It was difficult to know what was stranger about the game in Paris on Wednesday night.
Was it the empty Parc des Princes, closed to fans to help minimize the risk of further spread of the coronavirus, the only noise coming from the players and benches, plus the curious sounds of the fans gathered outside chanting and setting off fireworks, like hearing a loud party three floors down? Or was it the fact thatParis Saint-Germain — the moneyed serial chokers from the 16th arrondissement, the team who have been bounced out at this stage three years in a row in a variety of calamitous circumstances — played with purpose, discipline, structure and mental fortitude to beat Borussia Dortmund 2-0 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate?
Both were unusual. Nothing, in fact, was usual about this match, or the way that PSG won it. Even the goals felt like they belonged to a different game, a different team. Neymar opened the scoring with a header in the six-yard box, showing hitherto untapped poaching instincts (admittedly helped by some abysmal marking), then the second came from left-back Juan Bernat showing up in the inside-right slot, to delicately glance a shot home at the near post.
Those goals capped a first-half performance of poise and planning. It felt like this was a PSG from an alternative universe, one that went against the DNA of the club.
Ever since the Qatari takeover in 2011, they have felt like a sort of uber-Galactico project, less a football team and more of an exhibition of fine jewels. A no-expense-spared exercise in spending the most money you can imagine on a set of shiny players and chucking them on the pitch without a real idea of what to do out there. There would be someone there who was supposed to come up with a plan, sure, but the trick has always been not so much to come up with the plan, but to get Neymar et al to listen to it.
They listened on Wednesday. Counter-intuitively, considering this was a game in which they knew they would need to score at least once, Thomas Tuchel ensured his team played with tight discipline, not going hell for leather, sitting back and allowing Dortmund to knock the ball around as much as they wanted.
On paper it looked like an irresponsibly attacking 4-4-2, more realistically a 4-2-4 considering the widemen were Neymar and Angel Di Maria. But on the pitch it was more structured than that, closer to a 4-2-3-1 with Pablo Sarabia dropping off Edinson Cavani (which emphasised another point: Kylian Mbappe was fit only for the bench) and the two on the flanks actually playing like proper wingers, rather than just disgruntled forwards shunted out to either side because that’s the only place there was room.
In fact, perhaps the strangest sight of the evening came in the first half when Neymar diligently chased a ball back down the left wing, pressing his opponent like a latter-day Dirk Kuyt. It was at that point that you really started to wonder if these were just impostors in PSG shirts, and the real players were tied up with electrical cable in a shipping container somewhere, desperately banging the side to escape from their tactically responsible captors.
This night was going to be different from the rest. It wasn’t going to be added to the hall of Champions League calamity, including but not limited to: the second leg in 2013 when a goal up over Barcelona with a half-fit Lionel Messi on the bench, only for them to lose; 2014, when they threw away a two-goal lead at Chelsea; 2016, losing to a limp pre-Pep Guardiola Manchester City; 2019 and the penalty that gave Manchester United a miracle win and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a permanent job; and of course 2017 and La Remontada, perhaps the most traumatic result in the past decade, the very definition of the epic choke, crashing out to Barcelona despite winning the first leg 4-0 and being 5-3 ahead with two minutes remaining of the second.
Not this time. They actually displayed some guts to hold on, despite a late Dortmund onslaught, and despite the ominous sign of Di Maria managing to get himself booked after being substituted; at that point you thought. “Ah, this is the real PSG — collapse incoming.” But no. The celebrations at the end showed that the players and staff knew very well about their perception, and how heavily the idea of them as chokers weighed on them. They danced around and hugged and jumped as if they had won the whole tournament, not merely made it to the quarterfinals.
In fact, you could argue that the only thing PSG got wrong all night was their mass mocking of Erling Haaland‘s celebration from the first leg, because of course there’s absolutely no way hubris like that could ever come back to bite them.
For Dortmund, they were disappointingly toothless. Jadon Sancho was stymied, Haaland starved of service, Thorgan Hazard irrelevant. Of course their real failing was not in this game, but not putting a terrible PSG to bed in the first game, and allowing the away goal that gave Tuchel’s side so much hope.
The question now is how will this change PSG. Their talent has rarely been in doubt, but their fortitude has, the idea that they get flabby from gorging on inadequate Ligue 1 opposition for most of the year, and thus can’t hack it when the lean and lithe teams who play in vaguely competitive leagues come at them.
If nothing else, this proves that PSG can play like an actual, cohesive team when they want, not just a slack-jawed collection of individuals who soil themselves at the first sign of adversity. This is already shaping up to be the most open Champions League in years: Liverpool and Dortmund’s elimination means there could be only one former winner in the quarterfinals, with a lot of strong teams but no overriding favourite.
Could PSG win it? Before Wednesday, the concept was vaguely laughable. Now, at the very least it’s plausible. PSG played nothing like PSG. It might have gone against all their instincts, but it worked. And they showed that if they can do that again, they could become a genuine force.