Paris Saint-Germain are onto the Champions League semifinal after a dramatic late winner against the Cinderella story of the competition, Atalanta. The Parisians were down 1-0 until the 90th minute, but scored two injury time goals to keep their Champions League campaign alive in this one-off match. The 2-1 win paved way for their first trip to the Champions League semifinal in 25 years.
All eyes were on PSG’s Kylian Mbappe, who entered in the second half after being unable to start due to and ankle injury, and his presence was certainly felt, as he directly assisted in the winning goal. Neymar, despite missing a slew of chances, was also able to get the offense going, even after going down early. They will now face the winner of RB Leipzig vs. Atletico Madrid in the next round.
Mbappe, The Difference Maker
The dramatic victory starts and ends with the substitution of Kylian Mbappe. The French forward — whose ankle injury was supposed to keep him out of this match — was fit enough to make it onto the bench for his squad and get substituted in around the 60-minute mark.
From the moment he stepped onto the pitch, it was clear Atalanta had no chance at stopping him. Hans Hateboer was absolutely flummoxed every time the Frenchman got the ball as Mbappe didn’t need to do anything special to get past his man. His first touch on the ball proved that immediately as the defenders trying to stop the forward were immediately embarrassed while chasing him down the line.
The presence turned into mounting pressure that Mbappe put on Atalanta’s defense, and eventually things broke down. Mbappe’s presence meant less attention was focused on Neymar when he clumsily set up the first goal for Marquinhos, and he directly assisted on the second, making the unselfish decision to pass to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting for the winner — and his first goal in the Champions League this season.
Tough Defense From PSG
Of course, another part of the reason PSG were able to be in a position to get those late winners was because they had stifled Atalanta’s otherwordly attacking prowess in the final 45 minutes of the match. The Italian side’s threats in the first half had PSG scrambling for possession and looks, but in the second half, all of those threats were snuffed out. PSG’s midfield took more control of the ball, and their defense stood tall when they needed to. It feels obvious to say, but it must be noted that this kind of comeback surely does not happen if Atalanta get even one more ball into the back of the net.
Neymar Delivers Sensation
PSG have made a habit of finding improbable ways to lose in the Champions League since their emergence as a global force off the pitch – with Barcelona’s comeback from 4-0 down three years ago perhaps the most notable.
And Tuchel could well have joined Unai Emery, Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc in paying for that failure with his job with another letdown in Lisbon.
Champions League debutants Atalanta undoubtedly kicked-off as underdogs but have been superb all season, scoring 98 goals in Serie A and playing attractive, fluid, attacking football.
Neymar had already missed one glorious chance – running clean through on goal but shooting wide – when Pasalic capped a typically stylish Atalanta attack with a brilliant left-footed curler to give the Italian side the lead.
Neymar – whose salary was reported this week to be equal to that of the whole Atalanta squad – blazed wide again when well placed.
But to his credit the former Barcelona man, brought to Paris largely to deliver in this competition, continued to work hard for his side, driving them forward all night.
His 16 completed dribbles were the most in a Champions League game since Lionel Messi for Barcelona against Manchester United in April 2008.
He was always likely to produce PSG’s decisive moment if one arrived, and Marquinhos got on the end of his dangerous ball across goal to poke in the equaliser just as a tired Atalanta looked poised to record a huge shock.
Their heads understandably went down as extra-time loomed but the fit-again Mbappe – majestic from the moment he stepped onto the pitch – glided past their defence again to lay on a tap-in for Choupo-Moting, a free transfer from the Potteries two years ago.
It was only a third win in 11 quarter-final matches in the European Cup for the French side. Could they now go all the way and claim the prize they covet most?
Here’s What The Team Says
Neymar: “I never thought of going home. From the warm-up to the end, we believed in it. We never gave up. No-one will take this desire to go to the final away from me.
“We are a great group, we are a family, so we know that with this state of mind, it is impossible to eliminate us.”
Thomas Tuchel: “I thought about elimination, after 88 minutes at 1-0, I am realistic. But I didn’t have the feeling that we weren’t going to score.
“I told my assistants that if we scored a goal we would win. After this match, these efforts are absolutely deserved.”
Atalanta boss Gian Piero Gasperini: “We came very close, it was very close. It looked as if we could do it, pull off a great achievement.
“Mbappe coming into the game, combined with the presence of Neymar, changed things for PSG. He gave an energy to PSG, who were losing the match – it was fundamental because of what he brought to the game.”
Is The Curse Over?
As mentioned before, the last time that PSG made it to a Champions League semifinal was 25 years ago, but it’s also worth noting that this is just the second time they’ve reached this stage of the competition in club history — coincidentally, PSG celebrates 50 years of existence today. What this accomplishment also means is that the club is putting its legacy of choking in this competition as far behind it as possible.
Prior to today’s win, PSG had lost their previous four quarterfinals in the competition, which included that massive heartbreaker against Barcelona some years ago. This club is going to have to do a lot more winning to completely distance themselves from all the failure they’ve amassed over the years, but a dramatic win like tonight’s is certainly a step in the right direction.