Whether it was a degree of hesitation borne of the trauma of last year’s elimination at the hands of Barcelona, a lack of experience in a match of this magnitude or foundering when being given the chance to prove oneself, there were a variety of reasons which led to Paris Saint Germain’s tentative loss to Real Madrid yesterday. It is true that only two late goals gave the holders the final 3-1 margin, and that PSG were minutes from somehow escaping with a creditable, if undeserved draw, but Alphonse Areola had made quite a few fine saves, and it would be foolhardy to suggest that the result was undeserved. So where, then, did the French side stumble?
Was it the fault of Unai Emery, for his personnel decisions? Dropping Thiago Silva was a bold statement, and a strong endorsement of the progress made by Presnel Kimpembe, who many thought was unfairly benched for the second leg against Barcelona last year. However, while the youngster did not exactly cover himself in glory, it is difficult to imagine that the plodding Silva would have done any better against Madrid’s 4-3-1-2, given the level of positional freedom enjoyed by the front three in that system. Emery does come in for some blame, however, in his decision to start Giovani Lo Celso at the base of midfield.
The youngster was hopelessly out of his depth all match, nearly conceding a penalty against Isco early on and then bringing down Toni Kroos with a poor challenge in the box on the stroke of half-time. After an early booking for that challenge on the Real Madrid playmaker, never the most physical player, he became even more of a shrinking violet, at sea positionally and seemingly fearful to make even the slightest challenge. It’s true that he would not likely have had as much difficulty against a 4-3-3, with more play in wide areas, but if Emery’s decision to start him was a bizarre one, the choice not to remove him, with a myriad of options available, was even more strange.
Lassana Diarra had been tipped by some to start this match, but even if the midfielder wasn’t fit enough to face his former club for 45 minutes, Emery could have dropped Adrien Rabiot or Marco Verratti into a deeper role, bringing on Javier Pastore or Ángel Di María. Neither player is generally associated with a box-to-box role, but both have succeeded there in the past, with Pastore in particular having been instrumental in PSG’s memorable elimination of Chelsea in 2015. Perhaps there was some reluctance on the part of the manager in not wanting to totally shatter Lo Celso’s confidence with the match still in the balance, but if Emery was unable to perceive the precarious nature of the situation, calls for his immediate dismissal are not without merit.
That said, if Emery is not long for his job as a result of the outcome of this tie, he is hardly alone in being deserving of blame. This, after all, seemed to be the situation that Neymar craved; the Brazilian could prove that he belonged in the same breath as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi by leading his team to victory at the home of the two-time defending champions, cementing his status as one of the game’s very best.
Instead, however, after being kicked a few times early in the match, he grew less bold, becoming too easily minded by a combination of Luka Modric and Nacho, both of whom were excellent. One would think that playing weekly against Ligue 1 defences constructed to limit his play would have given the Brazilian plenty of evidence for persisting, but he seemed to do the opposite, and his muted display is hardly what was expected after his momentous arrival this summer.
While Emery and Neymar were both poor, there should be some praise given to some players in the PSG side, namely Adrien Rabiot. The midfielder’s season has been uneven at times, but he was handily PSG’s best player last night, scoring and putting in a dogged shift in midfield. Kylian Mbappé, as well, showed a degree of determination lacking in most of his teammates, continuing to press and play on the shoulder of the defense even as he looked isolated after Edinson Cavani’s departure. It’s true that little came off for the youngster, but it would be cruel to suggest it was through a lack of effort on his part
Thus, despite Emery and Neymar being chief culprits in a disappointing loss, the margin is hardly irreversible. PSG did record a vital away goal, and after last year’s elimination by Barcelona, will be fully aware that no lead should be considered safe against a top-class opponent. Granted, progress will likely hinge on having to keep a clean sheet whilst scoring twice, no easy feat on either account, but there does remain a glimmer of hope. However, if that likely elimination does come to pass, there will be more than enough culpability to go around, nothing new given the team’s recent history.