In 2011, when Qatar Sports Investments acquired Paris Saint-Germain, they established a five-year plan to become a major European footballing powerhouse that involved competing at the business end of Europe’s premier club competition.
Over the last three seasons, hopes have been dashed by Barcelona (twice) and Manchester City. If the plan wasn’t a total failure, deadlines were certainly missed.
Now begins the new era. Having failed to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League since their takeover, QSI reacted in the same way as we might expect from a financial powerhouse: They attempted a shortcut. No longer is it enough for PSG to compete; triumph is now the only acceptable end result.
President Nasser Al-Khelaifi may accept defeat in Kiev next year as acceptable — even pleasing — progress, but only when his club are lifting the European Cup for the first time in their history will he be truly satisfied. The first step of that journey began in Glasgow last night.
Amid the talk of geopolitical power plays, Financial Fair Play jiggery pokery, and a transfer market that has been changed forever, it is easy to overlook the sporting impact of PSG’s summer recruitment. For those who have not witnessed any of their 19 goals in five Ligue 1 matches this season, 40 minutes was enough to get you up to speed. That’s how long it took for each member of their strikeforce to find the net. From then on, PSG could ease off. That early blitzkrieg — and subsequent relaxation — might become a handy habit this season.
It’s not until you see the teamsheets ahead of a game such as this that you truly understand the underdog’s task. Leigh Griffiths against Thiago Silva, Edinson Cavani against Mikael Lustig, Anthony Ralston against Neymar. That last matchup makes you wince as you run your eyes over it. Ralston will have stories to tell the grandchildren in half a century’s time, but he cannot have enjoyed his duel.
PSG had nothing to gain and everything to lose, heavy favourites and expected to put on a show. Yet even considering those expectations, their front three dazzled. Edinson Cavani was farmed out wide when Zlatan Ibrahimovic demanded to be the literal centre of attention at the Parc des Princes, but the Uruguayan’s place in Unai Emery’s team has been strengthened by the summer arrivals, not weakened. Kylian Mbappe is comfortable on the right and Neymar the left, allowing Cavani to thrive in his most natural role. He already has eight goals for the season.
If the cliche is right, it is Emery’s defence that will win them the Champions League, not their attack, and those are questions that will be fully answered in the spring, not autumn. There are reasonable concerns about the reliability of goalkeeper Alphonse Areola and whether Thiago Motta’s 35-year-old legs can still make him the world-class holding midfielder every elite club wants.
Yet these are only small cracks of doubt rather than deep fissures. When the substitutes bench contains Julian Draxler, Thomas Meunier, Pascal Kimpembe, and Lucas Moura, and with Angel Di Maria to return from injury, squad depth seems like the waste of a good worry.
Real Madrid will remain the team to beat in the Champions League until February, March, or April proves otherwise. Having retained their crown and thus overcome what was considered a significant psychological hurdle, they remain the best team in the competition.
That said, it would be foolish to dismiss PSG purely because they have not broken through their glass ceiling until now. This club did not buy the two best players in the world this summer, but they certainly bought the best two they could possibly get and probably the two most valuable. With the Ligue 1 title likely to be virtually secure by March, the Champions League will get this squad’s full attention.
For all the accusations that Neymar was following the money by leaving Barcelona this summer, Paris Saint-Germain started their European campaign as the second favourites for the Champions League. The Brazilian’s social media persona is far too manufactured to allow for passive aggressive status updates, but he might like to remind some of his former teammates that Barcelona are considered less likely to win the big one than his new club.
Last evening, we saw nothing to disprove the expectation that PSG are no longer outsiders, but contenders.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved