Groundhog Day? Call it what you like, but it was that same underwhelming feeling again as Paris Saint-Germain feebly crashed out of the Champions’ League on Tuesday night. At the time of writing, I am currently sitting on a Eurostar train leaving Paris Gare Du Nord and heading to London, tired, deflated and disappointed as I reflect on another premature exit from Europe.
In the aftermath, French sports newspaper L’Équipe ran the headline on Wednesday morning “Tout Ça Pour Ça” translated as “All that for that.” L’Équipe and PSG fans share a frosty relationship, but even the most ardent PSG fan would be waking up thinking the very same thing.
It has almost become as predictable as a mundane TV soap opera when the story line begins, and you can already work out the outcome of the plot well in advance. This one being, PSG cruise through the low-pressured environment of the group stage at a canter, score goals galore, be installed as one of the bookies favourites to lift the trophy in May but when the business end begins, they choke. Sound familiar?
As fans we ingest the optimism galvanised by PSG’s wonderfully creative social media team. The videos, the hashtags, the countdowns to kick off. We watch them, we digest them, we feel energised, it gives us belief, it makes us dream.
We buy into it but truthfully it just masks over the reality that despite the millions invested in the team, Unai Emery’s PSG are further away from winning the Champions’ League than they ever were under the guidance of both Laurent Blanc and Carlo Ancelotti.
I was lucky enough (or maybe unlucky) to attend both legs against Real Madrid and if truth be told, the only time there was any sense of optimism over the two legs was the 12 minutes between Adrien Rabiot’s opener in the Bernabéu and Cristiano Ronaldo’s equaliser from the penalty spot.
Why? Because it has become all too predictable. We have been programmed to feel this way. I was at the Etihad Stadium in April 2016 and the Camp Nou last March for both capitulations. It is an indescribable feeling that you feel in the pit of your stomach that begins on the morning of the match day and no matter how hard you try to ignore it or cover it up, it sits there and you brace yourself for what’s about to happen.
The day after the first leg in Madrid I read Adrien Rabiot’s heartfelt Instagram post and for a few days I believed PSG would turn the tables in Paris. After all, nobody comes to the Parc and wins, right? Rabiot, inspired me, I ate it up, I was re-energised. He used all the right words to entice me into believing it was possible. Unfortunately, alongside Dani Alves and Marco Verratti, Rabiot was one of PSG’s poorest performers on Tuesday night.
The social media campaign started immediately after the first leg and lasted 3 weeks in total. It could be likened to a Rocky IV training montage where Balboa’s exploits to slay the giant Ivan Drago were coated in a timeless and motivating 80’s theme that made you believe that you too could be a boxer one day.
But that was fiction, and this is reality and sadly, we were subjected to a pre-match DJ Snake video and a first round knockout blow.
We were told to bring our scarves and to wear our shirts. We were told to arrive two hours before kick-off, we were told that the players needed the Parc to be as loud as it’s ever been, to get behind the team like never before. #EnsembleOnVaLeFaire
We did that, and then some. We kept our end of the bargain, as we always do, we did as they asked. But the players and management didn’t do theirs, again. The performance was weak, timid, incompetent, woeful and in truth, the tie was over by half time with the game at 0-0 and deep down we all knew it.
The lack of cohesion shown throughout the team was alarming and if truth be told, has worsened as the season has progressed. The lack of chemistry between PSG’s front three is particularly concerning with just a handful of passes exchanged between PSG’s attacking trio on Tuesday night.
In the stands, we were united, we screamed “Ensemble nous sommes invincibles, unis par le même passion,” we brought the banners, the flares, we bounced together, we hugged each other, we raised the tifo’s. We sang until we couldn’t sing anymore including through the half time interval. We stayed until the very end, we applauded the tepid display, we gave everything, but the players gave us little in return despite the empty social media promises. On Tuesday night they didn’t deserve us.
Every day for three weeks they told us that together, we can do it, but where was the passion? Where was our PSG that destroyed Celtic and Bayern Munich in September in two of the most deadliest, collective displays witnessed by the capital club in some time?
It poses the question of whether PSG would have fared better against Real Madrid over two legs if the games were played early in the season and before the team began to alter their modus operandi and started coasting through the domestic mid-season?
So now PSG are out of the Champions’ League once again, what next for PSG, QSI and the incredibly ambitious but stagnant project?
There is little doubt that when the club’s hierarchy were putting their plans together to finance the deals for Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, exiting the Champions’ League at the last 16 stage was not in the script. There may of course be some unforeseen budgetary repercussions with regards to Financial Fair Play regulations for the club but more importantly, in what direction is the project heading?
PSG are still stuck at a seemingly immovable roadblock on the road to European glory and regression has occurred over the past couple of seasons. Admittedly, it should be noted that Les Parisiens have been handed some incredibly difficult ties in the knockout stages (Barcelona, Chelsea, Real Madrid) in recent years and if Emery’s men had drawn Shakhtar, Porto or Basel, for example, things may have been very different. But if you have ambitions to win the competition outright then you will have to overcome such obstacles at some stage.
For a club with the talent, power and financial wealth of PSG, exiting the competition at this stage is falling way below expectations.
The problem facing the club is that there are very few moments each season when on their true quality can be measured. Domestic success is anticipated due to the disparity in finances and quality between PSG and the rest of Ligue 1 therefore the Champions’ League is the only way the club can now show progression. After all, and money aside, any star player signing for PSG will be seduced by the prospect of Champions’ League glory rather than domestic trophies.
But PSG are immensely impatient because they have regularly swept aside all challengers in France and with impatience comes pressure; there is no gradual linear process. The club are currently chasing their third domestic quadruple in 4 seasons and unlike Manchester City in the Premier League who are patiently building a team to conquer English football first, then Europe. Similarly, Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 but it wasn’t until 2012 when Chelsea finally tasted Champions League glory.
Back in 2013, PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi insisted that his club would be European Champions within the next five years. Buoyancy is fine, but this invited unnecessary, added pressure on the club and dismissed the sheer complexity that winning the competition entails.
Changes at the club will naturally occur in the coming months as the post-mortem to Tuesday’s defeat ensues, with Unai Emery almost certainly set to be dismissed at the end of the campaign, if not before. With the club blighted by both individuals with too much power and others trying to make their mark for self-gain, the club now must take a stand and recruit a manager that can manage the plethora of ego’s and mould them into a collective force. It will not be easy, but it needs to be the first point of summer surgery executed on the club.
Recruitment of the right manager is paramount as the project aims to overcome a period of stagnation. With two seemingly passive managers having held the hot seat in succession, maybe it is time for an authoritarian figure to take the reins and apply his methods.
Several players have also passed their sell by date at the club, particularly in terms of performing in Europe such as Dani Alves and Thiago Motta. Others such as Layvin Kurzawa Julian Draxler and Javier Pastore could also be moved on depending on who the next manager is.
Do PSG throw another bucket-load of cash at it and hope it moulds together? Maybe it will, eventually? But if recent evidence is anything to go by, then it will have little impact in Europe if the individual motivation of each player is not in tandem.
There is no doubting that the quality, finances and infrastructure are in place for the club to be a European giant, but Les Parisiens must now make the correct off-field decisions in order for this dream to have any chance of coming to fruition, otherwise we will be back here in a year’s time writing and reading the same thing.