IT DOES seem as though every major football match has so many outcomes hanging on the result and there is no such thing as a completely dead rubber any more. Not that Paris Saint-Germain against Real Madrid is ever likely to be given that tag, but with all games scrutinised so forensically, there are several narratives to be extracted from every fixture.
This UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg tie was settled by one of the most talked-about players in world football, Kylian Mbappé, whose contract expires in June 2022. Naturally, the nerves are jangling in Paris as the club works to either secure him for a longer term or let their talisman go, possibly to Real Madrid.
Much could depend on the Champions League, for PSG are yearning to lift the one trophy that has eluded them. Mbappé’s future is one outcome that may be determined by how close the French champions go towards winning the Champions League, but equally, coach Mauricio Pochettino’s job may be under threat if PSG fail to get beyond Real. He has a year remaining on his contract, but if PSG fall again, he may not get the chance to see it out. And then there’s Lionel Messi, will he hang around if he doesn’t get another stab at the prize he last caressed in 2015? As for Real Madrid, a club that doesn’t get stage fright when the Champions League final phase comes around, they could use the competition to lure Mbappé to the Bernabéu.
The two teams’ combined starting elevens in the Parc des Princes had cost over € 1 billion and there was another € 600 million among the substitutes. If ever there was a single match that summed up the opulence of the modern football industry, PSG v Real was one such contest. Neymar, who has just turned 30, was in the dugout, bleached hair ensuring the cameras would not miss him, while Real’s misfits, Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard, who between them cost € 200 million, were warming the visitors’ bench. Neymar is no longer the future at PSG, the man is definitely Mbappé.
Both teams, inevitably, went into the match as leaders of their respective leagues: PSG were 13 points clear of second-placed Marseille and had lost just once; Real, beaten twice, were four ahead of Sevilla in a La Liga campaign that doesn’t have Barcelona and Atlético firing on all cylinders. While PSG do not need to spend much to maintain their superiority at home, they will and it is just a matter of time before they attract more of the world’s top players. Real still have the problem of an ageing squad, even though former captain Sergio Ramos, left last summer, moving to, of all clubs, PSG.
Just why Ramos, aside from financial reasons, moved to PSG is something of a mystery and he has played just half a dozen games since joining them, due to a series of injuries. He was denied the chance to play against his old club and sat in the stand, doubtless wishing he was in the midst of the action, applying his ultra-professional trickery to the occasion.
Most of the activity was in the Real Madrid half as PSG laid siege on their goal. Despite the pressure (PSG had almost 70% of possession for most of the first half), there were few genuine goalscoring opportunities. Mbappé managed to squirm clear of the ever-attentive Dani Carvajal, but the angle was difficult and his shot lacked power, allowing Thibaut Courtois to block the way.
The second half opened up and Mbappé finished a flowing move with a right-foot shot that was well handled by Courtois and then Messi, eager to get in on the act, struck a first time curling shot that the Belgian keeper had little difficulty stopping.
The same two players were involved in the talking point of the first hour or so of the game, with the little Argentinian spurning the chance to give PSG the lead from the penalty spot. Mbappé, who else?, unnerved the Real defence with a run into the area and Caravajal upended him. Messi shot to Courtois’ left, but he judged the spot kick perfectly.
PSG continued to scurry around anxiously, and although Neymar’s arrival, replacing Ángel Di Maria, added some wizardry, it looked as though Real were going to succeed in “doing a job” on their hosts. As the clock ran into added time, Neymar reminded the crowd why he was the natural heir to Brazilian greats of the past, cheekily backheeling to Mbappé who then forced his way between Lucas Vázquez and Éder Militão, slotting the ball through Courtois’ legs at just the right moment. No wonder the Real players pounded the turf, frustrated they had been denied a draw after soaking-up all that PSG could throw at them.
PSG deserved it, they had conjured up 20 shots to Real’s three, had almost 60% of the ball and, generally, tried to play enterprising football, while Europe’s most successful club was happy to opt for an old-fashioned away performance. It was lacking in goals, true, but it was an interesting 90 minutes and an even more compelling period of supplementary time. The second leg will be just as riveting.