European Football

Remontada

A recap of just how much has changed based on those famous 45 minutes in Madrid…

So…the magic of the Champions League, huh?

The ability to feel down and defeated in one moment and be brilliantly on top in the next. The ability for the story to change in a split second. It only takes one moment of magic to write history. And we got history in Madrid, as Real Madrid’s imperious second half comeback allowed Los Blancos to end the night 3-1 victors over Paris Saint-Germain, advancing 3-2 on aggregate and knocking the Parisians out of the competition.

Don’t try to undersell this game. There is not enough hyperbole that can be attached to it. This was massive. Humongous. Cataclysmic. Earth-shattering. This is a game that changes the outlooks and world views for not just both teams, but for all outside observers as well. This is a game that reverses some trends, changing some narratives while cementing some others, and will surely lead to a ripple effect of activity at the end of the season (if not earlier). 90 simple minutes have dramatically changed how we think about these two teams, the 22 players on the pitch, the two managers, and the trajectories that these clubs are going in.

And it would be fitting for us to start with the victors. This was not a classic Real Madrid performance, and this is most definitely not a classic Real Madrid team. Carlo Ancelotti’s side were probably second-best in most regards for at least 135 of the 180 minutes of this knockout tie. But as they have been in the past, as Real Madrid seemingly always are in European competition, Los Blancos are a team of moments. They are a team that are difficult to truly put down, as they are one moment of brilliance away from a victory. Those brilliant moments came from two players in particular, two people who have certainly reinforced their claims of being Madridista legends.

Karim Benzema is one of the best players to ever play for Real Madrid. Let’s be honest with ourselves here. His stats do not lie, his trophy collection does not lie, and his hat trick against PSG will be another of his heroic moments that will go down in history. Benzema had been the hero for Real Madrid before, but there was something different about this moment, almost Ronaldo-esque with the sheer inevitability of the moment. Once the first goal went in, once you felt the wavering resolve of the visiting team, you could sense that he would score again.

Now, I am not saying he is Ronaldo, or even on the same level as the Portuguese superstar, but this was a moment where Karim Benzema’s stature in Madrid really solidified. Those three goals carried weight behind them. Not only did the Frenchman pass Alfredo Di Stéfano for third on Real Madrid’s all-time top scorers list, not only is he now improbably within very realistic range of passing Raúl to be second on that list, not only is there a realistic chance he could finish as the third highest Champions League goalscorer of all time (an accolade he is so far contending for without scoring a single penalty in the Champions League), but the moment itself might stand longer than the numbers. Years from now when you ask any Madridista about Benzema, I imagine that night against PSG will be one of the first things they think of. In a moment of weakness for Real Madrid, Benzema reminded the world that they are still great.

And who could forget the run that set up Benzema’s second goal, or the man who took part in that run. Luka Modrić is likely secure in the knowledge that, whenever he chooses to leave Real Madrid, he will walk away as one of the club’s best ever players. He walked off the pitch at the Santiago Bernabéu that night having written another chapter in his epic career, being equal with Benzema as the heroes of a legendary night for Los Blancos. A man who has won a Ballon d’Or, won several European Cups, and shone on the brightest stages is constantly reminding us that, even at the ripe age of 36, he is still one of the best technical midfielders in the world. He ran the show in the second half. While his whole game was not just that run to set up Benzema’s goal, that tantalizing, lung-busting run combined with a brilliantly weighted pass to play Vinícius into space and less flashy but equally brilliant pass later in the move to assist the goal is the essence of Luka Modrić. It shows in one run of play why he is one of the best midfielders of his generation.

This is not an all-time Real Madrid team. This is likely not a team that will win the Champions League. This is still a team that got embarrassingly knocked out of the Copa del Rey, and, despite being fairly comfortable favorites to win the league, you would not necessarily consider this a banner year for a club as massive as Real Madrid. But this is a team in transition, everyone understands that. Carlo Ancelotti is not “The Guy” moving forward, and I think he understands he is simply the person steering the ship until Raúl or Xabi Alonso come in to take charge, but he is certainly doing well in this transition. He has restored some pride to Real Madrid. And with the potential arrival of Kylian Mbappé, and potentially more, in the summer, this feels like we are turning the page to the next chapter of this historic club.

