Paris Saint-Germain once again came up short in their apparently eternal quest to win the Champions League as they were defeated 2-0 by Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday, 4-1 on aggregate.
A second-half meltdown in Paris last week did much of the damage, but PSG’s cause was not helped when, amid a promising start in the snow, Riyad Mahrez was the recipient on a fortunate bounce in the box, allowing him to give Pep Guardiola’s side the lead with their only meaningful attack in the first 40-odd minutes.
There was to be no coming back from that blow as Mahrez got a second after the break – and with PSG sent spinning out at the semi-final stage, the questions will inevitably be asked whether this cycle of the Parisians’ push for European glory has also drawn to a close.
Both Kylian Mbappe and Neymar are out of contract in 2022, leading PSG to a crossroads. Can they tie both down before the summer? Will they be forced to pick between the risk of losing one or even both of their superstars on for nothing in 12 months or accepting a transfer fee for them in the coming weeks?
Certainly, Mbappe’s reluctance to commit himself to the club suggests that he has eyes for a fresh challenge, while Neymar looks likelier to remain at Parc des Princes, despite rumors this week suggesting that he wants to move back to Barcelona.
The financial situation of Real Madrid and Barca, however, plays into PSG’s hands. Both Clasico giants are wracked with debt and will need to find innovative ways of being competitive for at least a couple of years.
Big-money moves, such as those required to sign either Mbappe or Neymar, will be difficult to execute – and even if such a player can be captured, how can a squad be built around them in such a manner to remain competitive at the cutting edge of European football?
This, of course, is not a problem for PSG or president Nasser Al Khelaifi, who have the wealth of the Qatari state to fall back upon. Money will be found to keep both Mbappe and Neymar if they are willing to stay.
It may boil down to the belief that the pair have in the project moving ahead. Progression to the Champions League semi-finals is no small feat for any team, particularly if it involves negotiating knockout ties with Barcelona and Bayern Munich along the way, and it follows up a narrow defeat in last season’s final to the Bundesliga side.
And the margins in this tie were slim. PSG, after all, was relatively untroubled in the first leg before Keylor Navas uncharacteristically allowed Kevin De Bruyne’s meek cross to find the corner of his net. A 15-minute meltdown followed and the second leg followed much the same pattern.
PSG missed early chances, conceded in part due to a stroke of misfortune, and after an hour of fruitless but competitive toil suffered a complete collapse that saw Angel Di Maria dismissed for a moment of petulance. The closing 20 minutes were torturous as City toyed with them.
Had Mbappe, their talisman in the Champions League in recent weeks, been fit to play even a cameo role, it is tempting to say it may have been a different story.
And it might have, but given the manner, Guardiola set his team up to allow PSG to punch themselves out after an hour then grow frustrated, it is tough to argue that the better team did not win.
For now, the thoughts will turn to the Ligue 1 title race. PSG trail Lille by a single point with three matches remaining, and there is no room for error as they press to reclaim their crown.
“It’s not the moment to make announcements,” PSG sporting director Leonardo said when asked about the future of Mbappe and Neymar. “We want to keep our stars and go on with this group. Mauricio Pochettino arrived a few months ago, the project has just started.”
If questions remain over the status of PSG’s current iteration of their project, these are only likely to be answered come to the end of May.
For now, though, the reality is that they have come up short in the Champions League once again.