They’re averaging over three goals per game in the French league and they broke the goalscoring record for the group stage, banging in 25 goals in their six games but the truth is none of that really matters either. Perhaps PSG don’t have to win the Champions League this season, but after a summer of astonishing investment there certainly needs to be a good performance in the competition, and that means not going out in the last 16, even if they have been drawn against the defending champions, Real Madrid.
The pressure is extraordinary, on Neymar in particular. This is the year in which he is expected to redeem the failure of the last World Cup and lead Brazil to glory in Russia, but it’s also a year in which PSG’s owners need him to offer at least some evidence that he will provide a return on their spending. Such is the interest in Brazil that Wednesday’s judging in the carnival in Rio de Janeiro has been moved earlier to make sure everybody is finished in time to watch the game.
Behind it all lies a huge irony, the strange sense that all the investment PSG have made in order to become a European force might actually count against them. This is a problem the former Liverpool midfielder Igor Biscan identified during his time at Dinamo Zagreb a decade ago, when they were midway through a run off 11 straight Croatian championship successes.
His team, he explained, won easily almost every week. The defenders’ job became about delivering good balls to the forward; they forgot how to defend. Everybody, meanwhile, forgot how to fight. What that meant was that as soon as Dinamo came up against any sort of resistance, as they did in Europe, even against a team of players less talented than them, they struggled to impose themselves and their soft center was exposed. That problem is now afflicting teams in leagues much more highly rated than Croatia’s.
Might Bayern have won the Champions League under Pep Guardiola with greater case-hardening at home? Might Juventus be more effective if they didn’t keep dominating Serie A? PSG have only to think back to last season’s last 16 tie against Barcelona to be aware of their own vulnerability. When they were on top, in the home leg, they found Barca, almost equally unused to defending, acquiescent and won 4-0. At the Camp Nou, though, they were so frozen by the prospect of a side actually attacking them that they let in four goals in the final seven minutes.
The tie as a whole was thrilling but it also served as a warning about the dangers of the financial disparities in modern football. Good teams, frankly, shouldn’t buckle as Barca did in Paris and they certainly shouldn’t capitulate as PSG did in Barcelona. It’s not even an issue of having good defenders: PSG could buy as many as they wanted.
Their back four as it stands — Dani Alves, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva and Layvin Kuzawa, with Thomas Meunier, Presnel Kimpembe and Yuri as back up — is perfectly serviceable (with perhaps slight doubts about Dani Alves’ continued ability to get up and down the flank). The issue, though, is one of practice. It doesn’t matter how strong you are — if you don’t use a muscle it will get flabby.
PSG are not the only side facing that problem, but they are perhaps the club most obviously afflicted. And it is brought into sharper relief by the sense that they need European success. Splash out all that money and if you don’t start producing, you soon look pretty silly.