Perhaps this really will be Paris Saint-Germain’s year after all.
Until deep in the 90th minute vs. Atalanta, it looked as though the French champion was going out of the Champions League. Here again, it seemed, was the familiar story of PSG's underperformance on the biggest stage, yet another premature exit following seven straight years of last-16 or quarterfinal ousters despite a massive expenditure. But two goals in three minutes at a neutral site in Portugal changed all that.
PSG wound up eliminating its spirited Italian foe, 2-1, going through to face either Atletico Madrid or RB Leipzig. Perhaps, after winning through a late comeback rather than losing to one, it will carry with it a sense that destiny on the European stage, for once, is in its corner.
From the moment Kylian Mbappe, less than three weeks removed from an ankle injury that threatened his participation, came on with half an hour to go, the pressure began to mount. Until then, it had been a typical PSG performance. It had wasted chances. It had looked short of ideas. But as Atalanta tired, the chances, at last, began to flow. First, Marquinhos poked in after an assist from Neymar to level, and then, in the third minute of injury time, substitute Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting slammed in a low Mbappe cross to become a highly unlikely match-winner.
For all the relief and glee at the end, PSG will also be aware that this was far from a convincing performance. It simply does not face opposition like this domestically. Atalanta’s pressing, its extraordinary attacking approach, can unsettle anybody, but particularly teams who are not used to being pressed. It wasn’t a meltdown quite as dramatic as that suffered by Real Madrid in the face of Manchester City’s press in the round of 16 last Friday, but PSG was clearly rattled.
A string of set plays created opportunities for Atalanta early on, and as Keylor Navas was forced into a couple of sharp saves, the anxiety that has so often overwhelmed PSG on the big occasion before almost visibly consumed the club again. Given how it plays, Atalanta is necessarily open at the back, as shown by the fact it had the worst defensive record of any of the quarterfinalists.
Three times in the first half, Neymar got in behind the defensive line. On each occasion he fluffed his lines, first skewing his shot wide when one on one with Marco Sportiello, then playing a weird soft cross to nobody–albeit he wasn’t helped by Mauro Icardi hiding himself behind his marker–then slicing well wide with a huge gap at the keeper’s near post. All three were extraordinary errors; all three provoked looks of bewilderment and shock not only on the face of Neymar but those of his teammates and manager.
With PSG there is always an extra level; its situation is so bizarre that nothing can ever be just about football. Neymar’s annual salary is more than that of the entire Atalanta squad. For him to be so tentative seemed symbolic of the whole psychodrama of the game, of PSG’s battle with its own memories of failure. And Neymar, as so often before in pressure situations, began to try to do too much.
Perhaps he had to, given how little support he got in the final third, and at least until the introduction of Mbappe he was by far PSG’s greatest threat, but it meant too often he ended up collecting the ball too deep or being caught in possession. Atalanta, by contrast, played with its familiar abandon. Some 26 minutes in, center back Rafael Toloi was in the PSG box in open play as the ball fell for Mario Pasalic after a Duvan Zapata run, and the Croatian whipped his shot into the top corner from just inside the box.
With Atalanta pouring forward at every opportunity, and PSG’s front three very reluctant to track back, the game frequently broke into two halves. From very early on, it had the dynamic of the final few minutes of a game, with both sides exhausted and one desperately chasing a goal, and that meant a lot of time and space for Marten De Roon and Remo Freuler. Better sides, perhaps, will exploit that.
Certainly there is plenty for PSG to improve. But if Mbappe is ready to start the semifinal, and Angel Di Maria (suspended) and Marco Verratti (injury) are available to Thomas Tuchel as well, it still has obvious gears to go through. Perhaps most important of all, though, it stared into the abyss and, for once, managed not to be drawn into it.
PSG’s ambitions are not limited to the last four, but a first semifinal in 25 years, and the manner in which it was achieved, will be cause for cathartic celebration.