After three years of exiting the Champions League at the last-16 stage, PSG finally won a knockout tie last week by beating Borussia Dortmund at the Parc des Princes. It remains to be seen when – or indeed if – they will have the chance to play in the quarter-finals. But, given their previous failures at this stage of the competition, this victory could be a watershed moment for the club. As European football pauses to deal with the coronavirus, we are taking the opportunity to look back on the club’s evolution under their Qatari owners.
1) PSG 1-1 Bordeaux, Ligue 1, March 2012
After becoming the club’s majority shareholder in the summer of 2011, QSI set about splurging €100m on new players. With the club atop the table at Christmas and in search of their first league title in 18 years, the new owners sacked Antoine Kombouaré and replaced him Carlo Ancelotti, a manager more befitting the new PSG brand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that decision backfired. Guillaume Hoarau managed to rescue a point for PSG in this match against Bordeaux, but it came amid a run of draws that cost PSG’s title ambitions. Montpellier had a stronger finish to the campaign and emerged as surprising champions.
2) Chelsea 2-0 PSG, Champions League, April 2014
This defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League quarter-finals produced an unhealthy blueprint for what was to come in the competition. Just as they would do against Barcelona before the “remontada” and against Manchester United last season, PSG won the first leg with an impressively mature and precise performance. However, bereft of an obvious plan, they were overwhelmed in a meek second-leg display, Demba Ba sealing their fate at the death.
3) Manchester City 1-0 PSG, Champions League, April 2016
Ancelotti’s successor, the much criticised Laurent Blanc, had his fate sealed at the Etihad. Although his reign has aged well in the context of more recent failures, this was PSG’s biggest missed opportunity to reach a European semi-final. Rarely have they appeared so spineless. After drawing 2-2 in the first leg of the quarter-final, Blanc rashly switched to 3-5-2 formation for the first time. PSG were slow and insipid in a 1-0 defeat. Mental frailty and a lack of intensity were becoming engrained.
4) Barcelona 6-1 PSG, Champions League, March 2017
After a glorious 4-0 triumph in the first leg led by a bulldozing Adrian Rabiot, PSG’s – and Unai Emery’s – big moment became a nightmare. The greatest comeback in Champions League history did not play out as would have been expected, however. Barcelona were not at their fluid best but instead overwhelmed PSG by sheer force of their collective personality with wave after wave of attack. That being said, Barça were helped by a catastrophic collapse from PSG late on. The belief and intensity of Barcelona beat the leaderless insecurity of PSG.
5) Nice 3-1 PSG, Ligue 1, April 2017
PSG’s failures in the Champions League have often been (somewhat) compensated for by domestic dominance, although that was not the case in the 2016-17 season. Monaco spent money too initially but did so using a very different model. Leonardo Jardim’s youthful, meticulously scouted and comparatively cheap squad outplayed, out-thought and outscored their big-spending, big-name rivals and managed to not only steal the league title but also reach the semi-finals of the Champions League – a feat PSG have not yet achieved under QSI ownership. This was the ultimate embarrassment for PSG. Their bad-tempered defeat at Nice ended their title hopes. “Where next?” was the only question being asked.
6) PSG 6-2 Toulouse, Ligue 1, August 2017
Signing Neymar is perhaps the crowning achievement of the QSI era, which says a lot about the club’s aims. Obliterating the world record transfer fee for a prodigiously skilful celebrity forward to the great cost of a rival while ignoring gaping holes in the rest of the squad is quintessential PSG. Nevertheless, he was magnificent in his home debut, orchestrating the thrashing of a weak Toulouse team. Maybe this was why QSI bought PSG in the first place: to grab the world’s attention with star power, put on an exhibition – with competitiveness little more than a nuisance.
7) Lyon 2-1 PSG, Ligue 1, January 2018
PSG can usually obliterate everyone when in the comfortable surroundings of the Parc des Princes. They normally have enough quality to overwhelm most teams on their travels too. However, when up against a competitive side who are willing to attack and have a ferocious support behind them, they can be easily unsettled. That was especially true under Unai Emery. Lyon have proven particularly tricky opponents over the years and Memphis Depay’s injury-time screamer secured the points on this occasion.
