For Paris Saint-Germain another Champions League campaign ends in disappointment, wondering what might have been had one of their superstar attackers not been sidelined at the crucial moment.
In 2018 and 2019 it was Neymar who was injured as PSG lost in the last 16 to Real Madrid and then Manchester United.
This time it was Kylian Mbappe, handicapped by a calf knock that meant he was left on the bench in Tuesday’s 2-0 semi-final second leg defeat against Manchester City, huddled up to keep warm on a bitter night in the north of England.
Coach Mauricio Pochettino must have hoped his team, having lost 2-1 in the first leg, could stay in the tie long enough to make it worth risking Mbappe for the closing stages.
After Riyad Mahrez scored his and City’s second of the night, Angel Di Maria’s sending-off midway through the second half meant there was no point in sending on Mbappe. The tie was over.
There will be no second consecutive Champions League final for last season’s runners-up, as the most coveted trophy of all continues to elude their Qatari owners a decade after they bought the club.
This defeat might hurt that bit more coming against Abu Dhabi-backed City, and it once again brings into focus the Qatar strategy at the Parc des Princes.
PSG threw the two biggest transfer fees in history at Neymar and Mbappe in 2017 but the 400 million-euro ($480m) duo have not managed to deliver European glory, and they now have just a year remaining on their contracts.
Mbappe starred with a hat-trick in Barcelona and a brace at Bayern Munich in the last two rounds. Standing in for him in Manchester, Mauro Icardi made little impact, and the Parisians failed to muster a shot on target in the tie after the 28th minute of the first leg.
– ‘Lost their nerve’ –
They ended up losing their nerve at the Etihad Stadium, with Di Maria seeing red for stamping on Fernandinho’s foot before Marco Verratti, Presnel Kimpembe and Danilo Pereira were all booked.
Afterwards PSG players queued up to accuse Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers of insulting them, but they did not help themselves.
“They lost their nerve and started to kick us and after the red card it was more comfortable,” said Mahrez, born and brought up in the Paris suburbs but who drove a dagger to PSG’s heart by scoring three of City’s four goals in the tie, a year after ex-Paris winger Kingsley Coman netted Bayern’s winner in the final.
It was an inglorious exit for Pochettino’s team, but the defeat should take nothing away from their achievements in knocking out Barcelona and Bayern.
“We eliminated teams who could have gone on to win it, like us,” PSG’s sporting director Leonardo told broadcaster RMC Sport.
“Our objective now is always to win, not just to reach the semi-finals, but I think our performances in the last two years have shown that we are among the real contenders to win the trophy we want the most.”
– Will star duo sign new deals? –
The question now, as always, is what happens next.
Leonardo still needs to add quality to support Mbappe and Neymar, particularly at full-back.
He also needs to sort out the futures of his superstar forwards, with negotiations over new contracts ongoing.
“We need to continue, keep the foundations we have,” Leonardo added.
“Today is not the time to decide or announce anything. We can be proud of what we did. We are not satisfied at losing in the semi-finals but that can happen against a team like Manchester City.
“I am optimistic for the future.”
That future will be with Pochettino, who arrived in January and has regularly spoken of the need for a full pre-season.
More immediately he also has a league and cup double to win — French champions seven times in eight years, PSG are second in Ligue 1, a point behind Lille with three matches left.
“Let’s concentrate on the future and prepare the team to win the games we have left,” Pochettino said.
“The way we played in these two games gives us hope for the future, to come back and try again.”