PSG's lavish layout on Neymar and Kylian Mbappe finally paying off
The most expensively-assembled forward line in history may not have been on target against Leipzig but their contribution in guiding the French club to the Champions League final is immeasurable
Sometimes, the most expensive treasures gain value in their rarity. As it turns out, €400 million (Dh1.75 billion) does not buy that many minutes of premium-quality striking partnership.
When Kylian Mbappe and Neymar line up in the same starting XI for the Champions League final on Sunday it will be only the fourth time they have done so in the competition this season.
What with suspensions, and strained young muscles, Paris Saint-Germain have had to be patient to see the most expensive pairing of forwards in football history in glorious tandem on the grand stage. They needed still more more patience for the moment their mammoth, €1bn investment over the past nine years took them close to the prize they most desire.
In the end, the last step seemed a breeze. PSG are in a European Cup final for the first time after overwhelming RB Leipzig on Tuesday in Lisbon.
They got there with no trace of the brittle, nervous characteristics the Paris club have displayed in previous seasons in Europe’s knockout phases and they achieved their sought-after target with Neymar and Mbappe together for all but the last four minutes of normal time, when, 3-0 ahead, Mbappe was withdrawn to spare any complication of his recovery from the ankle injury he picked up in late July.
Neither of them scored against Leipzig, either, a fact that will perturb Thomas Tuchel, the head coach, very little.
“The players showed the hunger to win, to work together, to suffer together, and that’s what you benefit from,” said Tuchel, looking forward to what he called “the biggest night of my life in Lisbon this weekend.”
He has always stressed his PSG should be about a squad, not just two superstars, but he will still be happy to have Neymar and Mbappe relatively fresh, and seeking overdue goals.
Because of the pandemic, France’s Ligue 1 was abandoned in March, so in the past five months, PSG have played just four games, two domestic cup finals and two one-legged knockouts in the Champions League.
Not that there were too many symptoms of rustiness against Leipzig, the Germans effectively beaten by half time thanks to two slick routines, one with the stamp of streamlined rehearsal, the other via a touch of spontaneous, brimming confidence.
After Neymar had earned a free-kick early, Angel Di Maria’s superb delivery teed up a headed goal from Marquinhos, his markers undone by the precision of the Di Maria cross and the timing of the scorer’s run and leap; Di Maria then scored PSG’s second after he had been teed up by a delightful, airborne, intuitive Neymar flick.
It would be Di Maria’s night as much as Neymar’s, more than Mbappe’s. “We stuck to our principles, using the acceleration of Angel, Neymar and Mbappe,” said Tuchel, pleased with “the good mix of determination and quality.”
PSG v Leipzig player ratings
Though Di Maria, purchased for a mere €64m from Manchester United five summers ago, may not carry the same size of transfer fee as Neymar - €222m - or Mbappe - €180m - his contributions to the fabulous front three are no less precious.
The Di Maria left foot is a magic wand when he is in form. At 32, he retains his sharp turn of pace. That lean frame - he is known as El Fideo, ‘The Noodle’ - can snake its way out of the tightest spots and his experience on the big stage will be an asset on Sunday.
Di Maria knows the Lisbon venue intimately. He played for Benfica, usual tenants of the Estadio da Luz, and put in a man-of-the-match performance, for Real Madrid, the last time the Luz staged a Champions League final, in 2014.
After that, the Argentine joined Manchester United for the unhappiest year of his senior career, but one he can look back on as atypical.
Five years on, and a season after United were the last establishment grandee to knock a fragile PSG out of the competition before the semis, Di Maria will feel he is on the right escalator, as indeed will PSG’s other United ex, Ander Herrera, or for that matter Romelu Lukaku and Ashley Young, formerly of Old Trafford and, as of Monday night, Europa League finalists with Inter Milan, who will meet Sevilla for that prize on Friday.
A new order may be taking shape. No English clubs will contest either of the weekend’s European showpieces after four were involved in them last season.
And if PSG carry through their momentum, the greatest prize of all will have the name of a new city, Paris, etched onto it.
Published: August 20, 2020 06:59 AM