Paris Saint-Germain have made a habit of crashing out in the Champions League in remarkable circumstances, but even by their standards, Wednesday’s 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid takes some beating.
In 2017, the Parisians somehow blew a 4-0 aggregate lead to crash out to a Neymar-inspired Barcelona. The legend of ‘La Remontada’ was born.
Five years and one day later, they suffered a second defeat in Spain that was, in many ways, even more incredible.
For an hour, PSG looked impressive. Kylian Mbappe’s second goal of the tie, in the first half of the second leg, came from the type of chance that PSG readily created in the opening period.
They might have been two or three goals clear on the night such was their control over the game.
Madrid started the second half with greater intensity, but there was little suggestion they would manufacture a route back into the tie until Gianluigi Donnarumma dallied over a clearance, presenting a simple chance for Vinicius Junior to set up Benzema to level.
From there, PSG’s meltdown was almost total. Indeed, had Madrid scored a brilliant opener, it would not have served them nearly so well. The very act of conceding the cheapest of goals was enough to reopen mental wounds that have not healed at PSG for five years.
Remontada II was on.
There was a strong spell of possession in which they did not allow Madrid a touch, but that was the only period of the closing 30 minutes in which it seemed PSG might avoid the ghosts of Barcelona.
Neymar, Mbappe and Lionel Messi virtually vanished from the match, and Benzema came to the fore to complete a remarkable hat-trick. He was, however, aided by some miserable defending from the visitors.
It was most evident after the second goal. There were only 12 seconds between kick-off and Marquinhos’ hashed clearance that dropped to Benzema at the end of the box, which the Frenchman instantly fired into the corner of the net.
Unlike in Barcelona, there were still 12 minutes plus stoppage time in which to somehow conjure an equaliser. It never looked like coming.
Instead, it was Madrid who looked more likely to score the fifth goal of a remarkable night. The defensive errors kept coming, and the home side threatened to add to the avalanche of goals.
“It’s impossible not to talk about this big mistake,” Pochettino told Canal+ after the game. Rather than blaming Donnarumma, though, he was pointing his finger at the officials for an apparent foul on the goalkeeper in the build-up to the opening goal.
“For 60 minutes we dominated Real; this goal changed everything.
“I wonder what VAR does.”
Compared to the team that played in Barcelona on that fateful night in 2017, only Marquinhos and Marco Verratti started this game. The scars of old, though, remain etched on the very fibre of the club.
Since then, PSG have drafted all kinds of star players to help them overcome this issue. Gianluigi Buffon and Dani Alves, serial winners at the highest level, have tried and failed, while this new generation, including the most star-studded front line to ever grace a football field, have flopped.
Mbappe, Neymar and Messi have proven tactically impossible to work with, and it is worrying for PSG that the only one of this trio who has truly pulled his weight this season is the only one likely to leave. Neymar and Messi, remember, have combined for just six Ligue 1 goals this season.
When the chips were down at Santiago Bernabeu, they were unable to influence the game.
Only Thomas Tuchel’s 2020 PSG team, who reached the final behind closed doors, only to lose to Bayern Munich, showed the collective mental fortitude worthy of a team that might go all the way. The German was sacked four months later and led Chelsea to the Champions League crown the following spring.
Now will come the usual Champions League post-mortem for PSG, which will be longer and more forensic than ever before. Pochettino will be the inevitable victim.
Quite how a club can invest so much and yet return so little is puzzling, but not half so baffling as to how PSG contrived to lose from such a strong position.
Note: This article is written by Robin Bairner and has been published in Goal