For the fourth time in six seasons, PSG fell in the round of 16 of a competition they hold most dear, finding more ways to lose a draw they dominated against 13-time European champions Real Madrid.
Though less spectacular than the 2017 implosion against Barcelona at Camp Nou, Wednesday’s meek disintegration from a position of strength underscored the enduring fragility of a team marred by repeated failure.
Crucially, it was also a defeat that could spell the end of Kylian Mbappe’s time in Paris, with his contract expiring in July and a long-awaited dream move to Madrid looking even more likely.
The France star scored in both games, and another Mbappé masterclass in Spain left Madrid trailing 2-0 on aggregate before Karim Benzema’s hat-trick brought down PSG in 17 minutes.
Beaten by one of their own, Paris-born Kingsley Coman, in the 2020 final against Bayern Munich, the announced signing of Lionel Messi was supposed to be the missing piece of the puzzle.
But it simply hasn’t happened to the Argentine, who PSG proudly paraded in December after winning a seventh Ballon d’Or but who has seemed a shadow of the player who reigned in Barcelona.
His missed penalty in the first leg should have been insignificant, but the nature in which Mbappé, Messi and Neymar were effectively eliminated from the game once Madrid equalized on the night at the Santiago Bernabéu ensured that he will not be forgotten.
With only the league to focus on for the rest of the campaign, the next few months will be a time of soul-searching after another season of unfulfilled ambitions.
“It’s going to be difficult because Paris Saint-Germain’s goal is to chase the Champions League. It has been for many years,” PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino said.
“We are really disappointed and upset. It is not going to be easy to change this sentiment in the next few days.”
Club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi and sporting director Leonardo launched an angry tirade in the referee’s locker room, but Pochettino is the one likely to pay the price.
“You can lose against Real Madrid because they are one of the best teams in the world, but the way it happened is hard to accept,” the former Tottenham manager said.
The hope was that PSG could persuade Mbappé, a generational talent, to sign a new contract with victory over Madrid.
Instead, PSG withered in all too familiar fashion, almost resigned to their fate, and Mbappe was forced to watch his friend Benzema absorb the adulation of the Madrid fans.
Further speculation about the possible appointment of Zinedine Zidane is sure to follow, but Mbappe’s departure would leave the club further from European glory than ever in recent times.
Mbappe’s arrival in 2017 coincided with the world-record signing of Neymar, whose injury streak in the capital has often come at the least opportune moments.
But after a busy summer of recruitment, in which Messi, Achraf Hakimi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Sergio Ramos and Georginio Wijnaldum were brought in, and with Neymar back in form, PSG were widely tipped to seriously challenge for the Champions League.
It was not to be, however, as Donnarumma, who has alternated starts with Keylor Navas, was pressured into making the mistake that precipitated PSG’s downfall, as key players were found wanting when it mattered most.
The generally reliable Marquinhos inadvertently drove in Benzema for his third goal, just 11 seconds after PSG had kicked again, as the visitors doubled over with alarming ease.
“We were well placed to advance to the Champions League, and with this team we believed we could win it,” Leonardo said.
“We must always analyze and look at why things happen this way. But we need time to reflect and move forward.”
Only time will tell if PSG have the same opportunity next year.