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On the 50th anniversary of their first ever competitive match -a draw away to Stade Poitevin 1-1 in Division 2 -Paris Saint-Germain came within a whisker of becoming the best team in Europe for the first time.
Thomas Tuchel’s side had impressively survived close to an hour of examination from a Bayern Munich teamthat has made dismantling opponents a matter of course over recent months, with the Ligue 1 champions showing defensive organisation and collective spirit that few believed they were capable of.
Even Neymar, the man portrayed as the game’s greatest narcissist, was sacrificing himself for the good of the team.
But the German championsmade their pressure count in a tight clash in Lisbon. For once the French side failed to adequately transition from attack into defence, and Bayern ruthlessly exploited a rare space between the midfield and defensive line of the Parc des Princes outfitas Joshua Kimmich was afforded sufficient time to pick out Kingsley Coman, who decided the game with a firm downward header against his former club.
It was one of the few defensive mistakes that Tuchel’s men made on the night, but it was fatal as they floundered in chasing the game late on.
PSG’s recent European exits have typically been greeted with grim post-mortems seeking to solve the question of just how such a talented group of players could fall so tamely.
This time, however, it was different. Bayern were the stronger team, of that there was no doubt, but the gap did not seem unbridgeable and the mentality of the French champions could not be faulted.
“It's details, small details,” Tuchel lamented to RMC Sport after the game.“It's a defeat against one of the best teams in Europe. Luck plays a big part.”
Faced with that adversity, PSG came through as a group more united than ever in ultimately chasing down the club’s first major European trophy. They did not reach their goal, but they came tantalisingly close and can look forward to next season’s competition with confidence as opposed to trepidation.
For PSG, preparations were not ideal. They arrived in Portugal having played just two competitive matches in nearly five months and were depleted as Edinson Cavani and Thomas Meunier chose to leave after their contracts expired,
Meanwhile, Marco Verratti, their pace-setting midfielder, was restricted to a bit-part role due to injury. Although Kylian Mbappe was able to start both the semi-final and final,Tuchel explained it was a “miracle” the forward was able to play so soon after suffering an ankle injury in the Coupe de France final, and in any case it was clear he was not at his explosive best.
It will never be known whether the result on Sunday would have been different had both been at peak fitness, but it at least offers PSG hope they can still improve.
There are more reasons to be optimistic, too.
Neymar, who agitated for a move back to Barcelona last summer, seems more committed to the PSG project than ever. Regardless, it seems inconceivable that any club might muster the kind of funds required to sign either him or Mbappe given the financially uncertain climate of this mid-pandemic world.
“Neymar is happy and I think he will stay at PSG for at least two more years,” the Brazilian’s agent Wagner Ribeiro told Vejain the lead-up to the final. “Today, without a doubt, it is easier for Lionel Messi to go to PSG than for Neymar to return to Barcelona.”
If the long-term futures of both superstars remain in the air – the current deals of both players run out in 2022, meaning that transfers are a possibility 12 months from now – there appears little doubt that both will be playing at Parc des Princes once the transfer window closes in October.
While PSG must capitalise on such talent, it was acutely obvious on Sunday that their opponents offered far more strength in depth off the bench, highlighting an Achilles heel to Tuchel’s ranks.
Bayern were able to call upon World Cup winner Corentin Tolisso to take to the field, while they had three players in Benjamin Pavard, Lucas Hernandez and Javi Martinez who have also lifted the game's greatest prizeglued to their bench throughout the 90 minutes.
By contrast, PSG introduced the half-fit Verratti, the amiable but limited Eric-Maxim Choupo Moting, Layvin Kurzawa, who appeared destined for release until the club realised how short on numbers they were and hurriedly tied him down to a new deal, and the out-of-form Julian Draxler.
In a hypothetical scenario in which the two groups of substitutes were forced to play off, Bayern would have been fancied to threaten the kinds of scoreline they managed earlier this season againstTottenham (7-2) and Barcelona (8-2).
Tuchel, though, has shown an ability to unite the squad, knitting them together and creating a team ethic that was previously unattainable, as their dramatic late recovery against Atalanta in the quarter-final illustrated.
Now, he needs the support of those above him to strengthen his hand.
“I promise we’re going to win the Champions League,” proclaimed president Nasser Al-Khelaifi in the aftermath of the defeat.
In order to make good on this pledge, Tuchel must be given the means he requires to build on this foundation. Finances must be made available to sporting director Leonardo to sign players to enhance a squad that is to lose its captain, Thiago Silva, but time must be given to allow the club to foster a personality that its supersonic rise under QSI had made difficult until thispressure-cooker atmosphere of summer tournament football forged it.
As Ander Herrera noted: “We’ve builtsomething important that we can’t throw away.”