Saturday 15 December 2018

PSG may be loaded, but penny still not dropping

Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe Photo: REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe Photo: REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Jonathan Liew

Shortly before half-time, a swell of noise surged around the Parc des Princes. Kylian Mbappe had timed his run perfectly and was free, clear, on his own. The angle was narrowing, but with Edinson Cavani haring unmarked in the centre, surely this would be the moment that Paris Saint-Germain took the lead, reduced their deficit to 3-2, and seized the momentum in their Champions League last-16 tie against Real Madrid.

Of course, had Mbappe squared the ball to Cavani, it would have been a noteworthy event in itself.

On a night of familiar frustrations for the French league leaders, perhaps the most familiar was the way in which their front three seemed to be playing three entirely different games. Mbappe passed the ball to Cavani once all night. Cavani didn't pass to Mbappe or Angel di Maria at all. Di Maria didn't pass to Cavani, and passed it once to Mbappe. This is the curse of superstars, everyone wants to be the man.

And so of course Mbappe took on the shot. It was saved by Keylor Navas. Cavani looked furious, but perhaps deep down he knew he would have done the same thing. Real Madrid won 2-1, an aggregate score of 5-2, and so the al-Khelaifi dream of a Champions League remains, seven years after inception, deferred.

The most likely upshot, you would think, is more of everything: more signings, more upheaval, more shock and awe, more regeneration.

Buying Neymar didn't work, even if you can hardly blame them for the season-ending injury that put him out of the second leg of this tie. Maybe Cristiano Ronaldo this summer? Or perhaps a No 10 to orchestrate things. Who's decent out there?

And yet as another Champions League draws to a conclusion without PSG's involvement, you wonder whether this will be the year that the penny finally drops for France's richest club and its Qatari ownership. Coach Unai Emery will doubtless be replaced this summer, even if he does win another domestic treble.

But is there the appetite in Paris for a shift in approach, one that seeks to build rather than merely assemble?

What links virtually all of the competition's winners - from Zidane's Real Madrid to di Matteo's Chelsea to Mourinho's Porto - is a sense of shared purpose, a partial surrender of personal ambition in the service of a wider goal. That's not to say you need a Big Idea. But you do need some sort of skeletal structure upon which to hang your varied and diverse talents.

What, then, is PSG's shared purpose? It's hard to discern. Often it's "pass the ball to Neymar", which is why paradoxically, it's even harder to tell what they're doing when he's not playing. But even as they recycled the ball on Tuesday night, the distinct whiff of performative individualism was hard to shake off. Everyone, from Dani Alves to Adrien Rabiot to Marco Verratti, wanted to do something eye-catching: a little stepover, a body feint, a tight turn, almost as if trying to justify their time on the ball.

And this, perhaps, is the biggest problem with this team. There is not one purpose but 11. Like one of those hastily-assembled boybands you see on 'The X-Factor'; PSG has become a vessel for naked individual ambition, the place where you go to fulfil your destiny and nobody else's.

How can you build an elite footballing unit when your front three won't even pass it to each other?

And so, in a rather neat way, that Mbappe chance encapsulated the very modern dilemma that superclubs like PSG face at the sharp end of this competition: how do you build a long-term project when that very project is built on the idea of instant gratification? Perhaps this is the ultimate irony of the PSG tale: that the world's most impatient club is being forced to wait.

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