After all the wrong turns, all the heartache and disappointment, the humiliations and the turnarounds and the gut-wrenching collapses, Paris St.-Germain has finally done what it was designed and built to do. Nine years after it became home to one of the most expensive and ambitious projects in world soccer, the French champion has reached the Champions League final.
Given the club’s recent history in this competition — its ability to snatch defeat when victory seemed assured, its many and varied ways of falling at the last hurdle — it did so in the most uncharacteristic manner imaginable: with no drama, no tension, and while barely breaking a sweat.
P.S.G. cruised past its overmatched and inexperienced German opponent, RB Leipzig, by 3-0 in the first of the competition’s two semifinals on Tuesday night in Lisbon. Manager Thomas Tuchel’s team seized control with an early goal — a wonderful header from Marquinhos, its Brazilian defensive midfielder — and then doubled its advantage when Angel Di Maria seized upon a loose pass from Peter Gulacsi, Leipzig’s goalkeeper, and completed a quick sequence of passes involving two teammates.
Leipzig’s vanishing hopes of a comeback disappeared completely early in the second half, when another defensive error allowed Juan Bernat to stretch P.S.G.’s lead to three. Though Leipzig offered an improved display in the second half, P.S.G. rarely seemed threatened; Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, the team’s twin stars, could afford to smile at missed chances or wasted opportunities.
Either Bayern Munich or P.S.G.’s domestic rival, Olympique Lyonnais, awaits in the final on Sunday. Those teams will meet Wednesday in the second semifinal.
Tuesday’s victory was the culmination of a project that began when Qatar Sports Investments, the Gulf nation’s sovereign wealth fund, took over the club in 2011, a move that has resonated across European soccer. P.S.G.’s squad is among the most costly ever assembled and includes, in Neymar, the most expensive player in the game’s history. Mbappé is second.
But Champions League success like this year’s has been a long time coming. This was P.S.G.’s first appearance in the competition’s semifinals since 1995 — long before both the arrival of Qatari investment and the birth of Mbappé — and the club has, in recent years, developed a habit of falling short when faced with one of Europe’s giants.
It has been eliminated by both Real Madrid and Manchester City in previous years; last season, it was eliminated by a last-minute goal by Manchester United. Most painful, of course, was the 2017 elimination at the hands of Barcelona in the round of 16, on the strength of a stunning 6-1 defeat at Camp Nou after P.S.G. had cruised to a comfortable victory in the first leg at home.
That defeat was orchestrated by Neymar; a few months later, P.S.G. more than doubled the previous world transfer record to bring the Brazilian forward to Paris. It was a signing with a single purpose: to transform the club that regularly competed in the Champions League into a team capable of winning it. Three years since the defeat, Neymar and P.S.G. are, at last, on the cusp of fulfilling that mission.
Rory Smith and Andrew Das of The Times tracked the game in real time. To follow the game as it happened, read on:
P.S.G. wins, 3-0, and reaches its first Champions League final.
The whistle blows are two minutes of needless injury time and P.S.G. is through to the final. Goals by Marquinhos and Ángel Di María in the first half and a third by Juan Bernat early in the second half did it.
P.S.G. finally makes its first changes.
Marco Verratti and Julian Draxler come on to see out the final few minutes. Ander Herrera and Leandro Paredes depart.
Three minutes later Mbappé, with a sly wink, and Di María, less pleased, follow them off. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Pablo Sarabia come on.
In Thomas Tuchel’s defense, there was nothing worth changing to this point. What a day it’s been as P.S.G. has absolutely cruised full speed into its first Champions League final.
An American sighting: Tyler Adams is on.
RB Leipzig makes two more subs: Marcel Halstenberg replaces Konrad Laimer, and the American midfielder Tyler Adams replaces Kevin Kampl. This has the feel of getting the young Adams — who had the winner in the quarterfinals — a bit more experience in a big game than any last roll of the dice. Bernat’s goal really drove in the knife.
Adams is the second American player to appear in a Champions League semifinal; DaMarcus Beasley, the perpetually young defender who was actually young then, played for PSV Eindhoven against Milan in 2005.
And now it’s 3-0. Oof. Disaster for RB Leipzig.
Juan Bernat gets this one after a comedy of errors by Leipzig’s defense.
First it was Di María who got in early but Gulasci stuffed his shot. Mukiele, his right back, appeared well positioned to clear the danger, but as he wheeled away toward the corner under pressure from Ander Herrera he decided to fall down in an attempt to win a free kick. It helps, though, if you’ve actually been touched, which Mukiele wasn’t. Kuipers let play continue, and Mukiele compounded his mistake by playing an alert Bernat onside by lagging back behind the play in the corner.
A cross came back in, and Bernat buried the header. VAR confirmed the goal.
3-0. Game over?
The second half starts, and Leipzig has a lot of work to do.
