Paris Saint-Germain used to be ridiculed as chokers. But maybe they will soon, at last, earn the right to be referred to as European champions. Mauricio Pochettino’s team showed immense fortitude and wonderful flashes of skill to depose the Champions League holders and advance to a semi-final with either Manchester City or Borussia Dortmund. PSG may have lost the second leg to a goal by Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting but they emerged triumphant from a thrilling duel thanks to the three goals they had scored in the first leg and a second-leg performance that answered many questions about their character.
The mathematical history of the Champions League was not a subject that either team needed to study before this showdown, since there was nothing to be gained from knowing that only 7% of teams who had lost a first leg 3-2 at home had gone on to win the tie. Bayern had good reason to believe their chances of prevailing were much better than that – after all, they created a huge number of chances in the first leg; all they had to do this time, perhaps, was convert more of them, which, even without Robert Lewandowski, should not have been beyond them.
PSG’s captain and most influential defender, Marquinhos, was missing because of injury and there is always the suspicion that nerves could infect the Parisians’ performance, especially at the Parc des Princes, where they have been strangely impotent for most of this season, losing to Manchester United in the group stage and suffering an almost preposterous five home defeats in Ligue 1.
Then again, those domestic losses have mostly been attributed to complacency, even to boredom with their domestic competition, and that would hardly be a problem against the Champions League holders.
PSG proved right away that they had no intention of sitting on their first-leg lead, as Mbappé nearly extended it after less than three minutes. But after being released down the right by Neymar, the striking phenomenon rifled a low shot wide of the far post. Bayern tried to retort quickly but PSG proved to be tighter defensively than expected, preventing Kingsley Coman and Leroy Sané from finding teammates with regular crosses.
In the first half an hour Bayern failed to direct a shot on target, Sané and Joshua Kimmich going closest with efforts that fizzed wide from long range.
PSG looked far more menacing on the counter. Mbappé bamboozled Benjamin Pavard in the area and cut the ball back for Neymar, whose shot was blocked by Manuel Neuer.
Bayern had a clear plan to subdue Neymar by ambushing him in numbers every time he got the ball but the Brazilian is used to such treatment and found ingenious ways to wriggle free when PSG broke. Neuer had to rush out to deny him in the 27th minute after another counterattack led by Mbappé. Then Neymar struck the frame of the goal twice in three minutes. First he curled a wonderful shot against the crossbar from over 20 yards after duping Coman with a beautiful piece of skill; then he nudged an effort against a post from six yards after being set up by Mbappé at the end of a lovely move.
Just as Bayern seemed to be crumbling, they scored. Keylor Navas could only parry a shot from 10 yards by David Alaba, and Choupo-Moting showed the sharpest reactions, beating Presnel Kimpembe to the rebound and forcing the ball over the line from close range. Sané could have put them ahead in the tie before half-time but his weak shot was saved easily.
Bayern needed a second goal, at least, but also knew Neymar and Mbappé could destroy them on the counter in the blink of an eye. The suspense was captivating, the skill level at times sublime. Alaba, embroiled in a high-class midfield battle with Idrissa Gueye all evening. blasted just wide from the edge of the area early in the second half.
Then Neymar scooped a half-volley high over the bar at the other end after a cute pass by Leandro Paredes. For all the vibrant attacking, the finishing needed fine-tuning.
Neymar contributed to another marvellous attack in the 53rd minute but, after sumptuous skill from Ángel Di María, came millimetres short of prodding the ball over the line from close range. Then Sané wrongfooted the PSG defence with a smart pass to Thomas Müller but Navas smothered the shot.
Bayern turned up the tempo but never panicked as time ticked down, trusting they would eventually forge another opening despite the resilience of PSG, for whom Danilo shone in place of Marquinhos. But they were wrong. PSG got bodies in the way of everything, proving to be too strong, too tenacious.