Brilliant but brittle PSG look better placed to scale Europe’s summit | Paris Saint-Germain


The talk from Paris will be about the pass. And, it should be said, the pass really was a thing of beauty, a moment all of its own, spinning in space.

Four minutes and 50 seconds had passed at the Parc des Princes when Neymar sniped inside from the left, fed the ball to Kylian Mbappé, then made just enough of an angle, peeping around the side of Adrian Rabiot, to take it back 40 yards from goal

The Juventus backline was still tightly stitched. But Mbappé had managed to find that run where he drags his marker away from goal, opening up the channel behind. And nobody runs into an open channel quite like Mbappé. Yes. Come into my place.

Neymar knows this pattern too, knows to thread the ball into that space. Although here he did something different: facing diagonally away from goal, feeling the geometry of the run, the moving objects ahead of him, and just sending it up into the lights, a moon ball, a lovely, delicate thing, freezing the moment, then drifting down out of that open sky into the path of Mbappé, who took it with a flourish, a note of pleasure in the contact with the outside of his right foot, zinging the ball with startling power into the far corner.

Fifteen minutes later it was 2-0, Mbappé producing another fine right-foot finish after a nice touch from Achraf Hakimi, the shot so perfectly executed it felt like just a prelude to the celebrations, Mbappé already veering away as the ball left his laces.

The new regime in Paris has spoken about a serious, pared-back, matt-finish PSG. Christophe Galtier may look like a charismatic 1980s small-town mayor on his way to have a long lunch with his personal assistant, but he has a clear and sober plan. Nineteen players left this summer. High-end dead wood has been cleared. Galtier has tinkered minutely with his formation, with the idea that his starry front three simply need proximity, interplay, time to learn one another’s game more intensely.

Paris have duly scored 24 goals in six league games (although this is of course the default: what are these outsize superstars doing here, if not this?). But it still seems fitting that in 2022, football’s year of the Qat, PSG should have produced by the end of this 2-1 Champions League victory a performance so vividly fine and then so vividly brittle that Juventus left the pitch feeling unlucky not to capitalise on their own energised second half.

Neymar tries to squeeze a way past Juventus’s Adrien Rabiot and Filip Kostic.
Neymar tries to squeeze a way past Juventus’s Adrien Rabiot and Filip Kostic. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

For Paris the good bits were very good. Neymar was excellent in the first half, a total creative footballer, dribbling, passing, shooting, pulling shapes out of the air. The haters are a little harsh on Neymar (the haters cant help it: it’s in their nature). For all the notes of frustration he is a relentlessly productive footballer. There was some writhing about, but also some heavy tackles, and these hurt when you have no extra padding, when, like Neymar, you’re basically made from sherbet and straw.

Mbappé was brilliant too, all explosive, creative movement. At times like these he’s like a kind of footballing parkour runner, seeing the spaces and the obstacles, brain whirring, calculating angles of approach and lateral spring. He kept making the same inside-out run behind Leonardo Bonucci’s left shoulder, forcing him to turn in a slow-twitch panic. You can’t really defend this. You just hope it doesn’t happen too often

Sergio Ramos also started here and did pretty well. Ramos looks amazing these days, like an ageing pirate king, so tattooed even his tattoos have tattoos, beard esoterically trimmed. He doesn’t exactly play football these days, just carries a Ramos vibe around, Ramos energy, making Ramos things happen. At one point he cleared the ball off the line with a super-slick prone backheel. Of course he did.

Sergio Ramos pictured during PSG’s win over Juventus
Sergio Ramos pictured during PSG’s win over Juventus: ‘so tattooed even his tattoos have tattoos.’ Photograph: Aurélien Meunier/PSG/Getty Images

And it does still seem credible a team with Ramos in it could win the Champions League, just as it was tempting in that first half to conclude PSG are finally reaching critical mass. Messi, Ramos, Mbappé, Neymar, Donnarumma. There isn’t much space left in there to fail.

But of course there is enough space, because high-end failure is still probably the most interesting thing about this elite project club; an inability to simply spend its way to the ultimate prize, to light the skies with borrowed star power.

This has played itself out every year for the past decade, and it was there again in the 17th minute as suddenly Paris were cut open by Juan Cuadrado’s deep cross, Gianluigi Donnarumma saving brilliantly, Neymar not only failing to track back but yelling angrily at the defender behind him for failing to cover his lack of tracking back.

It was there after half-time as Juventus switched to a high-pressing flat back four and changed the game. It was there as Mbappé veered in on goal and shot wide from a silly angle with Neymar howling and waving his arms like a drowning man in the middle. Mbappé sighed as he walked back. Take it up with management. Wait, I am management.

Four minutes later Juventus pulled one back, Weston McKennie heading in from a short corner down that same side unmolested by any desperately covering inside forwards.

Weston McKennie heads in for Juventus from a short corner.
Weston McKennie heads in for Juventus from a short corner. Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP

After that PSG seemed to go into neutral, unable to press go again. When other teams take the ball away what Paris often seem to lack is a way of playing that is neither thrilling bursts nor spells of sudden passivity; but which is just a sense of playing, holding their ground, existing comfortably in the middle gears.

They might still have scored four against Juventus, and look better placed than at any time to scale the summit. What would it mean? How would it feel? What would it prove? There is still something brittle in the way this team have been built, star particle bonded to star particle, a beautiful crystalline structure, but one without much give or bend. Paris will improve as those lines become clearer, as Vitinha and Marco Verratti gel, and if Neymar and Mbappé can find that sublime connection. But as Juventus showed here, they are still Paris.





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