It’s worth noting that P.S.G. was the most rested — or was it the most out of practice? — team in the field in Lisbon after the French league, alone among Europe’s top leagues, ended its season early, in March, because of the coronavirus pandemic. That made P.S.G. the champion again, but it also left its players without game fitness, and susceptible to injury if pushed. It is possible that Thomas Tuchel, if he believes this game is in fact in hand, may try to rest a few players ahead of Sunday’s final.
RB Leipzig can only blame itself for that first half.
It’s hard not to think that Leipzig has been complicit in its own demise: Peter Gulacsi’s mistake for P.S.G.’s (most likely decisive) second goal was only the latest, and most significant, incident in which Julian Nagelsmann’s team has been notably careless with the ball. All high-pressing teams have an element of chaos about them — it’s what makes the whole thing work — but on a stage like this, against opponents of this quality, it has to be harnessed much more effectively.
But that should not distract from just how good P.S.G., and in particular its front three, has been (with a nod to the wonderful prompting of Leandro Paredes in midfield).
Neymar might have forgotten how to shoot, but he has produced 135 of his best minutes in the Champions League for some years over the last week or so; the first half here, as well as the quarterfinal win against Atalanta, is at a level he has not produced consistently in this competition since Barcelona’s 6-1 win against his current employers in 2017. Kylian Mbappé is full of menace, as ever, a player out to prove that his time has come; Ángel Di María is the perfect complement to both. The understanding they have forged among themselves, and that has been nurtured by Thomas Tuchel, is wonderful to watch, and appears, at times, entirely unstoppable.
This, you suspect, is what P.S.G. had in mind when it went and bought Neymar and Mbappé three years ago. — RORY SMITH
Di María doubles the lead!
P.S.G. adds to its advantage only minutes before halftime when a redirected pass (what a touch by Neymar on the run!) lands at the feet of Di María in the goal mouth. He calmly controls it and pulls it across his body — and past the goalkeeper — with his left foot. P.S.G. leads, 2-0.
Gulasci only has himself to blame there. He hit an awful clearance straight to Paredes, and he took it from there. One touch to control, then another to feed Neymar. Neymar’s touch — a deft backheel on the run to drop it behind him — was the masterstroke there. All Di María needed to do was bring it down and slot it home.
P.S.G. leads, 2-0, at halftime.
RB Leipzig’s inexperience is showing.
Leipzig’s focus on youth is the club’s hallmark, and it is what has helped it rise so quickly through the ranks in Germany: Yussuf Poulsen, the captain tonight, has been with Leipzig since it was in the third division.
But I wonder if, when a team based almost exclusively around youth starts to blossom, that approach brings with it a natural limiting factor. Leipzig is now a goal down in a Champions League semifinal, most likely the biggest game any of its players have played in. Of its outfield players, only Kevin Kampl — the energetic midfield player who has become a sort of unofficial mascot for the Red Bull school of soccer, and who looks not unlike a honey badger from a distance — is older than 26.
That is not to suggest that Leipzig should have done things a different way — look where the club is, and how quickly it got there — but you do wonder who, exactly, will be steering the team through, who will be unfazed by the stakes, who will be able to control their emotions. Soccer has developed a tendency to scorn experience; where players were once considered beyond a useful age at 32 or 33, now it feels like it is 28 or 29. Sometimes, though, a little experience is no bad thing. — RORY SMITH
Neymar pings the post again!
No one expected that, least of all Gulasci in goal. But Neymar takes a poke after P.S.G. wins a free kick way out on the right wing, and it nearly works. His shot caught the goalkeeper by surprise, but for the second time in this half, he has dinged the right goal post.
If it felt like it came out of nothing, that’s because it did.
“Only Neymar,” the announcer says appreciatively. “Only Neymar.”
Now it’s Mbappé who gets in behind.
Ander Herrera springs Mbappé with a cutting pass just outside the right goalpost, but the angle is too tight for a finish. But every key P.S.G. player has had a chance now — all of them clear, open looks — and Leipzig is lucky it’s only 1-0. They’re getting carved up in the early going, and with this front line that can get out of hand quickly.
P.S.G. leads! Neymar to Marquinhos, and it’s 1-0!
A free kick won on the left after a pair of corners leads to the game’s first goal. Neymar is the provider, curling a cross into the goal mouth, where Marquinhos, his Brazilian countryman, gets to it first and heads it past Gulasci in goal. Regrettable defending by RB Leipzig there; there’s no reason to let a little guy split your defense to win a header.
And just like that, a chance for Neymar.
Mbappé springs his partner in behind with a knifing pass, but Neymar — in alone — pops it off the right post with the outside of his right foot. Shades of his early miss against Atalanta there. And not a good memory if you’re a P.S.G. fan.
P.S.G. then puts the ball in the net, but Björn Kuipers, the Dutch referee, had stopped play. No goal.
A probing start, with different methods.
