For Paris Saint-Germain, every new season brings a “this is it” feeling with regards to their Champions League hopes.
It’s been the club’s obsession ever since the Qatari state poured in their petrodollars back in 2011, and after a few years of building up a head of steam domestically, European success has been the chief aim.
Each pre-season sees the arrivals of new superstars, most years bring a new coach who has the ownership group’s vain ambitions thrust upon their shoulders. The faces change, the goal doesn’t – and neither, until now, has the ultimate destination.
Here we are in March 2023 and PSG still haven’t won Europe’s top prize. They find themselves 1-0 down after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Bayern Munich, meaning they need to win at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday.
It feels quite early in the season for such a talented group of players to find themselves in a “do or die” position, but that’s the harsh reality.
This kind of situation is arguably the whole point of their vast spending, though: having the world-beaters who can almost single-handedly get you out of such a predicament. After all, a 1-0 deficit is hardly insurmountable.
Obviously, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi will be looked to as the keys to survival and progression. PSG’s Qatari overlords might even go as far as saying they were brought to Paris to win the Champions League: that’s their job.
Of course, their time together at the club has been blighted by speculation of a fractured relationship, partly due – apparently – to Messi being so close to Neymar, who Mbappe is also said to have become distanced from.
But we’re not here to indulge those interested in the kind of juvenile nonsense pedalled by clickbait merchants who’re obsessed with the pantomime vilification of anyone/anything.
In fact, there is plenty of evidence that Mbappe and Messi genuinely “get” each other on the pitch. Their 21 goal combinations since the start of last season is nine more than any other pairing across the top five leagues.
PSG’s excellent 3-0 win over Marseille in Le Classique at the end of February was a prime example of them clearly having rapport. Both of Mbappe’s goals were set up by Messi; Messi’s goal was set up by Mbappe.
For the first, Messi spotted the devastating run of Mbappe, who applied a clinical finish. They then switched roles for 2-0, the World Cup winner left with a tap-in from his partner’s brilliant low cross.
They finished Marseille off in style. Messi’s scooped pass released Mbappe, and he emphatically volleyed home from a tight angle.
Granted, it takes more than one match to show a telepathic on-pitch relationship has formed. But them switching it on as a duo shouldn’t be sniffed at, particularly in the Classique.
Some might argue the absence of Neymar helped, and will continue to be a positive for the rest of the season.
Neymar will not play again this term due to an ankle injury, in what has seemingly become par for the course for the Brazilian in Paris. By the end of the 2022-23 campaign, he’ll have played just 48 per cent of his possible minutes in Ligue 1 since joining, and the highest proportion of league minutes he’ll have racked up in a single season will be 54.4 per cent.
But does it matter?
Some will fairly point out Neymar’s 34 goal involvements across all competitions this season is bettered only by Mbappe (37) and Erling Haaland (38), and level with Messi. This is true, but does he really carry the same importance as the other two? And, as a trio, are they really as lethal as you might expect them to be?
Since Messi joined, PSG actually have a better win percentage when one of their star trio isn’t starting (69.4 per cent, compared to 64.7 per cent). Admittedly that’s not a significant difference, but over the same period their win rate when Neymar isn’t in the starting XI is 75.9 per cent and 63 per cent when he is.
By comparison, when one of Mbappe or Messi drop out of the line-up, PSG’s win percentage falls from 72.9 to 60.
For all his talents, many don’t think Neymar will be missed. Former France international Christophe Dugarry is among them.
“I’m happy for PSG that Neymar is injured. I think this is an incredible opportunity for [Christophe] Galtier. The team is much more balanced with five defenders and Mbappe and Messi up front,” Dugarry told RMC Sport.
“I can’t watch [Neymar] anymore, I can’t stand him anymore. I can’t stand his dribbling and that attitude. I don’t want to see him on the field anymore, I’m tired.”
Proving Neymar’s absence makes PSG better is arguably impossible, but Dugarry’s comments do strike a chord when he speaks of balance – even Galtier accepts they will be more balanced without the Brazilian.
Galtier does not think it makes them a better team, but that balance is potentially more important at the moment, especially in Europe.
PSG are the only side left in the Champions League who haven’t kept a clean sheet in the competition this season, and in all competitions they have only managed two shutouts since the World Cup.
Of course, the situation is slightly more nuanced than being a case of “getting rid of Neymar equals a good defence”, but Julian Nagelsmann pinpointed PSG’s strength.
“What we need is to prevent them from using their pace,” he said. “In Ligue 1, they often defend deep and play on the counter-attack. If you give their attackers too much space and they can unleash their footballing qualities, it’s incredibly difficult to defend.”
When it comes to pace and speed on the attack, is Neymar really essential for that?
Maybe he was the missing piece all these years. Perhaps, had Neymar not been injured so often in the second half of the season, they’d have won the Champions League by now.
But given how much of the past six years Neymar’s missed (52 per cent if you’re counting…), it would almost be fitting if PSG went on to win the Champions League without him.
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