PSG on wrong side of history in utterly preventable meltdown vs. Barcelona
From the best dream to the worst nightmare. All that in the space of just three weeks and 90 minutes that will stay engraved forever in the history of modern football. PSG were in heaven on Feb. 14, after a sumptuous performance and a 4-0 win over Barcelona in Paris. They felt invincible. They felt strong. And then they fell from all the way up there to the lowest of lows on Wednesday night, losing 6-1 at the Camp Nou in the most incredible display of choking football has ever seen. No one -- particularly with a team the quality of PSG -- concedes three goals between the 88th and the 95th minute to be knocked out 6-5 on aggregate.
It was unthinkable, improbable and unbelievable.
PSG played the ultimate Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde role. They have gone from fireworks to darkness, from joy to sadness. However, there is no pity for the chokers. No empathy for the losers, because the Parisians have only themselves to blame. Barcelona believed they could achieve this "remontada" but belief and hope were their best weapons. PSG's errors, Unaï Emery's choices and a little bit of help from the referee did most of the rest. Were Barcelona out of this world on Wednesday? Surely not. Were PSG far below par? Definitely.
No one had ever squandered a 4-0 lead in a Champions League game before and allowed their opponents to advance. Not many teams, though, had to defend a lead like that against a team potentially better than them. The Parisians didn't know how to handle their advantage. High press? Deep defensive line? Attack? Defend? How do you play when you are so comfortable on the scoreboard?
Well, you start by being strong in the key moments of the match: the start and the end of each half. And what did PSG do? They conceded a goal early and one late in the first half, a goal early and three late in the second half. They were clearly not prepared mentally. As we saw them laughing in their last training before the match on Tuesday evening, they were surely a bit too confident and complacent as well.
Emery's team should have been ready for a battle. They were not. They were scared, fragile, like paralysed by the stakes of the game. They were never themselves and if Edinson Cavani scored a beauty (his 38th goal in 37 matches in all competitions this season), he also missed another opportunity to kill the tie on 64th minute, just like Angel Di Maria twenty minutes later. At this level, you have to take your big chances and not make big mistakes. Adrien Rabiot, Layvin Kurzawa, Thomas Meunier and Serge Aurier all made individual errors that cost their team goals.
This defeat sucks all wind out of the sails for PSG and highlights once more the lack of leadership in the Parisian ranks. From his hotel in Rostov-le-Don where Manchester United play on Thursday, one wonders what Zlatan Ibrahimovic was thinking watching this humiliation. Paris probably play better without him, but had he been on the pitch in Barcelona, such a debacle would have never happened.
Thiago Motta's absence through injury had a huge -- if understated -- impact in this match. The Italy international is a leader. He is the most clever player in the squad, the most experienced and the most vicious with all the bag of tricks to waste time, influence the referee and rot the game. With him on the pitch, Paris would not have lost. Instead, Rabiot, who replaced him as the holding midfielder, had a shocking game, always under pressure, always struggling. The total opposite of the first leg where the 21-year-old was outstanding. This time, it looked like his naughty twin was playing. However, pretty much the same can be said about every player on the team.
Emery's game plan was spot on in the first leg. He got it totally wrong on Wednesday. Rabiot admitted after the game that "playing so deep was not part of the plan at all." So how did Emery let his players play so deep for the first 45 minutes? Why didn't he make them react? His changes during the game were ludicrous. What's the point of replacing Meunier for Grzegorz Krychowiak in the 90th minute? Why did Javier Pastore stay on the bench when he would have helped his side keep hold of the ball? So many questions, so many failures.
The future of the manager will obviously be reviewed soon. The Qatari owners don't like losing, let alone being humiliated.
This giant slap in the face will hurt for a while. The players can't allow it to throw them into a negative spiral though. PSG can still win a domestic Treble, but can also easily lose it as Monaco look so strong. As Emery said following the match, PSG lost everything in seven minutes on Wednesday and lost much more than a football match. They made history, but not in the way they wanted.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.