Resilient Paris Saint-Germain breaks Atalanta heart in Champions League
Football can be a cruel game. The Atalante had it all. Overall admiration, guts, team spirit and a 1-0 advantage against the Paris prima donnas. Then, in the space of two minutes, Thomas Tuchel’s side made a turnaround to dramatically break their quarter-final spell and qualify for the last four of the Champions League.
As it could have been different. Atalanta have never been confused by Paris Saint-Germain. It was to be expected. Coach Gian Piero Gasperini’s team have been playing forefoot soccer all season. This is what allowed the Italian club to qualify for the last eight of the competition. Atalanta’s defensive line was so high that they often played with eight or nine players in the PSG half of the field. Mattia Caldara was one of the three central defenders often found on French territory.
Rafael Toloi, another center-back, facilitated Mario Pašalić’s goal in the 26th minute. The Brazilian’s foray into the French area left Pašalić free to score a corner. It was a well-crafted goal and a testament to Atalanta’s philosophy.
PSG, on the other hand, were hesitant and disjointed. From the start, there was something nervous about the French series champion – Neymar’s incredible third-minute miss, the fragility of his midfield and the lack of direction. The team had no semblance of a personality.
On the sideline, Tuchel looked stunned. With a broken metatarsus, he sat – Bielsa-esque – on a cooler. Uninhibited beginners played from memory, doing what they did best. His PSG, again, looked less than the sum of its parts. The team was running out of ideas.
The flip side of Atalanta’s unwavering commitment to attacking football was obvious: PSG would exploit the space left behind. Sometimes Atalanta’s defense has emptied. It was a high risk and cavalier strategy. First of all, the number ten of PSG missed an extraordinary opportunity, then he finished without conviction while waiting for Mauro Icardi’s race before the Brazilian made a noticeable hat-trick in the 42nd minute.
It was a night when Neymar did what he does sometimes – or often -. He was furious at simple misfires, but also elicited admiration for bursts of authentic quality, every time his team channeled the ball through him. The Brazilian, you felt it, wanted it, a little too much. He was not sponsoring the modest Italian adversary. PSG leaned on their Brazilian talisman and tried to answer the call, breaking the lines and creating danger.
Neymar was the best player on the pitch, but also seemed overwhelmed by Tuchel’s simplistic plan to simply hand him the ball. All night long, there was nervousness around the PSG game, invisibly paralyzed by the humiliating eliminations of past seasons.
After a disjointed first quarter of an hour in the second half, Tuchel finally released Kylian Mbappé, who had been put on the bench after returning from injury. With the introduction of the French star, the intensity of the match doubled. The nerves sharp, the legs tired and the PSG tackled Atalanta in the back. The roles were reversed. Unusually, the Italians were now defending a 1-0 lead.
Toloi and Hans Hateboer could not manage Mbappé’s pace. Slowly, the pressure was building on the Italian baseline, but Mbappé’s finish was too docile. However, the PSG was no longer pedestrian. The team had a sense of urgency and exploded in the closing minutes of the game with quick goals from Marquinhos and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. Finally, Atalanta had collapsed.
Neymar’s two assists in the preparation, however, were essential. He showed once again why he is still so good, stepping down the road to redemption.
PSG and the Brazilian had escaped from another nightmare. They showed great resilience to defeat the European fairy tale club. It wasn’t a coincidence. The French were also brave to bounce back against Dortmund in the round of 16. They did not fall at the first difficult hurdle of the competition. For a club both obsessed and afflicted with competition, this is a major victory in itself.