How Paris Saint-Germain threw away certain victory over Barcelona
Three weeks ago, Paris Saint-Germain were basking in the glory of having defeated Barcelona 4-0 at Parc des Princes. Their passage through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League was, it seemed, utterly secure. No team in history had overcome such a deficit previously.
This was not just a tale of how good the Catalans were, though undoubtedly that was a factor; it was an example of the perils of a bad attitude and a lack of mental fortitude.
While Neymar was busy pledging on Instagram: “As long as there’s a one percent chance, we’ll have 99 percent faith”, PSG were content to consider their next victims.
Luis Suarez’s third-minute goal, when he nipped in to head beyond Kevin Trapp, rapidly changed the complexion of the whole tie and sent the French champions into a tailspin they never truly recovered from.
From there, every football fans knows the story: Barca raced into a three-goal advantage but seemed to have hit the buffers when Edinson Cavani struck midway through the second half.
In the 88th minute, with Barcelona needing an impossible three goals to recover, Neymar beat leaden-footed goalkeeper Trapp with a free-kick from a tight angle, and suddenly the visitors were gripped with panic once more.
In the closing eight minutes of the game, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. They found they were up against a referee with an eye for the spotlight as he gave Suarez the softest of penalties, but even accounting for that, the Frenchmen should have seen the game out.
Instead, they completed just four passes in eight minutes after Neymar’s first and succumbed when Sergi Roberto prodded home a pass from the inspired Brazilian, who could easily have been wearing the colours of the visitors had things transpired differently last summer.
Even with Barcelona’s history of being arguably the world’s greatest side over the last decade, PSG had not braced themselves for the onslaught that was forthcoming. On a mental level, the Ligue 1 outfit crumbled.
Their young side were poorly led by Thiago Silva, who incredibly failed to complete a single tackle over the course of the game, and without proper leadership, spent much of the match rudderless and under pressure.
“I think they lacked humility,” Jeremy Mathieu, the injured Barca defender, told RMC. “In football, things change quickly, and it came back to haunt them. You have to wait for the end of both 90-minute matches.
“When you have gone through to the next round, you can put out a few little things, but for me, it was a lack of respect. I can tell you the dressing room was very angry about that.
“Even the wives of the players, such as Marquinhos', who put a photo of her showing four fingers with her dog. Those are the little things that really annoyed the dressing room and that's why we really, really wanted to pull off the comeback.”
Indeed, PSG were totally unprepared for the surge that came their way, and there is little doubt that the attitude of some players prior to the game was disrespectful of Barca’s qualities. Such was the amateurish nature of their approach, two players were even reportedly caught leaving a nightclub after midnight on the eve of leaving for Spain.
It was a contemptuous attitude and one that deserved the defeat that followed. The lesson, though, was a painful one and will live with every member of the squad, whether they were on the field or not.
Now PSG must look to the future – both short and long-term.
Unai Emery’s job, which seemed suddenly so secure after the first-leg victory, once again appears to be built on sand. He was brought to the club to bring European success, but flopped in the most dramatic manner possible. Failure to win Ligue 1 will surely see the end of him.
But the long-term implications are arguably greater for the French club. The mental scarring that such a defeat brings can last years – perhaps even decades. PSG will forever be branded the team that is cursed to blow it in Europe – until, of course, they win the Champions League.
“This defeat will not only leave a mark on PSG this season, it is a trauma that will not heal so easy and will haunt future PSG's generations,” former PSG boss and current Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic said to Goal. “They need to unite quickly, players, coaches and board - everyone must invest a big effort to keep focused on Ligue 1 title race.”
That task begins on Sunday, when they travel to a hapless Lorient side adrift at the foot of Ligue 1. If PSG stumble at Stade du Moustoir, they will be in huge trouble.