In their 50th anniversary season, the pieces have finally fallen into place for Thomas Tuchel’s richly talented side.
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Long before the referee put Leipzig out of their misery in the semi-finals, supporters of Paris Saint-Germain found themselves wrestling with an odd sensation. For many it must have washed over them even before Juan Bernat finished off their outclassed opponents. It was strange, it was unfamiliar, it was… comfort. Absolute comfort in a UEFA Champions League knockout tie. How peculiar, after three straight years of anguish in the last 16.
For the neutrals a different head-scratcher arose: why, exactly, had it taken this richly talented team so long to reach their maiden final? Every season since Paris were launched into the stratosphere by their 2011 takeover, the football world has wondered if this might be their year. This year, at last, it might.
Perhaps it always had to be this year, as the club celebrate their 50th anniversary, with talisman Neymar finally fit during the knockout phase and an unprecedented bond of unity forged behind the scenes. Urged by their own motto to 'Dream bigger', for once Paris don't have to dream at all: they just need to do what they do best for another 90 minutes.
What a curious campaign this has been for the French champions. It began, as it so often does, with a stroll through the group stage. First up was a searing 3-0 defeat of Real Madrid – and a message to their competitors? "There's no message sent," asserted captain Thiago Silva, wise from so many past disappointments. Then coach Thomas Tuchel sat down for his post-match press conference with a smile and a warning: "If someone asks me if we're going to win the Champions League, I'm off!"
Still, the next edition of L'Équipe spoke of "a message sent to Europe" – and maybe, in hindsight, it was. Madrid alone offered resistance in Group A, and even then the 2-2 November draw in Spain hinted at a developing theme: Paris's character and belief, as late goals from Kylian Mbappé and Pablo Sarabia rescued a point. Otherwise, Tuchel's men switched between two equally effective gears: clinical and cavalier, with both Club Brugge and Galatasaray subjected to 1-0 and 5-0 reverses.
Those games feel distant now, and not simply because the calendar says they are. Rather, the match winner in those tightest of victories was Mauro Icardi, who ended the group stage with five goals. Quiet against Atalanta in the quarter-finals, the predatory former Inter Milan striker was then dropped to the bench for Leipzig. In contrast, Neymar played just 135 minutes in Europe before Christmas, while Mbappé managed a mere three starts. The pair have still featured only three times together in a Champions League first XI this term.
They remain Paris's brightest gems, absurdly gifted compadres who complement each other perfectly, Neymar's vision and dribbling acumen allowing him to launch the explosive Mbappé behind defences. "They are the bow and the arrow," says former Paris midfielder Alain Roche, a memorable description that overlooks Ángel Di María – as many teams do, to their detriment. Often inconsistent in the past, the former Madrid man has been exceptional, contributing three goals and six assists.
To focus on the marquee names is to miss the bigger story, however. This has been a collective effort, starting with a defence that has yielded five goals in ten games – fewer than any other team. Much credit there goes to Keylor Navas, the commanding, reassuring presence between the sticks that Paris have sought for years. Recall too that skipper Thiago Silva was denied a new contract in June and will likely play his last game for the club in the final. His desire is undiminished.
The same goes for the improbable hero of the last-gasp Atalanta turnaround, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, a cult figure and now a club legend. The fringe players feel fully involved in this journey, with the squad having vowed an all-for-one pact during the lockdown. As midfielder Marco Verratti explained: "It's to have no regrets and give everything in each game, to go as far as possible."
Even Neymar, who last summer hoped to leave the club, has caught the buzz. "Today I live my best moment in Paris," he announced ahead of the quarter-finals. "We form a family on behalf of the greater objective we have ahead of us." Words to soothe Paris fans everywhere, though his hunger and commitment were already unmissable during the 2-0 defeat of Dortmund, which freed his team from their round of 16 curse.
Three weeks earlier, Paris had lost 2-1 in Germany. The cynics predicted disaster. Some suspected Tuchel's job was in danger. How distant that feels too. And how far this team have travelled together since the emotional Parc des Princes comeback that changed everything. So far, in fact – from the City of Light to the Stadium of Light – that Paris now look right at home in this final.
This article is adapted from the Official UEFA Champions League Final Programme. Purchase your copy here now.