PSG: Messi, Neymar and Mbappe project has failed to deliver Champions League glory

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Paris Saint-Germain will play on. That’s the thing about football, there’s always more fixtures.

On to a home one against bottom-of-the-league Bordeaux on Sunday lunchtime, then a visit to Monaco same time the following weekend. After the internationals, it’s Lorient and Clermont.

None of those games will bring them any pleasure or excitement whatsoever. They’re all now just obligations to fulfil, going tediously through the motions until this now wretched season eventually comes to a finish on May 21.

Paris Saint-Germain suffered another embarrassing failure in the Champions League as they lost 3-2 on aggregate to Real Madrid despite Kylian Mbappe's best efforts

Paris Saint-Germain suffered another embarrassing failure in the Champions League as they lost 3-2 on aggregate to Real Madrid despite Kylian Mbappe’s best efforts

Lionel Messi signed for PSG to win another Champions League but it won't be this season

Lionel Messi signed for PSG to win another Champions League but it won’t be this season

PSG are 13 points clear at the top of Ligue 1. Sooner or later, their lead will be mathematically sufficient to claim the title for what will be the eighth time in 10 seasons. But the celebrations will be perfunctory, even forced.

Their Champions League elimination – that inexplicable, anguished, recurring nightmare exit to Real Madrid on Wednesday night – has had the same effect on their campaign as the twinkling lights on the Eiffel Tower being plunged into darkness by a power cut.

It feels like so much more than just one defeat in a match of football. 

That torment at the hands of Frenchman Karim Benzema, chucking away a commanding 2-0 aggregate lead in the space of 17 unbelievable minutes, feels like a moment of reckoning for the entire PSG project.

Because, ultimately, what is the point of assembling a forward line of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe if it doesn’t win you the Champions League?

PSG have assembled one of the most talented forward lines ever - with Messi, Neymar and Mbappe - but it has unbalanced the team and never offered guarantee of success

PSG have assembled one of the most talented forward lines ever – with Messi, Neymar and Mbappe – but it has unbalanced the team and never offered guarantee of success

Mauricio Pochettino will almost certainly be sacked as PSG manager following their exit

Mauricio Pochettino will almost certainly be sacked as PSG manager following their exit

French striker Karim Benzema tormented PSG with a 17-minute hat-trick on Wednesday night

French striker Karim Benzema tormented PSG with a 17-minute hat-trick on Wednesday night 

What is the point of dominating every domestic competition, battering French rivals out of sight, if you can’t get it right on the biggest stage?

And what is the point of having your Qatari billions, of rolling out the red carpet at the Parc des Princes to the great and good of showbusiness, of your mega-money fashion tie-ups with Dior, Hugo Boss and Jordan, of being big in China, Dubai and Japan, if you keep failing to win your holy grail?

Could Leonardo's time as PSG's sporting director be coming to a close?

Could Leonardo’s time as PSG’s sporting director be coming to a close?

PSG were runners-up in 2020 and reached the semi-finals last season. They were getting within touching distance of the thing they craved above everything else. This was meant to be the year they finally grabbed it.

Instead, the remainder of the season will now be filled with bitter recriminations and soul-searching. They just haven’t got it right, that much is clear, and their last-16 departure feels like an existential moment. Where do they go from here?

The editorial in French newspaper L’Equipe the morning after the horrendous night before summed it all up nicely: ‘It is no longer an accident, it is a culture… they did not learn any lessons and continued to think it was enough just to unite stars for the planets to align. It is the culture of the club that is at the heart of the failure.’

Other unfathomable collapses in the competition were referenced. In 2017, they thrashed Barcelona 4-0 in the first leg at this stage then somehow lost the return leg 6-1, conceding three times after the 88th minute.

In 2019, they were in a commanding position against Manchester United, winning the first leg 2-0 at Old Trafford. In what was still the age of away goals, they conspired to lose 3-1 at home, the killer blow coming in minute 94.

In 2017, PSG threw away a 4-0 lead to lose 6-1 to Barcelona in the original 'remontada'

In 2017, PSG threw away a 4-0 lead to lose 6-1 to Barcelona in the original ‘remontada’

PSG owner Nasser Al-Khelaifi responded by smashing the transfer record to sign Neymar

PSG owner Nasser Al-Khelaifi responded by smashing the transfer record to sign Neymar

PSG genuinely believed that such ‘remontadas’ were behind them, that the lessons had been learned. Part of their solution had been to go out and buy Neymar, who scored twice against them in 2017, and then Messi, both from Barcelona.

But as Wednesday night proved, PSG still stumble and fall calamitously when confronted by the mental hurdles constructed by this most unforgiving of tournaments.

