Opportunities like the one Paris Saint-Germain squandered on Wednesday don’t come often.
Boasting a two-goal advantage, the comforts of home cooking, and a bewildered opponent missing 10 first-team players, PSG capitulated. Two horrendous first-half errors from Thilo Kehrer and Gianluigi Buffon, and a contentious penalty decision in added time, saw Manchester United progress to the quarterfinal stage against all odds.
For a PSG side that has become accustomed to knockout round exits against continental heavyweights rife with stars, the loss to a United team that was gifting European debuts to juveniles like it was Halloween candy marks a new low.
At least with the capital city side’s previous Champions League exits, the pedigrees of its footballing adversaries have dwarfed those of the Ligue 1 side.
Between 2012-13 and 2015-16, PSG was bounced in the last eight, losing out to Barcelona (twice), Chelsea, and Manchester City, respectively. Hardly European minnows, that.
Against Barcelona in 2012-13, the two away goals in the first leg at the Parc des Princes were the difference in a 3-3 aggregate stalemate. Barcelona ran away with La Liga that season, registering 100 points courtesy of the exploits of a star-studded midfield three of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, and Xavi. Lionel Messi chipped in with 60 goals in all competitions, while PSG’s leading scorer on the continent was Ezequiel Lavezzi.
In the following three seasons, a similar story played out versus Chelsea, Manchester City, and the Catalan giants. Not only were those three sides better equipped for success on the continent, but the tournament’s knockout stages were consistently littered with clubs that would have posed a threat to PSG had they advanced.
And then came the last-16 tie in 2016-17 against Barca.
A 4-0 first-leg victory in the French capital set the table for what was supposed to be a straightforward task, and it was anything but. In a historic second leg, Neymar, then with the Blaugrana, scored a pair of late goals for Luis Enrique’s charges in the 88th and 90th minutes to tie 5-5 on aggregate, allowing Sergi Roberto’s 95th-minute goal to snatch the result for Barcelona. At the time, it was rock bottom for PSG.
A year later, with Unai Emery still in charge, the Parisian club was again dismissed in the round of 16, this time by an unsurpassable Real Madrid side poised for a third Champions League title on the spin. A brace from Cristiano Ronaldo in the first leg in Spain and a 3-1 Los Blancos victory all but ended the tie. Ronaldo would again score in the return leg in a 2-1 victory, and again, PSG had limped out of Europe’s top-tier tournament.
Discouraging? Sure, but with Neymar injured, and Emery’s tenure nearing a certain end ahead of a summer that promised recruitment and hope, it wasn’t the end of the world.
Wednesday was different.
Injuries to Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic, and Ander Herrera, and a one-match ban for Paul Pogba left United gaffer Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with limited options. With hands bound, the Norwegian caretaker selected a three-man central midfield of fringe players Fred, Scott McTominay, and Andreas Pereira that more closely resembled a weekend Ligue 1 foe, not a Champions League team. Ashley Young was far too high up the pitch, Eric Bailly deputized for his Red Devils mate in a wide right position, and it was calamitous, prompting the Ivorian defender’s removal at the 36-minute mark.
Lukaku’s second-minute opener – thanks to Kehrer’s wayward pass to Thiago Silva – was canceled out 10 minutes later by Juan Bernat, but PSG failed to take further advantage of United.
Solskjaer’s tattered squad was on its heels and his set-up invited wide attacks that Bernat profited from, the same chances that Dani Alves wasted with backheel flicks and acrobatic attempts in the penalty area. Neymar may have been looking on from the cushy confines of a luxury box, but his sporting ideology covered the pitch like the gargantuan Champions League logo that has become a mainstay of pre-match proceedings.
PSG should have scored more, Kylian Mbappe should have gotten better service, and had Marco Verratti and Marquinhos been half as good as they were in the first leg, this tie would have been sorted by the interval.
But it wasn’t, and by the time the other third of Thomas Tuchel’s bonafide three-headed attack, Edinson Cavani, returned from injury to replace Alves in the 94th minute, Marcus Rashford had already scored from the spot following a contentious handball call against an unaware Presnel Kimpembe.
PSG became the first team in the history of the Champions League to be eliminated despite a 2-0 away win in the first leg, and considering the fates of other continental heavyweights during this season’s tournament, this should have been their year.
Real Madrid are out, and Tottenham, Porto, and Ajax would all be underdogs in the quarterfinals against a PSG side that would welcome Neymar and a healthy Cavani back. Barcelona has been uncharacteristically flat during stages of the season, both domestically and in Europe, and Lyon, should they pull off a coup next week at the Camp Nou, are mercurial.
That leaves Manchester City, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich, a trio of top-tier teams that, while imposing, would’ve been the level of opponents that PSG would’ve had a legitimate chance at beating to finally reach the pinnacle of European football.
Instead, for the third year on the spin, PSG will watch the quarterfinal draw knowing their name isn’t among those in contention, and for a mammoth side with bottomless pockets and a singular focus on European silverware, it’s a failure. With the ever-threatening potential penalties of Financial Fair Play violations looming large, next year could present a challenge that will test PSG’s continental ambitions.
It was supposed to be different this year.