After years of failing to live up to their billing in Europe, Paris Saint-Germain are within 90 minutes of the Champions League final thanks to their dramatic win over Atalanta on Wednesday night, and coach Thomas Tuchel now knows “everything is possible” for his team.
PSG were on the verge of another disappointing Champions League exit as they trailed Atalanta 1-0 into the 90th minute in Lisbon, where all the latter stages are being played after the long coronavirus shutdown.
But Mario Pasalic’s 27th-minute strike for the Italians was finally cancelled out by Marquinhos, who scrambled in a last-gasp leveller.
Then, three minutes into injury time, Kylian Mbappe set up fellow substitute Eric Choupo-Moting to convert the clinching goal.
“The goals came very late but we deserved the victory. We never stopped believing or attacking,” said Tuchel, whose team will face Atletico Madrid or RB Leipzig in the semi-final, the club’s first since 1995. “The boys who came off the bench had a big impact. We deserved it, we made our own luck.”
The money ploughed into the French champions by their Qatari owners has increased the pressure on PSG to deliver and losing to Atalanta would have invited more criticism of a club whose recent record in such games has been poor.
After all, Atalanta’s entire wage bill is believed to be equivalent to what PSG pay Neymar per year (about 36mn euros, or $42.5mn). Absent from decisive Champions League games in the last two seasons because of injuries, Neymar was excellent here, never giving up.
He set up the equaliser and played a part in the winner. “Going home never crossed my mind,” said the world’s most expensive player. Mbappe was only fit enough to play the final half-hour, after a spell on the sidelines with an ankle injury, but his pace down the left flank had Atalanta on the back foot in the closing stages and he laid on the winner.
PSG will be hopeful the France star can start the semi-final next Tuesday, but it is thanks to Choupo-Moting that they are there at all. “We’ve already won four titles this season but the most important is this one,” declared the Cameroon striker.
It seems ironic that PSG — the world’s fifth-richest club according to this year’s Deloitte Football League — needed to rely on a free transfer from Stoke City to take them through to the Champions League semi-finals for the first time since the Qatari takeover in 2011. They had gone out in the last 16 the past three years, but Choupo-Moting’s goal saw them break through the glass ceiling on the same day PSG marked their 50th anniversary.
From Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Ronaldinho, some fabulous players have turned out for the club in their relatively short history, although Choupo-Moting has not made much of a mark in his two seasons in Paris.
He had not previously scored in the Champions League and would probably have been best remembered for missing an open goal while standing on the line in a game against Strasbourg. Indeed he would not even have been playing in this match in different circumstances.
Choupo-Moting’s contract expired in June but he agreed to stay on for two months to play a part in the ‘Final Eight’ after Edinson Cavani — PSG’s all-time top scorer, who was also out of contract — walked away.
And so the 31-year-old came on for the ineffective Mauro Icardi for the closing stages. He will at best have a bit-part role to play in the semi-final, though. Mbappe could be ready to start then and Angel Di Maria will return from suspension, although Marco Verratti will probably be out again injured.
“There is a big difference between playing with or without Kylian,” Tuchel said. “That’s clear, and it’s the same with Marco and Angel. Now we have six days for Kylian to get back to his best. I’m not sure about Marco, but we are in the last four, everything is possible.”
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