On Kylian himself, he is just phenomenal, isn’t he? A supremely gifted footballer and athlete who is only getting better and better over time, Mbappé had the ability to be dangerous in any moment. It was a “R9 Ronaldo”-esque ability to be immediately and incredibly dangerous any time he was remotely close to the ball, and it is very possible his one goal could have been more than one on the night. This night also probably left him with zero doubts about his future, and I would be surprised to see any other reality next season aside from Mbappé completing his lifelong dream to sign for Real Madrid. Spanish football journalist Sid Lowe described it perfectly by saying that on this night, Kylian learned that everything he was told about the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu was true while Madridistas learned that everything they were told about Kylian Mbappé was also true. It feels like the match made in heaven will soon be sealed.

Speaking of Kylian, let’s talk about his current team now. Paris Saint-Germain…it’s complicated, isn’t it?

We are nearing the decade mark of Qatari ownership in the French capital. While many different looking and different feeling projects have been launched during that decade, the one root goal has remained the same: win the Champions League. The last several years were the Neymar-Mbappé Era, quite possibly the boldest, flashiest, and most expensive of the PSG iterations that we have seen. They added multitudes of world class players, brought in one of the hottest commodities on the managerial market in Mauricio Pochettino, and attempted to position themselves as the world’s next great super team.

And it is safe to say that the current iteration of this Parisian project has been nothing short of an abject, colossal, and catastrophic failure.

Do not lie to yourself. Do not sugar coat things to make them seem better. Let us call it how it is. The last two and a half years in particular have been nothing short of a complete and total disaster domestically and internationally for PSG. Aside from a fairly fortuitous run to the UCL Final in 2020 and an even more fortuitous run to the semifinal the very next year, the PSG experience in Europe has been embarrassment after embarrassment, a boogeyman that they have not been able to overcome. We know about their domestic failures last season, losing the league title to a Lille team working with a fraction of their annual budget, but that has now been compounded by elimination from the Coupe de France this season at the earliest stage in nearly a decade. They will likely cruise to another league title, their 10th in total, but this one feels again more fortuitous than others. If it was not for the individual brilliance of Mbappé, they might very well be in a league title fight with Nice and Marseille right now. More and more headlines and stories will come out, criticizing this team and deeming them the worst team of the QSI era. And when you watch them play, it is hard to really disagree.

And do not forget, this is a team with Messi, Mbappé, and Neymar in it.

This was not PSG’s first European humiliation. It was not their worst, either. But it certainly was their most self-inflicted. Real Madrid were good, but it seemed like PSG simply fell apart way too easily, undoing all of the hard work that Kylian Mbappé had done up to that point. Everything that had been said about PSG in the past is still true now. They are a team that lacks any sort of composure in big moments, as well as any sort of philosophy outside of “give the ball to Kylian.” They are no closer to achieving their ultimate European goal than they were before Mbappé got here. If this was Paris Saint-Germain’s sales pitch to Mbappé to prove why he should stay in Paris and not join Real Madrid, then they have failed in the most spectacular way possible. The Mbappé Era in Paris will likely end with this failure, and changes need to be made.

It is hard to definitively pinpoint where the buck should stop, so to speak, but we all know where it starts. It is safe to say that Pochettino will not be returning to PSG next season. With openings at Man United and potentially elsewhere, it would not be surprising for the Argentine to leave France with whatever tattered remains are left of his reputation before the situation gets even worse. It is a split that would be best for all involved.

Pochettino has not done a good job at PSG, in any respect or regard whatsoever. Any argument to the contrary would be fairly naïve. His tactics have not worked, he has failed to instill an identity or ideology within this team, and he has been largely dependent upon the individual brilliance of (mainly) Mbappé to get results. If you take Mbappé out of this team, you would have a completely different looking league table the past calendar year. He has not done any better at coaching the mentality of this team compared to Thomas Tuchel or even Unai Emery, and this PSG team still has the moral fiber of damp cardboard. This was on display in Madrid, as a mentally frail PSG team fell apart at the seams the moment Real Madrid applied any sort of pressure. Once they conceded the first goal, which came from an unbelievable lack of composure at the back from Gigio Donnarumma, they were set to crumble. When you watch PSG struggle domestically against teams they should be beating easily, their recent losses to Nice and Nantes being perfect examples of this, you have to ask questions of their management and how they are being asked to play. Poch was billed as a tactical genius when leaving Spurs, but the real Mauricio Pochettino has yet to show up in Paris.

But the buck does not stop with the manager. Yes, you can criticize the players certainly, but there have been and will be enough hit pieces about Neymar and Messi to last multiple lifetimes, so we will ignore them for now. Not enough questions, however, have been asked of the people above the manager.

