers of football talent.
PSG were too canny for Leipzig, but given they have spent around a billion euros getting to that stage, they should have been. Leipzig, despite their commitment to young player development and progressive football, are seen as devils on bull backs by German fans and a cynical example of corporate football by many, but their financial clout is nowhere near Bayern Munich’s, let alone PSG’s. Their time has yet to come, at home and abroad.
A PSG win in the final would probably end the speculation about Neymar’s immediate future, which has already been clouded by the ongoing problems in Barcelona. In Europe, there’s only a handful of clubs who could afford the cotton-wooled Brazilian and the CV-19 pandemic has probably made that group even smaller. A Neymar renaissance would position him to win the Ballon d’Or in the next couple of years, one of his personal objectives when he came out of the shadow of Messi and moved to Paris.
Being Brazilian and super-talented comes with the burden of enormous expectation. A succession of “new Pelés” have failed to assume the mantle of greatness, either during or after their careers. To be fully crowned as the king of the game, you need either Champions League or World Cup success. Neymar has won the Champions League before, in 2015, but as the talisman of the Paris project, he has so far failed to deliver. This is not only his chance to end the 2019-20 season with the prize he has coveted, but it could also relaunch and refocus his career, perhaps allowing us to see him merely as a marvellous footballer rather than an indulgence or Beckham-like brand. With Ronaldo and Messi tail-ending their careers, Neymar may just have time to make the next few years his own, but he will be 29 in February.
Should PSG be crowned European champions, the sceptics will point to the enormous financial outlay that has given them obscene advantages over their domestic rivals for the best part of a decade, and now the prospect of continental supremacy. But for all their technique and skill, they will find that money can buy you most things, but as the Beatles once sang, “money can’t buy me love”.
Photo: PA Images