For all the storylines leading into Tuesday night’s Champions League semi-final between RB Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain – the battle of new money, a clash cutting through the community essence of football, Julian Nagelsmann trying to outwit Thomas Tuchel, the man who convinced him to try his hand in the technical era – it was a stale tale that decided the tie.
Good players punish bad mistakes. And seriously gifted, supremely expensive footballers can make you look quite silly while they’re pulling your pants down. Enter, in particular, Angel Di Maria and Neymar.
The Bundesliga side barely had a chance to contend with competing on the biggest stage, reaching this crucial stage of the tournament during only their second season amongst Europe elite, before the Argentine curled a glorious free-kick delivery which Marquinhos glanced into the bottom corner. There were just 13 minutes played and Leipzig goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi was rendered helpless by the accuracy, venom and thought of the ball plus the perfect headed treatment it got.
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That early piece of play was a sketch of the whole game: PSG’s superstars swaggering about, sprinkling their brilliance in continuous doses with Nagelsmann’s men perplexed by it all. Leipzig were a shadow of themselves: safe, uncertain, passive. They were overawed by the occasion, by the galactico feel of their opponents, by never knowing whether to be themselves or absorb the more pragmatic approach often applied at the business end of a Champions League campaign. To press, or not to press? To counter or to contain?
PSG sniffed their insecurities and fed off it, gliding around the pitch like a more refined version of Harlem Globetrotters. The touches, the flicks, the synchronicity of runs and the delicate way they put Leipzig to death was both entertaining and effortless.
Even their almost moments were electric: Neymar fizzing a wicked, curling free-kick towards the near post that had the keeper sweating but hit the outside of the upright and went wide.
Before half-time, Leipzig were decarbonated. Gulacsi tried to pick out a teammate 25 yards from goal, but instead gift-wrapped possession to PSG. Neymar, in all his glory, illustrated elite awareness and skill to flick the ball over to Di Maria near the penalty spot. The 32-year-old took a tidy touch to control, before smoothly sliding a shot under the goalkeeper.
Nagelsmann changed the system and personnel at the start of the second stanza but the psychological damage was already done: the French giants knew they had this, they were walking it, they were doing their thing and doing it well.
Leipzig were saved some embarrassment by Neymar’s navigation in the final third being off, but another defensive mistake was pounced on to increase PSG’s comfort. Nordi Mukiele slipped close the corner flag as he attempted to run out with the ball with Di Maria there to thieve possession off him.
He directed a cross seized to the near post, which Juan Bernat guided into the net with Neymar following it up. Leipzig had shown some resistance, a snapshot of themselves before the third went in by they were toast; their biggest contribution to the spectacle being Nagelsmann’s tight, over-ornate grey suit.
They will learn, they will grow, this experience will be beneficial if the lesson is processed in the right way.
PSG’s superiority told all through the encounter, in capital, in bold and underlined. In 59 Champions League appearances, Neymar has provided 59 goal involvements. That there are still deniers to his talents – football’s very own anti-vaxxers – is bonkers.
Since Di Maria’s Champions League debut in 2007-08, meanwhile, only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (32) have provided more assists in the competition than his 27.
He is a big-game player: so at home when the heat is on. PSG were collectively so much stronger than their opponents, but he stood out – the chief in draining Leipzig’s energy and clipping their wings.
And so a Di Maria-infused PSG flew into their first Champions League final.
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