PSG reaches first Champions League final with new-found composure - Sports Illustrated

New Territory for PSG: Composure on a Big Stage and a Champions League Final Berth

PSG was untroubled against RB Leipzig in the Champions League semifinals, and after years of failure and folding in the knockout stage, it's within touching distance of a trophy it has craved following a collective, organized performance.
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What was all the fuss about? Having spent 25 years trying and failing to get back to the Champions League semifinals, Paris Saint-Germain’s progress to a first Champions League final was remarkably serene. It dominated from the opening whistle, took the lead after 12 minutes and never looked back, eventually seeing off RB Leipzig by an emphatic 3-0 score.

After all the near misses, all the collapses, all the frustration, all the money that has been spent since the Qatari takeover of 2011, at last PSG is within one game of emerging victorious from the competition it is so desperate to win. Either Bayern Munich or Lyon will stand in its way in Sunday’s final at Benfica's Estadio da Luz.

Often in the past, PSG has resembled a collection of stars in search of a constellation: lots of talent but not much organization. That has changed under manager Thomas Tuchel, who again watched on from his cooler, seated with his leg in a protective plastic boot. This is a much more functional midfield than PSG used to have, with Ander Hererra and Leandro Paredes flanking Marquinhos and, in the first half particularly, there was pressing from the front three. That, certainly, hasn’t always been the case.

Neymar had already hit the post and Kylian Mbappe had a goal ruled out when Marquinhos glanced in Angel Di Maria’s perfectly delivered free kick after 12 minutes. Julian Nagelsmann, who was introduced to coaching by Thomas Tuchel during their time at Augsburg, switched to a back four, presumably for defensive security, but the early effect was to introduce a bizarre lethargy. The pressing that usually characterizes Leipzig’s play was missing, and PSG frolicked in the spaces between the lines.

Again and again, PSG exploited space behind Dayot Upamecano. And again and again Leipzig keeper Peter Gulacsi fluffed his kick when playing out from the back. Twice he got away with it, but not the third time. Marquinhos intercepted and pinged a pass at Neymar, who flicked the ball with the inside of his heel to Di Maria. The Argentine winger finished calmly to make it 2-0.

Leipzig, having looked so unflustered against Atletico Madrid, made a series of individual errors. Perhaps that was in part a result of the PSG press, but it also seemed that a number of players lost their nerve on the big occasion. And that, perhaps, is the downside of an approach so heavily predicated on youth. Of the outfielder players, only Kevin Kampl was older than 26: there isn’t a lot of experience there to fall back upon in a tough spot on a big stage.

At the same time, with Mbappe back from injury and Di Maria returned from suspension, PSG was far more dangerous going forward than it had been against Atalanta, when Neymar too often was left to orchestrate everything. Di Maria, in particular, was hugely effective, with two assists and his goal. Perhaps it wasn’t quite his best performance in a Champions League semifinal, but only because of his exceptional display for Real Madrid at Bayern Munich in 2014.

Angel Di Maria and Neymar help PSG reach the Champions League final

Then there was Neymar, who was at his best, drifting in from the left and controlling the game, creating chances. The only thing remaining was for Neymar to score. He hit the woodwork with a free kick after seeing Gulacsi drifting off his near post in anticipation of a cross and then scooped another good chance wide. That’s half a dozen good chances he’s missed over the past two games; perhaps he’s just saving them for the final.

Although PSG never looked like relinquishing its lead, there were some worrying signs after the break. One of the major doubts about PSG is that it is so unused to being challenged in France that it tends to react badly when it finally is on the European stage. Atalanta had caused PSG some problems with its pressing, and the thought had been that Leipzig would as well. But Leipzig was so timorous in the first half that PSG was never really tested. Whatever anxiety might have been induced by the opening minutes of the second half vanished as Juan Bernat, played onside by Nordi Mukiele who slipped and then remained prone appealing for a non-existent foul, nodded in Di Maria’s cross.

After the drama of the quartefinal win over Atalanta, it was all very anti-climactic, but nobody at PSG will be too bothered by that. The club is in the final for the first time in its 50-year history and within touching distance of the goal it has been chasing since 2011.