It was a seismic event in an empty stadium as the biggest Paris Saint-Germain victory of the season to date was celebrated in almost complete silence. Yet some of the players swear that, when Anthony Taylor blew the whistle for full-time, confirming PSG’s place in the Champions League quarterfinals and eliminating Borussia Dortmund, they could hear the thousands of fans gathered outside the Parc des Princes while they left the pitch inside.
Wednesday night’s 2-0 win happened behind closed doors, but all through the mild Parisian night, the doors had been open a little bit. The ultras, congregating outside, demonstrated what it meant to love a football club. They were a constant presence before, during and after the game, singing, chanting and lighting red flares in celebration.
They had good reason to celebrate, too. The victory was significant given that the pressure on PSG was high, the stakes enormous and the emotional release at full-time so huge. PSG, Thomas Tuchel, the Qatar royal family that owns the club, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, you name it: They would not be knocked out again at this stage of the competition like they were in the past three seasons. Repeating that heartbreak would have surely signified the end of Tuchel as manager and probably the end of the “Neymappe” cycle, too. Another early humiliation would have very possibly meant their collective departure in the summer.
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The reputation of being the team that bottles the big occasions after two remontada home and away in the past three years was starting to follow them around. The curse of the Champions League, with all those dramatic premature exits, was starting to be too heavy to carry. On top of all of that, they had to play in an empty stadium and with Mbappe on the bench, having barely recovered from a nasty case of flu and a precautionary coronavirus test that came out negative the day before the game.
With all the narratives swirling around the match, they still came out with a performance none of their fans (or critics) had seen this season. They played as a team, something no one really thought they could pull off. They defended together, pressing and counterpressing together. It was a display full of heart, guts and talent. They were disciplined, well-organised, aggressive. It was a controlled victory, not a thing you normally say about PSG, particularly not this season.
One player epitomised their efforts. Neymar is, without doubt, a divisive player. He is loved and disliked around the world in equal. He did troll Erling Haaland with his goal celebration after the Norwegian international kicked off the banter on social media earlier in the day. Dortmund as a club had actually been quite vocal on social media after their 2-1 first leg win, with the likes of Axel Witsel, Emre Can, Haaland, the club’s official Twitter account and even former player (and Champions League winner) Lars Ricken all having a go at PSG.
“We felt that [Dortmund] lost their humility after the first leg. After their win, they put out a lot of tweets, Instagram posts — a lot of words. We all saw it and kept it in the back of our heads and I think it boosted us. We had a bit of anger in our minds,” Presnel Kimpembe said after the match on Wednesday.
The roles were reversed compared to last season’s elimination, in which PSG were not humble enough before their ill-fated game against Manchester United at home. But the players learned their lesson this time around, with Neymar setting the tone and playing like a leader. He scored the first goal and began the move for the second one. For the Brazil international, who missed the previous two crucial round-of-16 Champions League second legs through injury and failed to get his move back to Barcelona in the summer, the qualification felt like a liberation.
Before the communion with the fans from one of the Parc des Princes’ elevated passageways, Neymar had a moment to himself and cried. Like his teammates, he knows that there is still a long way to go in this competition and that PSG have not won anything yet, but it was a crucial victory and he knew it.
Said Tuchel of his star, “He is so reliable in those kind of games. We can count on him, he won’t disappoint and he will meet for rations. He can deal with the pressure. He has the personality and the confidence to exploit his genius potential. He still needs a bit of rhythm but he has the sense of sacrifice.”
Truth be told, the French champions had been confident all week. All the vibes emanating from the PSG camp were positive — a genuine change from the doom and gloom they’ve felt at times in 2020. It had been a few turbulent weeks since the first leg in Dortmund and the 2-1 defeat after a poor display both individually and collectively. Tuchel’s position was fragile; he was publicly criticised by Thomas Meunier, Neymar and Marquinhos while Kimpembe’s brother insulted him on social media. There were Neymar’s injuries and Mbappé’s illness, but after the first leg, the players jelled together. They responded together to the criticism from sporting director Leonardo and Tuchel that they should not have celebrated the way they did the birthdays of Mauro Icardi, Angel Di Maria and Edinson Cavani two days after the loss in Germany.
Tuchel’s postmatch remarks revealed his relief. “It got stuck in my throat when I saw the way PSG are treated, how you talk about me,” he told Sky Germany after the game, given how critical it had been following Dortmund’s first-leg win. “I watched your show on my iPad by accident and I saw the headlines, ‘Tuchel doesn’t control his dressing room, his players do what they want, he is only a circus director.’ You can say hi to your channel. You will have to explain to me how you can treat [me and PSG] so negatively when we have won 28 games in a row.”
Goalkeeper Keylor Navas also showed his leadership by standing up to Leonardo. The squad showed more unity than ever, and we saw it after the win on Wednesday. The celebrations with the ultras and in the dressing room were wild and long-lasting. However, it could not be a PSG Champions League season without drama, and obviously the uncertainty about the rest of the competition cast a big shadow over the qualification. It would be so textbook for PSG if the Champions League was to be cancelled the year when they finally vanquished the hoodoo around them and showed a real ability to go on and win.
Nevertheless, the club’s attention has shifted to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak across the globe, and they’re taking it seriously. When Mbappé was diagnosed with the flu on Monday, he was immediately tested for COVID-19. They are taking sensible precautions, like the complete disinfection of the stadium and training ground, with access to hand gel everywhere around club properties.
As the world of football holds its breath regarding the rest of its season, PSG are feeling stronger and stronger. With as much as hope as possible that the action will continue, the full story of their season, along with that of everyone else still in the Champions League, are yet to be written.