Football Features

“Touched by an Angel” – Five things learned as PSG punish Leipzig to make first-ever Champions League final

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:14, 18 August 2020

In a one-sided night of football, PSG thrashed RB Leipzig 3-0 to make their first-ever Champions League final.

The win makes them the first Ligue 1 side in 16 years to make the final since Monaco in 2004. What did we learn?

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1. Touched by an Angel

Neymar is obviously the star attraction in Paris, the Brazilian is the world’s most expensive player and is very obviously second-best in the world in terms of skill too. The only rival for his leading role is Kylian Mbappé. And sure enough, both men played wonderfully against Leipzig and were key to the 3-0 win.

But one player was even more key. One player was literally the reason PSG scored their three goals: Angel Di Maria.

The hero of Real Madrid’s La Decima that was then, for his contributions, denied a spot in the World Cup final and sold to make way for James Rodriguez. Di Maria has always been used to being unappreciated. He was booed at Old Trafford last year simply because he had underperformed at United during a miserable season-long spell. Does that make sense? Well, maybe to Di Maria.

He will never be the superstar, he’s too weird-looking and his style of play is too insistent. He runs and runs (and runs). He’s not cool, sure, but he is stupendously talented. PSG’s first goal came as he whipped in an indefensible cross for Marquinhos to nod home. PSG’s second goal came as he received a Neymar flick and buried a shot nervelessly. PSG’s third goal came when he bent in a beauty of a cross for Juan Bernat to nod home. Yes, Juan Bernat. Di Maria is such a great crosser that he can get 5’8 left-backs scoring headers.

PSG have made the 2020 Champions League final because they were touched by an Angel. And given Di Maria’s big game record, and the fact that he dominated the only Champions League final he’s ever played in, can you really rule out just one more miracle to deliver the greatest prize of all? He won’t get the headlines, but don’t be surprised on Sunday night if Angel Di Maria is the beating heart of a PSG Champions League win.

2. Neymar is building to something big

Over the last two knockout games for PSG, Neymar has played some absolutely incredible football. He’s looked like a player finally finding his true level, driving by opponents like they’re not even there and threading killer passes to team-mates too. He’s also been shooting like a pub league player.

Against Leipzig Neymar was almost unstoppable with his overall play but laughable when trying to score. He struck the post twice (although one of those was, to be fair, an audacious effort from a wide free-kick) and despite having 3 shots he never really looked like he was going to score – across both games he’s taken 10 shots in total and still no goal.

But it all felt like it was building to something. This wasn’t just a player being bad, this was a player performing well but simply not finishing well (his backheel assist for Di Maria was simply marvellous). The sensation is that at some point, the cork will fly out of the bottle. PSG will be hoping that comes in the next game, the Champions League final, because on the evidence of this: once he finds his goalscoring form he could rack up a huge amount.

3. Leipzig “do a PSG”

One of the great frustrations (or entertainments, depending on your view) of the last few years of Champions League football has been watching PSG go into games and simply not play to their potential. It’s not that they lose, anyone can lose, it’s that they don’t show true level.

Well tonight, against PSG, RB Leipzig staged a fitting tribute act. Julian Nagelsmann’s side fizzed with energy and intensity in their quarter-final win over Atlético Madrid. Just like in the round of 16 against Spurs; they defended with purpose, they attacked with drive and they looked every inch a side capable of taking the game to PSG.

And yet they did nothing of the sort. In fact they looked often like PSG did, shaky, unsure of themselves and playing nowhere near their true level. They improved a bit in the second-half, before PSG killed them off for good, but all in all Nagelsmann will be frustrated at how poorly he and his charges acquitted themselves in the biggest game of their careers.

4. Presnel Kimpembe is a future world-beater

France produce top-quality centre-backs at an absurd rate. Two years ago they won the World Cup with Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti. Since then Umtiti’s knee has disintegrated but Didier Deschamps won’t worry because Clement Lenglet has emerged as a solid replacement.

Meanwhile below Lenglet, we’ve had Jules Koundé emerge at Sevilla, and tonight we saw two young French superstars who could form the centre-back partnership that will win France’s next World Cup: Dayot Upamecano and Presnel Kimpembe.

Upamecano was the superstar in the quarter-finals but tonight Kimpembe stood above every other defender, including his own team-mate Thiago Silva. The young centre-back has really emerged as the finest stopper in Paris and is a huge reason why PSG have been able to so comfortably negotiate the challenges placed in front of them this Champions League season.

Three years ago, Kimpembe played next to Marquinhos against Barcelona and PSG won 4-0. In the second-leg, Thiago Silva replaced Kimpembe and PSG lost 6-1. Now, it’s not all because of the switch, but that does show how mentally strong and physically dominant Kimpembe can be when compared to PSG’s other starters. Tonight he blew out an incredible 10 clearances, denying Leipzig at every turn. Next up, Robert Lewandowksi?

5. It feels like destiny, but Bayern are the destiny-destroyers

PSG have wanted to win the Champions League so much it has verged on comedic. They’ve spent so much money, mis-spent so much money, and all in the aid of trying to break through into football’s elite circle. For years lucky and decision-making has not been on their side, but this year, this most madcap of years, PSG have found the right mixture.

Barely playing for months as Ligue 1 cancelled their fixtures amid the Covid-19 pandemic, PSG have come back swinging. They won both domestic cups before journeying to Lisbon with the intent of winning the European Cup for the first time in the club’s history. And in this reduced format things have gone their way. They’ve faced two sides with even less experience of the knockout rounds than them, their star players have clicked but when they didn’t (like against Atalanta) their squaddies have shown up in the knick of time.

It feels like destiny for them, right?

Well, until you realise that they could be facing Bayern Munich in the next round. Should Lyon beat Bayern to book a rematch of the Coupe de France final, then we’ll know it really is PSG’s year, but if Bayern progress (as they should) then we have to prepare ourselves. Because as much as PSG will feel this is destiny: Bayern are a ruthless, cold-hearted side who don’t give a damn about destiny. If you don’t show up, they will tear you limb from limb. Just ask Barcelona.