As Manchester City have also discovered, having exceedingly deep pockets is no guarantee that history can simply be rewritten. But as City march on, this could be the end for PSG as we have come to know them.

The first victim will almost certainly be the manager Mauricio Pochettino, either immediately or at the end of the campaign.

The Argentine was appointed because the PSG hierarchy believed he could deliver Champions League success, despite having never actually won it, but he has failed in that objective and there seems little point dragging out the farewells.

Marcus Rashford rounded off Man United's astonishing turnaround in Paris in 2019

Marcus Rashford rounded off Man United’s astonishing turnaround in Paris in 2019

PSG was rocked by the horrific collapse against United, having won the first leg 2-0 away

PSG was rocked by the horrific collapse against United, having won the first leg 2-0 away

Pochettino has been ensconced in a luxury Paris hotel since he arrived in January last year. With his family still in London, you can’t blame Pochettino for not being fully invested in it. He might as well settle the tab and check out.

It will leave Qatari Sports Investments (QSI) looking to appoint a sixth manager since they arrived to transform the club in 2011.

Carlo Ancelotti, Laurent Blanc, Unai Emery, Thomas Tuchel and now Pochettino have failed to deliver them the Champions League. 

Zinedine Zidane, who won three consecutive European titles at Real Madrid, would be the overwhelming favourite to come in next. And if he can’t end the wait, then who can?

Sporting director Leonardo, a club legend appointed to oversee recruitment shortly after QSI’s arrival, could also pay the price for this latest failure.

A tearful Neymar walks past the Champions League trophy after their near-miss in 2020

A tearful Neymar walks past the Champions League trophy after their near-miss in 2020

Al-Khelaifi and the club's Qatari owners are desperate to win a first Champions League crown

Al-Khelaifi and the club’s Qatari owners are desperate to win a first Champions League crown

PSG broke the bank again, on wages at least, to sign Lionel Messi to achieve their aim

PSG broke the bank again, on wages at least, to sign Lionel Messi to achieve their aim

This would be a tacit admission that PSG’s modern day ‘Galactico’ policy of recruitment has just been a colossally expensive failure.

PSG smashed the world transfer record when they paid almost £200million to bring Neymar from Barcelona in 2017. At the time, it looked like the Brazilian would be placed alongside Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the highest pantheon of world stars.

But Neymar has either been out injured at most of the key junctures in the five years since or has just failed to deliver when it truly matters. 

The exception was some important contributions in their run to the 2020 final but has he really justified that enormous outlay and £540,000-a-week wages? No. 

Contracted to PSG until 2025, the deal only signed last May, there is unlikely to be a quick escape for him at the end of the season.

Messi and Neymar reflect after one of Benzema's goals as Real Madrid snatched victory

Messi and Neymar reflect after one of Benzema’s goals as Real Madrid snatched victory

A decade of PSG falling short in the Champions League

2012-13 Lost on away goals to Barcelona in the quarter-finals after 3-3 aggregate scoreline

2013-14 Lost on away goals to Chelsea in the quarter-finals after 3-3 aggregate scoreline

2014-15 Lost 5-1 on aggregate to Barcelona in the quarter-finals

2015-16 Lost 3-2 on aggregate to Manchester City in the quarter-finals

2016-17 Lost 6-5 on aggregate to Barcelona in the last-16

2017-18 Lost 5-2 on aggregate to Real Madrid in the last-16

2018-19 Lost on away goals to Manchester United in the last-16 after 3-3 aggregate scoreline

2019-20 Lost 1-0 to Bayern Munich in the final

2020-21 Lost 4-1 on aggregate to Manchester City in the semi-finals

2021-22 Lost 3-2 on aggregate to Real Madrid in the last-16

Mbappe was the next to arrive, from Monaco initially on loan in 2017. He cost them £130m, the most expensive teenager of all-time, and is paid around £400,000-a-week.

In fairness to the France striker, he is absolved of blame amid this bloody post-mortem after scoring in both legs. 

He couldn’t have done any more but his ambitions to win the major silverware mean his summer move away, most likely to Real, whose fans applauded him at the Bernabeu, is now all but inevitable.

Losing him to their Champions League conquerors will be a blow to PSG’s prestige but Mbappe is unlikely to be convinced to hang around – especially now.

Kylian Mbappe certainly showed why Real Madrid want to sign him from PSG in the summer

Kylian Mbappe certainly showed why Real Madrid want to sign him from PSG in the summer

Then there’s Messi. A winner of three Champions League titles at Barcelona, the 34-year-old was supposed to bring the knowhow and the sprinkling of magic to get PSG over the line.

But his first season in Paris has been pretty underwhelming. A series of injury issues, just seven goals and the creeping feeling that age has finally overtaken the great man.

Messi may sell plenty of shirts for PSG but we’ve seen little evidence in recent months that the old sparkle remains. 

