Obsessed with Champions League glory, PSG kicked off another bid

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PSG kick off their Champions League campaign against titans Juventus on Tuesday after a dazzling start to the Ligue 1 season, with the Lionel Messi, Neymar, Kylian Mbappé attacking trio finally realizing their full potential. So will the Parisians finally shake off their reputations as also-rans in club football’s top tournament?

PSG are the perennial favorites for the Ligue 1 title – but the least their fans expect is for them to win the French league, the weakest of Europe’s major top flights. The Champions League is the theater of PSG’s most passionate hopes for glory, and over recent years the tournament’s knockout rounds have provided stages for the tragic denouement of those hopes.

The Parisians only managed to reach the final once since sugar daddies Qatari Sports Investments took over in 2011, pumping in cash and pumping up hopes – a 1-0 defeat to Bayern Munich in 2020, in one of the most lackluster Champions League finals in living memory.

Knockout disappointments

The remarkable defeat to Barcelona in the 2017-18 second round still haunts PSG. In the first leg at the Parc des Princes, PSG showcased all the prowess that money can buy, with a 4-0 victory. It looked like PSG had joined the ranks of the giants.

But in the second leg – or La Remontada (“The Comeback”), as Barcelona fans christened it – the French side collapsed in the face of a Catalan masterclass in attacking football. It was a 6-1 beating that seemed to expose the Parisians as amateurish parvenus with no place at football’s top table.

The phenomenon repeated itself the following season when PSG beat Manchester United 2-0 at Old Trafford in the 2018-19 quarter-finals. Instead of consolidating their lead, they collapsed in the second: Man U – even as a sad shadow of the team from the Sir Alex Ferguson glory days – thumped them 3-1.

Then 2021-22 saw PSG’s knockout round collapse happen yet again – history repeating itself not as farce, but as an increasingly banal tragedy. Or, in the words of The Guardian football writer Barney Ronay, an “oddly life-affirming humiliation” demonstrating that football cannot be bought. For all the money fire-hosed at PSG – for all the talk that this season it would finally bear fruit – they crumbled in the face of a historic club with decades-long pedigree, as Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema scored a second leg hat trick to tear down PSG’s lead and send them crashing out of the tournament.

But this time there are some crucial differences favoring PSG. Messi had a disappointing first season at the Parc des Princes after he was effectively forced to jump ship from his beloved Barcelona. But now the Argentinian genius is back to his usual form – cutting through defenses with ingenious passes from impossible angles, finishing with shots no goalkeeper could possibly stop.

Meanwhile PSG managed to keep Kylian Mbappé from going to Real Madrid – and the French wunderkind remains a lethal threat to opposition defenders, despite questions about his motivation and concerns about his working relationship with Neymar.

Lopsided squad?

Yet so far in Ligue 1, those worries have proven unmerited for Neymar as well as Mbappé, with the Brazilian superstar notching up nine goals just a month into the season. Overall, an unvanquished PSG have scored 24 goals in six games so far this season.

It helps that PSG’s new manager Christophe Galtier – best-known for guiding Lille to their surprise Ligue 1 title in 2021 – looks much more confident in handling big personalities than previous boss Mauricio Pochettino, as demonstrating by his willingness to substitute the three superstars when needed do.

PSG have also cleared out some aging talent, with the likes of Angel di Maria, Idrissa Gueye and Ander Herrera departing. Young Portuguese star Vitinha has already proven PSG’s outstanding signing from the summer transfer window – gelling impeccably in central midfield with PSG’s hard-as-nails linchpin Marco Verratti.

However, despite that world-class attacking trio, PSG’s defense looks creaking. Sergio Ramos and Marquinhos are top defenders – but they are aging, and for many observers they now lack the pace to match the best attackers from the titans of the Champions League.

The problem is that PSG can no longer rely on Qatari money to just buy new players, since UEFA has repeatedly fined them for contravening Financial Fair Play rules. Hence the club failed to bring in a much-needed new centre-half – with their targeting of Inter Milan’s Milan Skriniar falling through. That leaves a risky lacuna in the Parisians’ lineup – with very little in the way of cover if one of their aging defenders gets injured.

Galtier is confident that he will navigate this weakness, telling French sports newspaper L’Équipe “you have to adapt”. Nevertheless, the PSG manager is under no illusions that he will be judged by their performances against top teams in the Champions League.

“We have had a good start to the season, we’re scoring goals and playing well. But the Champions League is another level,” he told L’Équipe.

And beyond that, it’s all about PSG taking on the big beasts of the Champions League and winning. No one expects anything less than easy victories for the team of Messi, Mbappé and Neymar against Group H’s Benfica and Maccabi Haifa.

But Juventus is another matter. A tear hangs on tonight’s match for PSG.

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