P.S.G. Breaks Its Glass Ceiling. Now Comes the Hardest Part.

64

In that second half, the cavalry saved coming, wandering off the bench and onto the sphere one after the opposite. As Atalanta’s gamers blinked again the sweat, it should have felt as if Paris St.-Germain may draw from a bottomless nicely of expertise.

First, the boy surprise, the following greatest participant on the planet, along with his blistering pace and his glistening menace and his adhesive contact. That was dangerous sufficient. Then got here the German winger who would stroll into all however a handful of groups on the planet, and the playmaker not lengthy since thought to be Argentine soccer’s coming star.

True, there was a sliver of solace to be discovered within the desperation of all of it. The clock was ticking on Thomas Tuchel, P.S.G.’s coach: 30 minutes till one more humiliation within the Champions League; 20 minutes left to avoid wasting his job; 10 minutes earlier than all that discuss of a curse got here rumbling again.

Tuchel has a popularity as chilly and aloof, as a coach who thrives within the sideline battle of wits: a tweak right here, a contact there, a wise shift that modifications the dynamic of a recreation. He is a tactician, greater than a rouser or a cajoler or a motivator. But there was no subtlety on Wednesday, no grand thought past throwing all the things and everybody ahead and seeing what occurred.

Image
Credit…Pool photograph by David Ramos

Sometimes, although, materials sources trump psychological ones. With scarcely greater than a minute left to play, Atalanta was nearly there, within the semifinals of the Champions League, the grandest stage on which it had ever performed, in the darkest yr its Italian hometown, Bergamo, has ever skilled. The nice fairy story — the kind of story that soccer’s vulture economics are actually particularly designed to stop — was on.

And then, impulsively, it wasn’t. Marquinhos bundled home an equalizer. Atalanta sagged. Neymar slid the ball into Kylian Mbappé’s path and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting stabbed a winner previous goalkeeper Marco Sportiello. Atalanta collapsed.

Sportiello glared on the scoreboard, hanging from the roof of Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz, as if he was accusing it of mendacity with its show: 2-1. Some of his teammates crumpled on the grass. Others appeared to freeze, their eyes locked in thousand-yard stares. P.S.G., for the primary time in 1 / 4 of a century, had made it right into a Champions League semifinal.

Credit…Pool photograph by David Ramos

The various was unthinkable. This competitors has introduced P.S.G. nothing however bother lately. The membership exists, successfully, solely to win it. Its backer, Qatar Sports Investments, doesn’t regard strolling to one more Ligue 1 title as a very efficient method to win hearts and minds, or to specific the worldwide relevance of the Gulf state, or regardless of the goal of its multibillion-dollar funding could be. The glory, the standing, is within the Champions League.

But so is the ache. P.S.G. thought it had its breakthrough second in 2017, when it demolished Barcelona on the Parc des Princes; a couple of weeks later, it was humiliated at Camp Nou, its defeat orchestrated by Neymar. No matter; lesson discovered.

That summer season, Neymar moved to Paris, his charge greater than double the earlier world switch document, a determine unlikely to be crushed — in a post-pandemic world — for a while, if in any respect. Just to make sure, not lengthy after, the membership added Mbappé to its ranks.

Still, these items should not fairly that easy. Real Madrid knocked P.S.G. out with ease in 2018. A late rally from Manchester United did the identical a yr later. Until the final second, Atalanta appeared set so as to add to that listing.

Credit…Pool photograph by David Ramos

The undeniable fact that P.S.G. may need been in a position to level to real, and important, mitigating circumstances — an damage to Mbappé, in addition to the absence of Marco Verratti and Angel Di María; the truth that France’s determination to not resume play after the coronavirus-induced hiatus meant it had performed solely two aggressive video games in 5 months — wouldn’t have mattered. This would have been simply one other choke.

That it isn’t is down, partially, to the fourth outfield reserve Tuchel known as upon, the participant who turned out to be the scorer of the aim that lastly broke what gave the impression to be the French champion’s glass ceiling, and an emblem of a lesson P.S.G. would possibly lastly be beginning to heed.

Choupo-Moting, it’s honest to say, is just not the kind of participant who suits P.S.G.’s typical switch mannequin. There was no line of followers snaking outdoors the Parc des Princes determined to get their arms on his duplicate jersey when he signed from a Stoke City crew that had simply been relegated from the Premier League, in 2018.

Indeed, over the spell of his time in Paris, he has been handled as one thing of a novelty act, as if he has not had a superbly respectable profession within the second tier of European soccer: Born in Germany, he spent his early years at Hamburg, earlier than transferring on to Mainz — the place he labored with Tuchel — after which Schalke, making 55 appearances for Cameroon within the course of.

His each look has been greeted with one thing verging on incredulity: This man? The one who scored 5 objectives in 31 video games for a crew not ok to remain in England’s high flight? On the identical subject as Neymar and Mbappé? Remember that point that he managed to not rating basically from contained in the aim throughout a league recreation towards Strasbourg?

Choupo-Moting, in fact, is just not as richly gifted as a few of his teammates. He is just not rewarded fairly so handsomely. He was not, even, the inspiration behind P.S.G.’s revival towards Atalanta. That was very a lot Neymar, wonderful in all however his ending on Wednesday, and Mbappé, a burst of pure goal after his injury-delayed introduction.

Credit…Pool photograph by Rafael Marchante

But there’s a purpose that Neymar, elected as the sport’s greatest participant, handed his man-of-the-match trophy to Choupo-Moting afterward. P.S.G. should certainly have discovered by now that glamour alone is not going to ship the Champions League title.

The Galactico mannequin, as honed by turn-of-the-century Real Madrid, has its limits. That crew, in spite of everything, didn’t win the trophy it craved after Ronaldo and David Beckham joined Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane. Stardust alone is just not sufficient. Workhorses and assist acts and water-carriers are wanted, too, gamers who should not there so as to add moments of surprise however to do the one factor they’re good at, to be in the proper place on the proper time.

This is, in fact, solely step one for P.S.G. Either RB Leipzig or Atlético Madrid awaits within the semifinal; the latter, definitely, would probably be much less daunted by the sight of Tuchel’s marshaling his reserve troops on the sideline. Pass by way of that and there’s the small matter of the ultimate: Bayern Munich or Barcelona or Manchester City or Lyon.

All of these groups — with the respectful exception of Lyon — can match P.S.G. for star energy. They can stand toe to toe with Tuchel’s aspect when it comes to the depth of their squad, the wealth of their sources.

What will make the distinction, greater than something, is how these sources are deployed; whose squad is constructed most intelligently; who has the breadth, not the depth, of gamers at their disposal. Players like Neymar win tournaments. More typically than you suppose, although, it’s gamers like Choupo-Moting who win video games.