Thomas Tuchel praises PSG's spirit against the team with the 'best mentality in the world'

Atletico's Juanfran (No. 20) and Toni Moya are unable to stop Christopher Nkunku from scoring past goalkeeper Antonio Adan to put PSG 1-0 up. At 20, Nkunku is far from being the youngest in the PSG team.
Atletico's Juanfran (No. 20) and Toni Moya are unable to stop Christopher Nkunku from scoring past goalkeeper Antonio Adan to put PSG 1-0 up. At 20, Nkunku is far from being the youngest in the PSG team.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Despite fielding some players as young as 16, French side edge Atletico in five-goal thriller

In his own words, Diego Simeone described his playing style as "holding a knife between his teeth".

Now coach of Atletico Madrid, the former Argentina midfielder has moulded the LaLiga side into football's equivalent of the Spartan warriors, fighting to the last minute, to the bitter end.

They had shown that here in Singapore at the International Champions Cup (ICC). Except that this time, it was the aristocrats from Paris Saint-Germain who rolled up their sleeves and engaged the Spanish club in a real bare-knuckle contest which they won 3-2 last night, even though it was supposed to be a pre-season friendly.

And 22,007 fans at the National Stadium got a real treat. Even if the big stars were missing, their youthful replacements swung at each other until the knockout blow was delivered deep into stoppage time.

This year's ICC, which features 18 of the world's top football clubs in venues around Europe, the United States and Singapore, will be won by the team who have the most points after three matches.

"Today, it's about our mentality," said a delighted PSG coach Thomas Tuchel after the match.

SURMOUNTING THE ODDS

We had to come back with only a day's rest and with so many young players. We showed unbelievable mentality against the team with maybe the best mentality in the world.

THOMAS TUCHEL, PSG coach, praising his players for a job well done.

"We had to come back with only a day's rest and with so many young players. We showed unbelievable mentality against the team with maybe the best mentality in the world."

Simeone was not too downcast despite the loss, saying: "You saw how PSG celebrated the third goal. It's good to play against another team with that kind of passion. It was a direct game with clear situations."

After a tentative opening, the breakthrough came in the 32nd minute when PSG full-back Layvin Kurzawa saw his shot take a deflection but the ball fell to team-mate Christopher Nkunku, who applied the finishing touch.

And, in the 72nd minute, Atletico midfielder Toni Moya's square pass across defence was intercepted by Timothy Weah, son of former footballer and Liberian President, George.

The 18-year-old instantly picked out the run of forward Moussa Diaby, who drilled a grass-cutting shot low into the net.

Simeone's men reduced the deficit three minutes later when midfielder Roberto Olabe steered a header off a corner that was parried by PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp. From the rebound, forward Victor Mollejo, 17, thumped home.

Atletico made it 2-2 in the 86th minute when midfielder Antoine Bernede, 19, deflected a cross from the left past a stranded Trapp.

There was still time for late drama. Two minutes into stoppage time, Tuchel's team snatched victory with a glorious strike from teenage forward Virgiliu Postolachi.

The 18-year-old pounced on Atletico defender Andres Solano's poor pass before turning a marker to curl the ball into the top corner with his left foot. His winner sparked joyous celebrations with his coach and the bench.

Tuchel said: "My players gave everything and played with passion.

"It's a very good ending and a good feeling. It's fantastic. We had some 16-year-olds out on the pitch."

Indeed. With the team deprived of World Cup stars such as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani, Thiago Silva and Marquinhos, PSG had to rely on youngsters, some of whom are below Singapore's legal driving age of 18.

The youngest of the lot was 16-year-old left-back Arthur Zagre. Cameroonian defender Loic Mbe Soh is 17 while match-winner Postolachi is 18. On Sunday, the club had to fly in Yacine Adli , 18, and Diaby, 19, both France Under-19 internationals, to reinforce the squad.

But, even as PSG were buzzing after winning this ICC game, Tuchel knows that his employers will demand that he delivers the elusive Champions League trophy this season. And among the clubs standing in their way are Atletico.

He said: "Atletico will be a big competitor for the final. This team is pure mentality. They are a fantastic team with a fantastic coach. It is so hard to beat them."

And, if the ambitious French club want to lift the famous trophy, they will have to do it the hard way.

The 2018-19 Champions League final, set for June 1 next year, will be played at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, also better known as the home of a club called Atletico Madrid.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2018, with the headline 'PSG grind out gutsy victory'. Print Edition | Subscribe