It is in the nature of sport to make a mockery of predictions. The best bit of TV commentary on the 1970 World Cup is the BBC’s response to Pelé’s team of all the talents falling behind in their opening game after a horrendous piece of defending: “And Brazil … have confirmed everything we ever knew about them,” crows the voice down the line from Guadalajara.
Cue an effortless 4-1 fightback defeat of Czechoslovakia and three weeks of the most vital attacking football the world has seen.
Paris Saint-Germain may be some way off fulfilling their owners’ ambitions of scaling such heights. But for now it would be similarly foolish to take too much comfort from Manchester City’s slight but significant advantage after Wednesday’s thrilling 2-2 draw at Parc des Princes.
City will walk out at the Etihad Stadium wearing (as the phrase goes) a suit of armour in the shape of two priceless away goals. Blaise Matuidi and David Luiz will both be absent suspended. Not much of a loss in the latter case, some might say; but only those who weren’t at Stamford Bridge around the same time the last two years.
Still, though there was a sense by the final whistle at the Parc des Princes that Laurent Blanc’s team had confirmed one or two things we might have known about them. Not least that it isn’t always easy being PSG.
The most interesting passage in the game came shortly after the home team had taken the lead through the Parisian Adrien Rabiot (one of two on the pitch: Eliaquim Mangala is a fellow child of the Banlieu). PSG bent their backs and pushed hard, sensing a familiar crumple-point. City pushed back, hung in there, and scored at the other end.
Facing their most capable opponents since Real Madrid in November France’s serial champions didn’t quite have the extra gears to hand, the muscle-memory of needing to find some further note of precision to get over the line.
It goes without saying PSG are still well capable of winning this tie, indeed of winning it in the opening 20 minutes next week if they get a clear run at City’s clanky defence. Ángel Di María will surely play better than this on his return to Manchester. Zlatan Ibrahimovic doesn’t have two off-nights in a row very often.
For now, though, Wednesday night can stand as that rare thing in recent times – a genuine boost for the Premier League’s self-esteem in the Champions League. England’s fourth-placed club are just a home draw away from eliminating France’s runaway title winners, a result that would stand as the best Premier League performance since Chelsea won the competition four years ago. By the end – wonders! – there were even a couple of Englishmen on the pitch
If this is all deeply presumptuous at the halfway stage then there was at least a corresponding gloom on Thursday morning in parts of the French sporting press. “PSG seriously complicate their life,” was Le Figaro’s angsty headline, above a report that was down on Zlatan in particular, “si epoustouflant en Ligue 1” but so “banal” here.
“Rageant” was the overall verdict. “Infuriating”. And the wider frustration might become significant should PSG once again exit at this stage, this time to a club of similar standing. It isn’t hard to see where much of the soul-searching would focus. The Premier League likes to moan about its own relentlessness but an absence of intensity can also present a problem. There is to the casual visitor a slightly dawdling, preening, self-congratulatory air to this glitzy club.
The atmosphere inside the stadium is more a kind of flag-waving pomp, enjoyment of the wider event-glamour of the occasion. There was no lack of intensity on the pitch. The spirit among the players, as it was in the defeat of Chelsea, is clearly very strong. But there is perhaps an outer limit to all this.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph on the morning of this match Lucas Moura, bought for a vast sum three years ago, talked about how much he loved visiting the Eiffel Tower and living in Paris. Which is nice. But he’s 23 years old and at a point in his vital prime where the most helpful emotions are desperation, hunger, gnawing fear of failure.
Who wants a European Super League anyway? Not so much the Premier League, which has a lucrative, functioning product as things stand. But Qatar surely does, and you can see why. If PSG do fail to get through this tie then Blanc’s team will have had no more than four really significant matches between December 2015 and the start of the next Champions League group stage in October. Sock-puppet super-clubs are all very well. But without anybody to actually conquer, taking over the world perhaps starts to lose its glitz.
All of which is of course just as precariously hostage to fortune as the BBC’s early call on Brazil 1970. Had the Serbian referee read Mangala’s clumsy challenge on Matuidi a little differently PSG might have been a goal and a man up before 10 minutes were out in Paris. Similarly, if Leicester City can tear Mancehster City’s defence apart at the Etihad Stadium you can be fairly sure PSG are capable, too.
And yet at half-time in the quarter‑final round it is still possible to imagine an unexpected opening up of the draw. Uefa wouldn’t like it much. Qatar would like it even less (although Abu Dhabi, Volkswagen and Atlético Madrid’s Chinese part-owners would be happy enough). But right now the Champions League semi-finals are just a favourable run of scores away from what American political theorists might call The King Power Possibility.
Wolfsburg have Real Madrid near, if not quite on, the ropes. Benfica are still in it against Bayern Munich. Even at 2-1 down Atlético are still the most likely candidates to arm-wrestle Barcelona into submission. A last four with only one previous winner, no super-brand mega-clubs and City’s newbies the only bottomless spenders left is a mild but still tangible possibility.
It almost certainly won’t work out like that. But if it does this will perhaps be a moment to celebrate such variation while it is still, just about, allowed to happen.
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