With all of the things at stake last Wednesday in the final game of the Champions League group stage, the result PSG earned in their 2-1 victory over Juventus away from home certainly felt like a loss.
Paris entered the last game locked into an 11-point tie with Benfica for first place in Group H. Doing the same as the Portuguese side would suffice. Had Benfica lost to Haifa, there would have been no drama. It would have been pretty much the same had they drawn their game. Even in winning, what they ultimately did, PSG could just earn a victory over one-win, Europa League-bound Juventus and come back home sitting at the top.
What nobody with the tiniest of links to the Parisian club expected, of course, was the Portuguese giants to blast Haifa and bag six goals against the Israel club while only getting scored on once. Not the brightest of assumptions considering PSG put seven goals on the scoreboard the last time they met the fourth-place minnows.
Juventus, missing 12 players last Wednesday and playing a squad full of makeshift players and reserves-in-starting-duty, clearly deserved more than a defeat at the hands of an entirely uninterested team. Simply put, Paris walked this game all throughout.
PSG players passed the ball around without any sort of plan in mind. Yes, they had to earn the 3 points to see themselves through in first place, but with their presence in the Round of 16 already secured there was never that much urgency. PSG spent 90 minutes roaming a football pitch while they could have better spent that time eating ravioli and drinking fine wine on the streets of Turin at night.
No disrespect to Juventus. The Bianconeri knew the position they were in, they knew that Benfica would probably be helping them in the long distance by defeating Haifa, but nonetheless, they never relented and kept the pedal to the metal for the full 90 minutes of playing time. As they should.
Paris landed the first blow just 13 minutes into the game when Kylian Mbappe found the net for the Parisian. Federico Gatti (see what I meant with the whole “missing 12 players” bit?) did all he could to spot the young Frenchman but Mbappe, stubborn as ever and once more playing off the left wing, bulldozed his way through the Italian to then dribble to his right and ship the ball to the bottom of Juventus’ net.
Mbappe’s goal celebration was, perhaps, more telling than we initially thought. Trying to mimic Cristiano Ronaldo’s trademarked move – the assertive jump, the crossed arms – might have indicated what was ahead for PSG in the vein of what the Portuguese (what a coincidence, by the way) forward has been up to of late: a lackluster performance absent of determination and, more than anything, dominant outcomes.
Juventus’ equalizer in the 39th minute sounded the alarms. Juan Cuadrado had been driving fellow Juan (Bernat) mad for the greater part of the first half and the Columbian was the man assisting veteran captain Leonardo Bonucci for the Italian to bring PSG’s dreams to a halt.
With Benfica also drawing their game by halftime, though, everything was still very fine for the Parisian.
Christophe Galtier, PSG’s coach, said it best but ultimately failed to abide by his words. “We knew that we needed to win,” said Galtier. “We also knew that Benfica was 1-1 at halftime and scored soon after the second half started. We did not know how the game ended.” That, in the year of our Lord 2022, is hard to believe, to say the least.
Nuno Mendes came on with the clock reading 67:15 and when the ball crossed Juventus’ goal for the second time to put PSG 2-1 ahead it was signaling 68:05. Barely one minute and one touch is all it took Mendes to outperform Bernat – clearly outplayed by Cuadrado, five years his elder.
Nothing happened between the 60th minute and the 94th. Or maybe, it did. Paying homage to the attitude of PSG last Wednesday, taking for granted their first place in Group H, I don’t know if it’d be fair to detail that part of the affair.
Neymar, who missed this game with a one-match ban for yellow-card accumulation, was probably one of the winners of the game in terms of his future status and role within the Parisian organization. That alone is telling of a squad that, barring those magic moments from the three geniuses part of their forward line, suffer more than they don’t.
Paris winning games these days feels like watching a boxing contender winning fights against lesser opponents dragging them to the judges’ decision. There might be up and downs along the way but the overall picture is always going to benefit the highly ranked man.
That’s why PSG have won their last three games by scorelines of 7-2, 4-3, and 2-1. That, though, doesn’t mean that scoring 13 goals while allowing six is any type of guarantee – for whatever you want it to be. Much less when the teams at the other end either play in Israel, sit in the middle of the French domestic competition, or have one victory over six Champions League games – while also missing 11-plus men last Wednesday.
Now, instead of spending a month in Qatar playing for the World Cup and looking ahead at a potential matchup with the likes of Frankfurt, Club Brugge, Borussia Dortmund, or RB Leipzig… PSG players will spend the next few months worrying about having to deal with someone coming off a pot including balls named after Bayern, Man. City, and Real Madrid.
Paris will always have the gleam and glitter. PSG will always flash some brilliance. At the end of the day, though, uninterrupted brilliance takes a conscious effort. The men donning PSG threads last Wednesday and playing in one of the most important games for the club in the first half of the season clearly lacked all of that. Benfica did not.
Alas, bon (second-place) voyage.