There are absolutely zero circumstances outside of a miraculous long-term extension agreed with Mbappé that should allow PSG Sporting Director Leonardo Araújo to remain in that position at the end of the season. Leonardo has been a camera darling recently, using quite literally every opportunity available to him to talk a big game about PSG refusing to give up Mbappé and disparaging other clubs for not treating PSG with the necessary respect, but he has certainly not delivered on that talk. PSG might be one of the few teams in the world that have actively gotten worse after spending more money. Mbappé, Neymar, Messi, Hakimi, Donnarumma, Wijnaldum, Paredes, Ramos, and more have arrived through the gates of the Parc des Princes in recent years, and it is hard to say whether PSG have actually gotten better as a result. It is as if Leonardo thinks you can run an actual football team like you are playing FIFA Ultimate Team. He is quite possibly the only person who genuinely thinks football is played on paper, choosing to build the flashiest looking team instead of one with any sort of genuine substance, connection, or structure. Or maybe he has become too obsessed with the marketing, choosing signings based on how many interactions their Twitter announcement will get or how many Jordan Brand jerseys they will sell instead of how they fit into the overall structure of the team. And I have no doubt that his shiny new signings are deemed undroppable, and he is/was actively interfering in Tuchel and Pochettino’s management of the team directly to the detriment of both managers.

It is this ego that has governed PSG for the last several years, alongside an equally large and obtuse ego in chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi. And you do not even need to read too deeply into the probably-true-but-still-alleged rumors about al-Khelaifi and Leonardo being awful individuals to work for, mistreating PSG employees, and actively feuding with each other. Look at how they treat the club outwardly. Pochettino has done a poor job, sure, but surely his confidence takes a massive hit when he reads the papers every day and sees his employers’ very flirtatious and not at all secret lusting over Zinedine Zidane. What about Keylor Navas, maybe the biggest reason why PSG were even in the title race last season, who surely was unnerved by the club’s outward and successful pursuit of Gigio Donnarumma for no real particular reason aside from an ego-inflating bonus. And what about Thomas Tuchel, who actively (and correctly) told club officials that they needed a replacement for departing club legend Thiago Silva only for his concerns to be dismissed and belittled publicly by Leonardo.

This cannot continue, and this game should show why. PSG need root and branch restructuring if they seriously want to contend in European competition. The governance by ego, the signings based on name and nothing else, and the constant desire to flaunt status that has not been earned has to stop. PSG need to focus on building a team, not assembling a list of big names to sell shirts. Sure, they can still pursue stars, but have an idea of the team, style, and philosophy you want to create and recruit players based around that. Look at players who are on the verge of stardom but need a place to thrust themselves into the spotlight. For example, it would be disrespectful and incorrect to say no one had ever heard of Mohamed Salah prior to his move to Liverpool from Roma, but Liverpool saw a player at Roma approaching stardom and went after him. The signing of Nuno Mendes from Sporting Club is a good example of PSG doing this well, but PSG need to make more those similar investments, built around a style and philosophy that a consistent manager or an actually talented Sporting Director can bring.

And they clearly need to invest in youth. PSG have the benefit of existing in Paris, maybe the biggest football talent hotbed in Europe at the moment, but they do not use that nearly to the extent that they should. That is free talent going to waste. Imagine what this team could look like with Kingsley Coman still there, or Christopher Nkunku, or Mike Maignan. What if PSG were the ones who signed William Saliba from AS Bondy instead of Saint-Étienne? What if they had gotten Mbappé before Monaco did? Take a chance on the kids, like most other French teams do with great success. PSG could build a team made up of talented young players and experienced veterans, blending the star power that they want with a real personality and identity within the side, something that the fans, a large percentage of which hail from the Parisian banlieues, can actually feel a connection to. A team that is a collective, built in the vision of whomever replaces Leonardo and in the tactical philosophy of their manager, whether it be Zidane or someone else. PSG still have not learned that you cannot pay hundreds of millions of Euros to slap 11 big name players together and be successful with that.

45 minutes certainly changed quite a bit for these two teams. We preluded a new era of Real Madrid and possibly closed the book on an old era of PSG. We firmly cemented legends for Los Blancos while questioning the continuation of key figures for the Parisians. All decided by 45 minutes of football. A little ridiculous? Maybe, but this is football. And this is why we love it.

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