8) PSG 2-1 Liverpool, Champions League, November 2018
The often-sedate Parc des Princes became a cauldron in this victory over Liverpool – the way it had done during PSG’s 4-0 win over Barcelona two seasons earlier. The team matched the crowd, putting on an equally intense and aggressive display. The moment when Marquinhos and Thiago Silva stopped a Liverpool move and celebrated with a roaring chest-bump summed up the night. Although the competition ended very differently for the two teams – with Liverpool winning the trophy and PSG going out to Manchester United – the signs were there that Tuchel was making PSG more combative and streetwise.
9) PSG 1-3 Manchester United, Champions League, March 2019
Disaster. This was “even worse” than the 6-1 defeat to Barcelona, said L’Équipe’s front page the following day. Although it is difficult to ignore PSG’s misfortune in losing the tie to a contentious last-minute penalty, this 3-1 defeat at Parc des Princes amounted to the worst night in the club’s history. Mistakes from Gianluigi Buffon (who had been brought in for his winning mentality and experience) and Thilo Kehrer (one of many overblown transfers who have amounted to little) let a weak Manchester United reach the quarter-finals. The nadir of PSG’s mental frailty.
10) PSG 2-0 Borussia Dortmund, Champions League, March 2020
Despite all of PSG’s domestic success in the last decade, it is difficult to escape the sense that it has all been a little hollow. Style and panache have been no use when the team have had to compete. Substance, game management and courage have been non-existent at key moments when they were required to complement the talent within in the squad. Talent is enough to dominate Ligue 1 but when they encounter an equal, PSG do not have, or are not able to produce, what other clubs have.
Every genuine European superclub is an institution. PSG were only formed in 1970 – or maybe when QSI arrived as Zlatan Ibrahimovic once claimed – and they do not have the same grounding. Each of their continental rivals’ recent major triumphs has been led by players or a hierarchy who harbour a deep understanding of what that club is and what it means. QSI have never bought into that idea.
To say that PSG’s issues are solely down to their relative lack of history or standing in the French or Parisian consciousness would be overly reductionist, but a lack of culture has contributed. As sporting director Leonardo said last summer: “We need to remove the idea that people are doing the club a favour by merely being here.” The win over Dortmund hinted that this culture is starting to change. Although Thomas Tuchel’s reign has encompassed the Manchester United defeat and a pair of infuriating domestic cup failures last season, efficacy and togetherness have grown under the German. The cliques of the Ibrahimovic days have largely evaporated and the team is finally worthy of the name.
Neymar’s recent lavish birthday party on the eve of a league match and footage of players exuberantly dancing together at the joint birthday party for Edinson Cavani, Mauro Icardi and Ángel Di María were painted as unprofessional, but they portrayed a close, happy and harmonious group. A rarity at PSG. Leonardo’s return has helped. He played for the club and has a clear idea of what it should look like. He has added leadership, discipline and a pride in the Paris Saint-Germain name.
The team did not impress in their first leg against Dortmund but, for once, they did not wilt either. They competed, managed the game well enough as a group and emerged intact despite difficult circumstances. Another rarity. In the second leg, where collapses have been common, they put in an intense performance. With Neymar complementing his colleagues rather than dominating them, the team looked more well-rounded and balanced than ever before – even without Kylian Mbappé. Ability was at last complemented by positivity and courage.
Neymar exemplifies this shift. Often cast as overly nonchalant and looking for a way out, the Brazilian publicly criticised the club last week for extending his recovery from a minor injury before the first leg. While the outburst in itself was unnecessary, it underlined his desperation to be ready to help the team. “For the first time, I am entirely happy in Paris,” he had announced at his birthday party. “I want to do everything I can alongside my teammates to win everything this year.” His emotion at full-time against Dortmund backs up that statement, as does his supreme form.
The fact that this game was played behind closed doors offers a caveat, however. Even though their support has carried them in the past, the fans also bring pressure. Nevertheless, the intensity and cohesion the team showed over two legs amounts to genuine progress. When (or if) the Champions League resumes, PSG may have finally found a way to reach their promised land, together.