Last season was something of a watershed moment for PSG.
After years of successive European humiliations, Thomas Tuchel’s men finally looked a team worth something close to the sum of its very, very expensive parts.
Victories over Borussia Dortmund, Atalanta and RB Leipzig saw the French champions banish the knockout demons of past seasons to play out a genuinely competitive Champions League final against Hansi Flick’s formidable Bayern Munich side.
It was – as the PSG hierarchy knew all too well – a golden opportunity to establish Paris as a permanent fixture on the map of European footballing giants.
It also proved a chance to rubbish claims that the club has become pre-occupied with its numerous commercial ventures, and presented superstars Neymar and Kylian Mbappé with a moment to vindicate career choices which have been the subject of scrutiny ever since their record-breaking arrivals.
They lost, of course, courtesy of a second-half winner from the Paris-born (and PSG-bred) Kingsley Coman, but while those questions of pedigree remain unanswered, PSG proved there’s bite to their bark.
Granted, coronavirus played its part in their campaign – the absence of return legs meant fewer chances to blow a lead à la Barcelona 2017 – but not many would argue that Tuchel’s men were undeserving of their shot in Lisbon.
This season, though, Les Parisiens face an altogether different predicament.
The club legends – for want of a better term – have gone. All-time top scorer Edinson Cavani has left to lead the line at Manchester United, while captain Thiago Silva has become the anchor in Frank Lampard’s new-look Chelsea side.
While it’s true that Cavani was largely frozen out towards the end of last season, their combined departures leave behind a squad bereft of leadership and experience.
But this is still a PSG side capable of European success.
A matchday one defeat to Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s United might suggest an ominous forecast for the season ahead, but PSG remain one of the most explosive offensive teams in world football and still possess the tools to topple their overseas rivals.
We’re in the midst of a European renaissance, after all. Re-building projects are well underway at Barcelona, Juventus, Real Madrid and Manchester City. Clubs who would usually assume their place in the latter stages of the Champions League look unlikely to challenge for its grand prize this season.
Bayern Munich notwithstanding, PSG have as much chance as any of going all the way.
The key to doing so, of course, will be Neymar and Mbappé. The pair have proven their worth as the deadliest attacking partnership in Europe, and the Brazilian, in particular, deserves credit for his role in carrying the team to last season’s final.
Neymar is, for all intents and purposes, the best dribbler in world football, and Mbappé’s combination of speed and shooting ability has rightly seen him dubbed the sport’s foremost generational talent.
Their partnership is the sole reason PSG can maintain hope of Champions League success. But they’re also the reason why this season is their last chance of winning the trophy.
It’s no secret that the pair have had their heads turned. Neymar was reportedly excited by a potential return to Barcelona and Lionel Messi in the summer, and he’d be sure to follow his teammate out the door should Mbappé leave the Parc des Princes any time soon.
And that’s a distinct possibility. The young Frenchman is out of contract in Paris at the end of the 2021-22 season, and the club will seek to make a healthy return on the world’s most valuable player should he express his desire to move elsewhere.
Real Madrid has long been the destination of choice for Mbappé, that much is clear. During his time as manager, Unai Emery suggested the then-19-year-old “seriously contemplated” a move to the Bernabéu, a club he would be “very excited” to play for.
PSG insiders have recently revealed Mbappé’s continued interest in joining Zidane’s side. Former club midfielder Youri Djorkaeff recently told Parisfans: “[Mbappé] is entering his fourth year in Paris, he’s a young player. I don’t see him staying at PSG for 10 years. His future is to win titles on all continents, something few French people have done.”
When pressed on PSG’s failure to win the Champions League, Djorkaeff suggested Mbappé’s hope is to “win it and then sign for a big club”, adding that, if they fall short once again, “it will be a regret for him, but you can’t blame the failure of a club on a single player.”
Harsh words, indeed, but the bitter truth.
Mbappé and Neymar were brought in to make PSG a genuine European challenger, and they’ve done that. It will be up to the players around them – Marquinhos, Verratti, Icardi et al. – to step up to the plate and ensure that this season isn’t another carry job.
Thiago Silva’s departure has left behind a weakened back line, there’s no doubt. In Ligue 1, PSG lost their opening two matches for the first time in 36 years.
But this season is a rare one in that it’s difficult to pin down a genuinely solid defence across Europe’s major outfits (Bayern Munich notwithstanding, obviously).
Crucially, PSG possess the unique ability to outscore any opponent – Neymar and Mbappé have made sure of that. They are good enough to win the Champions League, but they must do it before it’s too late.