In the twilight of his career, Messi doesn’t now have too many more opportunities to win the fourth Champions League crown that would round off a stunning career.

PSG have committed to paying him £94m over the course of his three-year contract. It’s a two-way street here, they need more from Messi in return for his handsome reward, or they may as well cut the cord in the summer.

Messi has found the going tough during his first season in Paris after leaving Barcelona

Messi has found the going tough during his first season in Paris after leaving Barcelona

But what PSG have hopefully learned is that you can’t simply stick three players like this, however absurdly talented and famous, into a team and just expect miracles to unfold.

Upsetting the delicate ecosystem of the dressing room with big egos aside, there is the fundamental tactical problems that neither Messi, Neymar nor Mbappe are effective at pressing opponents or tracking back to help out the midfield and defence. Surely they realised this?

Pochettino’s whole approach to the game demands that every player, starting with the forwards, puts in a shift and piles on the pressure from the front. It worked really well for him at Tottenham.

Instead, PSG have a huge gap between the forward three and everyone else that any savvy opponents can exploit, with little to no pressure on them.

Even the hardest-working midfield is left powerless when three members of the side are essentially passengers. It was always doomed to failure.

The signing of Sergio Ramos, icon of Real Madrid, has also proved a flop with the defender sidelined by injury issues for most of the season.

The injured Sergio Ramos (second right) could only watch on powerless from the stands

The injured Sergio Ramos (second right) could only watch on powerless from the stands

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was at fault for the first of Benzema's three goals

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was at fault for the first of Benzema’s three goals

PSG also wanted a top class goalkeeper and did some good business to get the Italian Gianluigi Donnarumma on a free from AC Milan.

But it was his lapse in concentration, losing the ball to Benzema, that led to Wednesday night’s collapse. 

With Pochettino and Mbappe highly likely to depart and Messi far from happy, this would be the perfect opportunity to abandon this Galactico 2.0 approach and put full trust in a manager to shape the team as he wants.

But weighted against this for president Nasser Al-Khelaifi is the enormous economic potential that comes with PSG fielding the biggest names.

The club has a combined total of 150m social media followers with 87 per cent of them overseas. They sell over one million shirts worldwide each year and have club stores in Tokyo, Seoul, Doha and Los Angeles.

Their apparel is highly fashionable with NBA and NFL stars happy to be seen wearing PSG x Jordan gear. They’ve become part football club, part fashion brand and the money is rolling in.

Having names like Messi, Neymar and Mbappe on the teamsheet help perpetuate this. 

PSG has sought to become a global fashion brand, collaborating with Jordan and opening club stores around the world

PSG has sought to become a global fashion brand, collaborating with Jordan and opening club stores around the world

Signing the likes of Lionel Messi has helped boost merchandise sales and enhance their brand

Signing the likes of Lionel Messi has helped boost merchandise sales and enhance their brand

Al-Khelaifi may be tempted to just continue splashing the cash, trying to ram square pegs into round holes, keep hiring and firing managers, and hope someone sooner or later stumbles upon a Champions League-winning formula.

You suspect the true PSG fans, the ones who were there pre-2011 but have been squeezed out by €240 Champions League tickets, Instagramming day trippers and A-listers in the tunnel club, would just like a less expensive but more effective approach.

They’d like to see the immense football talent of the city of Paris coming through PSG’s academy and represented more in the first team, rather than simply signing on name and brand potential.

The club are spending over £300m on a new training centre that is more of a sprawling campus boasting a 5,000-seater stadium, judo centre, laboratory and library.

Football tourism - driven by the big names at PSG - have seen tickets become more expensive and harder to get a hold of

Football tourism – driven by the big names at PSG – have seen tickets become more expensive and harder to get a hold of 

The club have branched out from matters on the pitch, taking the clubs name into fashion, art and Esports as well

The club have branched out from matters on the pitch, taking the clubs name into fashion, art and Esports as well

It sounds like the perfect facility to develop the next generation of Parisian talent, to begin something more sustainable and wholesome than just breaking the bank every summer.

So it’s clear that PSG stand at a crossroads. The summer will see great changes in personnel, a ruthless cull of those deemed not up to standard with nobody immune.

They have a choice – continue to spend eye-watering sums, because they can, on stellar players who cannot necessarily operate within a successful team.

Or change tack, fully invest in the ways of a new manager and give them time to build a functioning team capable of challenging for the Champions League.

As that L’Equipe article continued: ‘Football should be about respect. It is built, it is envisaged and it is worked upon. It cannot emerge by miracle from a sporting policy that does not care about the balance of a workforce and makes it ungovernable for its coach.’

It’s all in play for PSG in the bleak morning after the nightmare before.

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