PSG's pattern of angry exits could see the end of Kylian Mbappe and Mauricio Pochettino

Real Madrid's stunning Champions League fightback likely to spark more change in Paris

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One of the referee’s assistants finished his night’s work with a broken flag. The most expensive attacking partnership ever put together by a football club reflected once again on a broken dream.

Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, €400 million worth of Paris Saint-Germain investment, have known too many European Champions League eliminations not to wonder if the near-misses are part of a chronic problem.

Not long after the final whistle had blown on a surreal night at the Bernabeu stadium, where Real Madrid had, in the space of Karim Benzema’s 17-minute, second-half hat-trick erased a 2-0 PSG advantage, the referee Danny Makkiele and his assistants were paid a visit in their dressing-room.

According to the match official’s report, so angry and confrontational was the delegation led by Paris Saint-Germain’s president, Nasser Al Khelaifi, that a linesman’s flag was vandalised, amid hot-tempered insults directed at the refereeing team.

Uefa, organisers of the competition, may impose a sanction, on senior PSG executives and on manager Mauricio Pochettino for his angry remarks about the refereeing of the see-saw second leg of the tie. Pochettino claimed his goalkeeper, Gigio Donnarumma, had been fouled by Benzema in the immediate build-up to the first Madrid goal. “What was VAR doing?” asked Pochettino. “It was a clear foul and that goal changed the game.”

PSG are developing quite a reputation for angry exits. Three seasons ago, at the same stage in the Champions League, Neymar was among those enraged at the award of a penalty, for a perceived handball by PSG’s Presnel Kimpembe late in a tie against Manchester United. Neymar, absent from the pitch with injury, still made noisy enough criticism of the officials that he picked up a four-match ban.

Behind the rage there is a pattern. PSG, who came under the wealthy patronage of their Qatari backers 11 years ago, keep spending big and keep squandering positions of advantage in high-stakes matches in the competition that matters most to their owners and their ambitious president.

On the night Neymar lost his composure, United’s Marcus Rashford converted the late penalty and conjured a remarkable late comeback. United had finished the first leg at Old Trafford trailing 2-0. They went to Paris, scored twice either side of Bernat’s goal for PSG, but only when Rashford converted the spot-kick in the fourth minute of stoppage time did United hold a lead across the entire two legs.

Rewind further, to the most famous European collapse of the modern era. In 2016-17, PSG met Barcelona for a place in the Champions League quarter-finals. They walloped them 4-0 in Paris. They also scored an away goal in the second leg at Camp Nou. Yet still they ended up eliminated, Barca’s sixth and decisive goal scored after 94 minutes by Sergi Roberto.

PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino watches from the sidelines as his side crash out of the Champions League against Real Madrid. AP

There’s more. How about the quarter-finals of the 2013-14 competition, when the PSG of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Thiago Silva took on Chelsea? The Paris leg set them up with a 3-1 lead. Up until the 87th minute of the London leg, they were holding a 3-2 aggregate advantage. Enter Demba Ba with a very late Chelsea goal, turfing out the French champions via the away-goals rule.

Ba. Sergi Roberto. Rashford. Now Benzema, who in the 78th minute on Wednesday completed a hat-trick he had started on the hour.

First, Donnarumma was panicked by Benzema’s pressing - pressure Pochettino thought was too physical to be legal - into giving away the ball for goal No 1. The ease with which Luka Modric carved through PSG’s soft middle gave Madrid the impetus for Benzema’s second. Only a shell-shocked opponent could look quite in such disarray as PSG were when they almost immediately conceded the third Benzema goal.

“Once the team conceded the first goal, with that sense of injustice, we were vulnerable because of our own mistakes over the next ten or 15 minutes,” acknowledged Pochettino. “We didn’t know how to deal with it.”

It is unlikely Pochettino will still be in charge when PSG, well on course to win France’s Ligue 1, embark on their next European campaign, in September. Mbappe may well have moved on by then too, probably to Madrid.

His decision about which direction to go to best serve his ambitions when his current contract - which PSG want to extend - may even have been clarified by the trajectory of the Paris club in Europe.

In 2020 PSG were finalists, for the first time in their history, in the Champions League. Last season, when Pochettino took over from Thomas Tuchel, they were losing semi-finalists. In 2022, they have fallen shy of the last eight thanks to half an hour of meltdown, ahead of some red mist behind the scenes.

Updated: March 10, 2022, 2:52 PM
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