The reason behind Paris Saint-Germain’s repeated European failures

PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 06: Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain takes on Chris Smalling of Manchester United during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg match between Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United at Parc des Princes on March 06, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Harriet Lander/Copa/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 06: Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain takes on Chris Smalling of Manchester United during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg match between Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United at Parc des Princes on March 06, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Harriet Lander/Copa/Getty Images) /

Manchester United’s stunning comeback at the Parc des Princes made Champions League history and continued to ask serious questions of Qatar Sports Investments’ experiment.

The name Paris Saint-Germain comes with many connotations around the world of football. From perhaps Europe’s wealthiest club to unprecedented dominance in Ligue 1, Wednesday’s shock defeat added another connotation to the French champions: bottlers.

Following a 2-0 win in the away fixture at Old Trafford, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the capital club would advance to the quarter-final stage of the Champions League. In fact, for every other team in a similar position throughout the competition’s history, it was. Teams who won away by at least two goals in the first leg had never failed to progress to the next round on 34 previous occasions. FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index even gave the Parisians a 97% chance to advance heading into the match.

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Moreover, United missed several key figures in their side, as Paul Pogba‘s suspension was compounded by the likes of Alexis Sánchez, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matić, and Ander Herrera headlining a massive injury list. Nonetheless, three defensive capitulations from the home side, on all of which United capitalized, alongside a valiant defensive effort from the Red Devils led to a famous last-minute road win at the expense of Europe’s most expensive squad.

Despite the horrendous collapse, however, Wednesday night was not, in fact, the worst European defeat in club history. That dubious honour belongs to PSG’s second-leg tie against FC Barcelona on March 8, 2017, when Les Parisiens surrendered a 4-0 aggregate lead at the Camp Nou in what is considered by many the greatest comeback in Champions League history.

Known as La Remontada, Spanish for “the comeback”, Barcelona scored three goals in the 88th minute or later to complete a 6-1 victory to send Paris out at the Round of 16 stages, from which they have not advanced since the 2015-16 campaign.

The club has undoubtedly fallen short of its owners’ expectation for continental dominance thanks in large part to a seemingly-unlimited transfer budget. Operated by the Qatari government, PSG has spent over €1.03 billion since the takeover in 2011, breaking the world transfer record and effectively resetting the entire market with the signing of Neymar for £200 million from Barcelona in 2017.

While domestic dominance has been almost assured with the club winning four out of the last five Ligue 1 titles, five consecutive Coupe de la Ligue and four straight Coupe de France trophies, their only true measure of success, the Champions League, continues to elude them.

Much has been made of the weakness of Paris’ domestic contemporaries, with PSG only facing competition truly on their level in Champions League matches. This lack of adversity creates a mindset of complacency within any side, as it can be truly difficult to raise the level of play when it is not regularly required.

Juventus, currently on track to win their eighth consecutive Serie A title, have not won the Champions League since 1996, while Bayern Munich, six-time defending Bundesliga champions, only won the European competition when faced with a stiff domestic challenge from Borussia Dortmund in 2012-13.

Paris has never advanced past the quarter-finals, and an element of historical precedent remains within the competition’s core. Since 2004-05, the only club without a storied history of continental excellence to lift the trophy was Chelsea in 2011-12, who were taken over by Russian businessman Roman Abramovich in 2003.

With that exception, only Liverpool, Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid, all clubs with significant European pedigree, have won the Champions League.

On the other hand, recent Champions League upstarts such as PSG, Manchester City, Atlético Madrid, and Tottenham Hotspur have continuously struggled to deliver in the competition’s biggest moments. Los Rojiblancos fell twice in three years in finals against hated rivals Real with both affairs going beyond 90 minutes. City, heavily favoured heading into their quarter-final against English rivals Liverpool last season were stunned 5-1 on aggregate and have never reached the final.

Spurs collapsed against Juventus at home in last season’s quarter-final tie, conceding two goals in a three-minute span in the second leg while leading on both aggregate and away goals to fall out of the competition.

Therefore, there seems to be a connection between European success in high-stakes moments that runs deeper than the individual players on the pitch: the clubs who have done it before find a way. Following the improbable victory over PSG, Manchester United interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer maintained that there a champion’s mentality persisted within the Red Devils’ dressing room.

"“We always believed,” Solskjaer said. “Of course we fancy ourselves, we can go all the way…this is how we do things at Man United.”"

PSG’s collapse was once again symptomatic of the mental sturdiness of their historically-excellent opposition. Just as Barcelona believed on that magical night in Catalonia years ago, United showed a similar spirit as they triumphed at the Parc des Princes.

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The Champions League, the world’s most important club competition, has proven time and time again that it cannot be bought. Wednesday’s affair showed the world that the trophy, and the generation that comes with lifting it, comes at a price far greater than €1 billion.