The excuses are there, the mitigating circumstances and the shallow solaces, for those determined to find them.
Maybe it would all have been different had Neymar been here, and not in Brazil, resting and recovering from surgery on his foot. Maybe he would have been able to inspire Paris Saint-Germain to victory against Real Madrid on home turf, even if he proved unable to do so three weeks ago in hostile territory.
Maybe if Marco Verratti had been able to control his temper, rather than charging at German referee Felix Brych, his face bright with fury, simply because he had not been afforded a free kick, PSG might have been able to mount a stirring comeback. A few minutes after Verratti was sent off, after all, Edinson Cavani scored, offering his team a scintilla of hope. With 10 men, that was all it could be; with 11, PSG would have been a more imposing proposition.
And maybe, most of all, it is all just a matter of luck, anyway. That PSG simply cannot make that final leap onto the grandest stage of all, into the semifinals and final of the Champions League, has become an article of faith. This year will be no different after it was beaten by Real Madrid on Tuesday, by 2-1 on the night and by 5-2 over two legs.
But it is worth considering the teams that have stymied PSG’s ambitions along the way. It has been eliminated in the quarterfinals four times in the last six seasons, twice by Barcelona, and once each (narrowly) by Chelsea and Manchester City. The last two years, it has fallen in the round of 16 against Barcelona and Real Madrid. It is hardly being brought to its knees by minnows.
Indeed, in December, when the pairings for the last 16 of this tournament were confirmed, PSG might have drawn Basel, or FC Porto, or Sevilla; had it done so, it would surely be in the quarterfinals today. Instead, it was forced to play the team that has won three of the last four Champions League titles and that seems to excel in this competition by sheer force of personality alone. Fortune, once again, was not on PSG’s side.
But none of that should disguise quite how callow, how dismal, PSG’s elimination was. This is a team that has been constructed, at almost unimaginable cost, to win the Champions League. As its coach, Unai Emery, said Tuesday, losing to Real Madrid is no embarrassment. “It is a team of champions,” he said.
He did not say that losing like this is, or should be. PSG, a team that cost half a billion dollars, did not rage against its fate. It did not hurl all it had at Real’s defense, ending the game breathless and broken, fighting for pride, if nothing else. It simply accepted — as soon as Cristiano Ronaldo scored, as he always does in the Champions League — that, once again, it was going to fall short.
Emery’s players slowed almost to walking pace. Their passing, hardly sharp at any point in the evening, grew increasingly lazy, wayward. They were careless. They were aimless. They wandered around, as if in a daze. It is one thing not to be able to execute a plan. It is quite another not to seem to care what the plan is, or was.
They were waiting for what they had decided was inevitable, for the blissful release of Brych’s whistle, for the chance to return to what they do best: beating French teams with a fraction of their budget by six- and seven-goal margins. That is where this team really comes into its own.
This defeat — just like all those defeats in the last six years — does, at least, provide some answers. We now know, for example, that Emery, whose contract would have automatically renewed if he had guided his team to the semifinals, will not be its manager next year.
He was forgiven one failure last year — “we must not allow emotion to dictate our actions,” the club’s chairman, Nasser al-Khelaifi, said in the aftermath of that humiliating loss to Barcelona — but he will not survive a second, and he most likely would not expect to. It is open to debate quite how satisfying he has found his work here, anyway, trying to pick his way through a forest of delicate egos, political necessities and sporting realities.
Mainly, though, the latest elimination brought questions, ones that are growing ever more pressing. What now? How does PSG respond not just to this defeat, but to this pattern of defeats? Does Khelaifi do what he has always done and bankroll yet another market-contorting spending spree, even if it means running yet more risks with UEFA’s rules on Financial Fair Play?
If money has not brought a solution thus far — PSG already possesses Neymar, the world’s most expensive player, and will make Kylian Mbappé No. 2 when he completes a permanent move from Monaco this summer — is it rational to assume that it will at some point? Has Paris Saint-Germain, the club that has blown all of its rivals, with only two teams in Manchester as exceptions, out of the water with its checkbook, simply not spent enough?
Or is it time to look at the problem from another angle, to assume that perhaps success in soccer does not simply come from accumulating as much talent as possible and seeing what happens?
What stood out on this most chastising of evenings was not some technical deficiency. Real Madrid did not win because it had better players. It won because of its character, its strength of mind, what its coach, Zinedine Zidane, described as a “trust in what we are doing.”
PSG does not have that, and it showed. In the moments after Ronaldo’s goal just after halftime, when all seemed lost, it had nothing to fall back on, and so it fell apart instead.
PSG can make excuses. It can hope for its luck to turn. It can spend more money; it can always spend more money. Maybe that will work, this time. But maybe it will not, and we will all be back here next year, too, asking the same questions, and getting the same empty answers.