P.S.G. tried to spring Neymar behind Dayot Upamecano early, while Leipzig is working a bit more methodically — slashing passes, working from the outside in, then a quick cross or two. No danger early. But both teams look to be working to their strengths, and steering clear of trouble.
It is quite tempting to split the Champions League semifinals down the middle: tonight’s meeting of new money, and tomorrow’s clash between old. Plenty might find in that some sort of allegory for a battle for the soul of soccer. But while there is some truth that RB Leipzig and Paris St.-Germain do not exist, in their current form, purely to play soccer, what should make this a particularly fascinating game are the differences in how that has manifested.
P.S.G. is the quintessential arriviste superpower: a front line constructed with superstardom as its base material, based around the ingenuity of Neymar, the devastating efficiency of Kylian Mbappé and the predatory instincts of stars like Mauro Icardi and others in reserve. It is a team designed to shock and awe, to blind opponents with its talent and to some extent its glamour. The rest of the team is a little more make do and mend: it is not exactly lacking in quality, but it can be hard, at times, to believe that quite as much thought has been put into who plays left back as who plays up front. There also has been no cogent philosophy: Thomas Tuchel, its coach, is expected to craft a team from the materials he has been handed.
Julian Nagelsmann — Tuchel’s one-time protégé — is different. Leipzig has built a club from scratch with a singular vision, of young athletes playing expansive, front-foot soccer, and it has recruited a team and a coach to match. The source of its money may be distasteful to some; how it has spent it is hard to condemn. Leipzig has become, now, the model for how most upwardly-mobile soccer teams across Europe would like to behave, if only they had an energy drink behind them.
That, then, is the background to the game: whether bright ideas (funded by new money) can overcome shimmering talent (funded by new money). It is, in a sense, an encounter between two different ideas of soccer’s future.
The lineups are out: No changes for Leipzig, but Kylian Mbappé starts for P.S.G.
Julian Nagelsmann holds fast, sending out the same team and the same formation that produced a quarterfinal win over Atlético Madrid.
Gulacsi, Klostermann, Upamecano, Mukiele, Laimer, Sabitzer, Kampl, Angelino, Nkunku, Olmo, Poulsen
The biggest change for P.S.G.’s Thomas Tuchel is up front, where Kylian Mbappé — whose participation in this competition was once in doubt because of an ankle injury sustained in France — starts up front. He was the biggest difference-maker in the quarterfinal victory over Atalanta, a breath of fresh air (and danger) in the second half. Today, he’ll bring that from the start.
Keep an eye on Angel Di Maria too. P.S.G.’s starting lineup:
Rico, Kehrer, Silva, Kimpembe, Bernat, Paredes, Marquinhos, Herrera, Di María, Mbappé, Neymar.
In Champions League news from outside Lisbon: Barcelona is cleaning house, but not everyone is out.
Barcelona, which was pummeled by Bayern Munich last week, 8-2, in one of the more humbling days in the club’s recent history, is cleaning house this week.
The easiest call came fast: Quique Setién is already out as manager, and Ronald Koeman, the former Dutch player who helped the club win its first Champions League title, is in. Koeman’s first job will be to grab Lionel Messi with both hands and hold on to him.
Today it is sporting director Eric Abidal who is out of a job. But Barcelona’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu — a man whom many Barcelona fans blame for the sorry state of the current team — told the club’s television network that he would not be leaving his post.
“I chose not to resign for the benefit of the club,” he said.
Spoiler: That statement may not go over well.
RB Leipzig is already working the referee. No harm in trying.
Today’s winner at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz will face the winner of Wednesday’s second semifinal between Bayern Munich and Lyon at Sporting’s Estádio José Alvalade. The final is Sunday at Benfica.
Unlike in other years, the entire Champions League knockout round — starting with the quarterfinals — is being played in Lisbon, where organizers are quarantining and testing and watching the teams’ every movement. Rory Smith and Tariq Panja wrote about how we got here, and the rules that everyone is living by to get the tournament completed.
The most fun nugget in that story is this: the match ball being used today, and in every game, has Istanbul 2020 printed on it. That was the final’s original site. (Turkey now will get the game next spring, pandemic permitting.)
How the teams got here.
Paris St.-Germain nearly didn’t. Facing Atalanta, the Italian upstarts whose Champions League run had been a ray of hope in its coronavirus-scarred home city, P.S.G. fell behind early, wasted a handful of chances to draw even and needed two goals in the final minutes to snatch a victory. Marquinhos got the first, in the 90th minute, and Neymar and Kylian Mbappé combined brilliantly to set up Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting for the second.
RB Leipzig booked its semifinal place in similarly dramatic fashion, and by the same 2-1 scoreline. Its winner against Atlético Madrid came from an American substitute, Tyler Adams, who scored on a long shot that was deflected in the 88th minute.
Their quick rises into European soccer’s elite are perhaps best signified by this: The teams have never played a competitive match before today.
Neither team has ever reached the Champions League final, either. One of them will be in it by the time they go to bed tonight.