News analysis: Stage fright a millstone around PSG's neck

MADRID • No matter how hard Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) push, no matter how many superstars they acquire, no matter how much money they spend, that glass ceiling simply will not break.

Yet again, at the moment they were supposed to make their giant leap, they froze. PSG's list of Champions League disappointments already included Barcelona (2015 and 2017), Manchester (2016) and London (2014). Now, add Madrid.

This was, of course, only the first leg of PSG's tie with Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16. A 1-3 loss on Wednesday still offers a glimmer of hope.

But there was an unavoidable sense in those dying minutes, as Cristiano Ronaldo bundled Madrid ahead and Marcelo stretched their lead, that it was all happening again: Against the very best, PSG were exposed as mere pretenders.

It was impossible, as soon as this tie was confirmed, not to see it as a battle between the establishment and the insurgent. To holders Real, this competition is a central part of their identity: They have won the trophy 12 times. In Parisian eyes, the competition is a symbol of what PSG crave to be.

Only the Champions League justifies their investment, validates their project, brings Qatar the kudos they desire - proof that what was once a backwater can become a global player.

Yet again, at the moment they were supposed to make their giant leap, they froze... Against the very best, PSG were exposed as mere pretenders.

It was why PSG sanctioned a €222 million (S$363.2 million) move last summer for Neymar. They see him as a player who can deliver on the biggest stages. His ability to do so is not in question: PSG know that - it was Neymar who orchestrated that humiliation in Barcelona last year. But he could not repeat the trick.

For his part, Neymar's decision to leave Barca centred on his desire to establish himself as the best player in the world. This was his chance to demonstrate that his move was the right one.

He did not do it. He did not decide this game: Ronaldo, the man he hoped to depose, did. Twice, when the pressure was greatest, he stepped up. PSG can only hope that the end of their Champions League journey this term is not near.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2018, with the headline 'Stage fright a millstone around PSG's neck'. Print Edition | Subscribe