Paris Ain’t Germane (To The Discussion Of Possible Champions League Winners)
9:50 AM EST on March 9, 2023
The World Cup final cast a deep shadow over the Champions League round-of-16 tie between Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich. With good reason, it might go on casting a shadow over the whole rest of Kylian Mbappé's career.
Back in February, when Mbappé entered the first leg, in Paris, as a second-half substitute, you couldn't help but recall his second-half transfiguration against Argentina, when he'd wiped away an 80th-minute 0-2 deficit with two goals in 97 seconds, then added a third in extra time, and nearly carried the cup back to France singlehandedly. He changed the flow of that first leg, but not its result, a 1-0 win for Bayern—and I thought, OK, maybe the second leg is the second half in this analogy. What seemed all but certain was that at some point, Mbappé would hit the gear he hit against Argentina, and Bayern would at the very least have to weather some deeply terrifying minutes in order to fend him off.
That never came close to happening in Wednesday's second leg: The signal image of PSG's efforts to overcome that 0-1 (then 0-2, then 0-3) aggregate deficit turned out to be poor Nuno Mendes taking on three Bayern defenders out on the touchline, behind midfield, and not even winning a throw-in for his efforts. By my informal count, that happened roughly 94 times. (By comparison, 17-year-old defender El Chadaille Bitshiabu, inexplicably pressed into service against Europe's most ferocious counter-press as a halftime sub, panicking with the ball in his own box making the wrong choice with it—that only happened 87 times.) As for Mbappé, stationed up at the front of the Parisian attack while his teammates flubbed countless attempts at playing the ball even halfway to him, he wound up calling to mind Rob Hall, the New Zealand mountaineer left stranded with a radio near the summit of Mount Everest during the infamous 1996 disaster there: His team could hear his voice, and maybe even see him if they looked up, but for all their ability to reach him and connect their efforts to his, he might as well have been on Neptune. If he had any touches in particularly dangerous areas in the second half, I've forgotten them.
Bayern's first goal came out of chaos at PSG's back. Bitshiabu, the deepest Parisian on the field, wobbling like a baby deer over the ball, played a short pass to Marco Verratti at the edge of his own box when he probably should have just booted it as far as possible. Veratti, with his back to the Bayern press, took one insanely ill-advised touch toward the middle while that press closed on him like a crocodile's jaws, and lost the ball to Thomas Müller, who booped it to Leon Goretzka, who waited until Sergio Ramos had committed and then booped it to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who booped it into the net. The tie felt over as hell just then, with Bayern up 2-0 on aggregate and Paris having done approximately nothing through one-and-a-half matches; a gorgeous sprinting counterattack in the 89th minute, João Cancelo to Serge Gnabry, put it beyond all doubt.
It's important not to fall for the temptation to read any kind of moral comeuppance into Qatar-owned PSG's latest flameout, lest you stumble into projecting, almost certainly without basis, Ethics and Human-Rights Respect onto the ghoulish honcho atop whichever remaining club wins the Champions League. If this embarrassment stung PSG's petro-state owners, that's a sting on the order of a mosquito bite, and diminished them precisely not at all along any measure they care about. Still, there's an enjoyable strategic compeuppance to savor. To the extent the Parisian super-club's sports and sportswashing efforts reflect each other, it's in a certain blithe disregard for the finer points of how either is supposed to succeed: In Mbappé, Leo Messi, and Neymar (absent on Wednesday and possibly for the rest of the season), they bought the three fanciest and most luxurious hood ornaments imaginable, stuck them on The Homer, and waited for the trophies to pile up. What's been accumulated instead is a pile of humiliations—Wednesday's loss marks the fifth time that PSG has been booted out of the round-of-16 since the start of its mega-rich era. There's a certain satisfaction in watching that Teslian heap get run out of the building by a competitor assembled with some actual care and consideration by people who, at the very least, think knowing what the fuck you're doing is a good idea.
In the aftermath, CBS's Jamie Carragher summed it up nicely:
You can lose to Bayern Munich. Of course you can. You know, a big name was gonna go out, here. But to be involved, how long they've had, y'know, Qatari ownership, state ownership, more money than anyone else in the world, buying the best players, to go out five times in the last 16 is a joke. I mean, like, a joke. Really is. And what is says to me as well—and I'm talking up my own club here—there's a lot of criticism at times for Liverpool's ownership, and that they need someone with more money, they need Qataris to come in, or someone from 'round the world who's got unlimited funds. It doesn't mean anything if there's no expertise in what you're doing.
It's better when you hear it with the Scouse accent. But he's right, of course, as disappointed fans of any number of shambolic flailing superteams in American sports could attest. The other thing Carragher said, shortly after that, was this:
I said before about Kylian Mbappé, he's got to leave. I really do believe he's got to leave.
Right again! For all that stinks and is outrageous about Paris Saint-Germain, its most acute on-field offense, both on Wednesday and in general, is that it can't bring the best out of Mbappé, or put him on a stage worthy of that best. I kept waiting and waiting for the moment to arrive, when he'd roar through the game's established patterns like a pyroclastic cloud, like he had against Argentina, but it never happened: For all the decisive parts of Wednesday's match, he wasn't even on the screen. He won't be on the screen for the decisive parts of the Champions League, either. A whole career can go that way.