PSG are ahead of schedule under Luis Enrique – the treble is on

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PSG are ahead of schedule under Luis Enrique – the treble is on

Marquinhos understood it best. Paris Saint-Germain’s all-time leading appearance holder knows the stakes when it comes to facing Barcelona because like no one else in this PSG team, he still wears the scars of that defeat in 2017, one from which it seemed PSG would never recover.

For him and for the club’s supporters, this fixture is like retracting your steps into hell. So when he stuck out a leg to deny Robert Lewandowski’s final attempt to salvage the tie, with minutes left on the clock, he was always going to celebrate furiously, with arms pumping, face contorted, voice roaring with raging delight.

Preserving this feat was essential. PSG were two goals down in this tie with an hour to play but, with help from a game-changing red card for Ronald Araujo, they had pulled off a ghostbusting comeback in winning 4-1 on the night and 6-4 on aggregate, ensuring no team has knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League more times. As a riposte to 2017, this would do nicely.

“Throughout the season, fans have seen a team that is struggling and working,” said head coach Luis Enrique. “We are a team, we can play well or badly but we will seek the result. There is a connection between the fans and the team. It’s very positive. Everyone saw us eliminated, not the supporters who came here. We are alive in all competitions.”

It is a statement that reflects much about this PSG team. For most of this year, they have been caught in transition. It has taken them time to adjust to Luis Enrique’s particular, possession-based style and they have not always looked cohesive or as controlled as he would perhaps like. They are not the fluent, perfect article. This tie illustrated that.

But this imperfect team have also won over the supporters, and above all, are also in the last four of the competition PSG have always sought to win. As well as the final of the Coupe de France and top of Ligue 1.

They are very much on course for the treble.

How did that happen?

“It’s happiness,” said Luis Enrique, asked about the team overturning the first leg defeat. “I can’t prove it but I think that.”

Luis Enrique could afford to look rather satisfied after PSG’s 4-1 win in Barcelona (Aitor Alcalde – UEFA via Getty Images)

Fortune plays some part too, of course. The red card here perhaps factors (although you could argue it was by design, targeting the back line with a player like Bradley Barcola). The draw is kind. PSG have avoided the heavyweights of Real Madrid, Manchester City and Bayern Munich. It is worth acknowledging as well that, while forgoing Lionel Messi, Neymar and Sergio Ramos last summer, PSG still spent more than €250 million on new players. They are young players, though, and PSG fielded their youngest ever Champions League side, an average of 23 years and 361 days, in the last round against Real Sociedad.

Either way, success like this was certainly not expected.

When Luis Enrique stepped into the top job at PSG, it was made clear that his role was to oversee change. Not just in personnel and infrastructure, but in the club’s culture. The mantra that no one is bigger than the team had to mean something, and if that took time to instil, then so be it.

Expectations were reset following his appointment and emphasis was taken away from winning the Champions League — the albatross nesting around the club’s neck — and placed on club development. “The Champions League is not at all an obsession — that is over,” said Nasser Al Khelaifi, the club’s president. Success would not be reliant on what can be a lottery; a bad draw and a season can conclude pretty swiftly. Instead, instilling a new playing identity and embedding a squad of new, younger players  would take precedence.

A Champions League semi-final was not on the cards.

And yet.

“We are ready to go to the final,” insisted Kylian Mbappe. “We are a great team, we had a great match as a team, as a group. We worked for six days, with the idea that we were going to win and it is sure that it is a great day for the club. It’s awesome. And congratulations to all the staff and staff of the team.”

For Mbappe, there is no long term in Paris so addressing matters now is pretty vital. He scored twice, ensuring no farewell to Champions League football with PSG at a secondary stadium situated on Montjuic, a hill with a dark past confined within the walls of its old military fortress — where many have met a sorrowful end.

If the magnitude of the result was not already clear by the celebrations on the field, then it was evidenced by the sight of Mbappe choosing to face the mixed zone microphones. “I’m proud to be here since day one,” he said. “It’s not because there are good times or bad times that my pride takes a hit. I have this pride in playing for this club, in representing this club in the capital of my country, it’s something special for me who grew up here. Of course, evenings like this as a Parisian are great.”

Mbappe was called the “undisputed leader” of the team’s performance by Luis Enrique but he was not the sole protagonist in this play. Bradley Barcola was instrumental and is indicative of a player who, like his team as a whole, is performing above expectations. Signed from Lyon for €50 million last summer, he looked set for a bit-part role behind Mbappe on the left wing and even more so when his cameo against Newcastle, in the group stage, was widely derided. But he has responded to such an extent that he is an integral figure, a player so far ahead of schedule that his form my force Didier Deschamps, in the absence of Kingsley Coman, to call him up for the European Championships. Barcola changed this game for PSG. He won the penalty with his pace and anticipation, and then set up the goal that gave PSG a foothold back in the game (1-1 on the night, 4-3 on aggregate).

There is undoubted quality in this team but that is not a new thing at PSG. What is, though, is this different outlook, and perspective matters.  “I hope that our ambition overcomes the pressure,” Luis Enrique said, pertinently, ahead of the first leg of this tie. Rebalancing the scales between ambition and pressure underwrites this season’s development and those words felt particularly apt a week later, before the second leg, when Luis Enrique had provided near-certainty in his next media address that his team would do what they had never done before in the Champions League, and overturn a home leg defeat and quality in the knockout phase. Not based on pressure, but ambition.

PSG have swapped the lenses in their glasses this season and now, with a touch of fortune by the nature of the draw, this new mindset has gifted them a third Champions League semi-final since Qatar Sports Investments bought the club in 2011, while they have a very strong chance of reaching the final.

Borussia Dortmund, a team they have faced twice this year in the group stages and secured both a win and a draw, are assailable.

Suddenly, a team that is being built for the long term might do what PSG have never done, and win it all. They may be ahead of schedule, but there is no time like the present.

(Top image: Xavier Laine/Getty Images)