After an honourable defeat by Barcelona on away goals in the Champions League quarter-finals in 2013, Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari president Nasser Al-Khelaifi stated that the club’s objective was to win the competition “in the next five years”.
That deadline expired with Tuesday’s limp 1-2 second-leg loss to holders Real Madrid in the last-16 match, leaving the French moneybags as far away from being European champions as at any point since Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) bought the club in 2011.
For all their lavish spending, PSG have never made it past the quarter-finals. And there have now been consecutive exits in the last 16, with the 2-5 aggregate defeat by Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real coming after a spectacular collapse saw them crash out in Barcelona a year ago.
The strategy after that defeat was to commit to paying the two biggest transfer fees in football history last August to sign Neymar and Kylian Mbappe for a combined €402 million (S$657 million), an attempt to buy immediate success on the biggest stage.
It has not worked, with Neymar left watching Tuesday’s loss at home in Brazil, where he is recovering from foot surgery.
“We know that Real have a lot of experience. We didn’t do what we needed to do to win,” said Al-Khelaifi. “But we believe in our players. We want to continue the project, with the two of them (Neymar and Mbappe) because they are the future of the club.”
In a thinly veiled warning to coach Unai Emery, Al-Khelaifi added: “We don’t want to overreact, we will talk to the players. We need to be calm and relax and we will think what we have to do next.”
Seven years after QSI’s arrival, PSG have managed to beat just three teams in the Champions League knockout stage – Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen and Chelsea. That is a damning statistic for a club with their means and ambitions.
“We will continue, as much as patience allows, to build a team which can win in the future,” said Emery.
“When I came here, I said I was sure this team can win the Champions League. But it’s a process.”
Soon to be out of contract, Emery will not likely be given another crack. The club will look for a new coach, and they will be tempted to go for a big name after the failure of the Emery experiment – the Spaniard won three Europa League titles with Sevilla, but has never won a Champions League knockout tie in six seasons of trying.
PSG midfielder Julian Draxler delivered a stinging rebuke to Emery and his team-mates.
“It was insensitive, I was surprised and angry (about the decision not to bring me off the bench earlier),” Draxler, who came on as a 76th-minute substitute, said in an interview with German broadcaster ZDF. “But when we then deliver a performance like that, with no explosiveness, then of course you can’t stop Real Madrid.”
PSG also need to revamp their squad and replace the likes of Thiago Silva, Thiago Motta, Dani Alves and Angel di Maria, all in their 30s.
One thing that is unlikely to happen is Neymar leaving, despite ongoing speculation that the 26-year-old has not settled down in France.
Al-Khelaifi’s beIN Sports owns the exclusive international distribution rights for television coverage of the French league, and the network is currently in the process of negotiating new worldwide deals.
In that context, PSG selling a star such as Neymar this year is unthinkable. The injured forward took to social media to show solidarity with his team-mates.
“I’m sad because of the loss and even sadder for not being able to be on the pitch to help my team-mates,” Neymar wrote on Twitter.
“What makes me happy is to see the effort from everybody.”
With Real’s domestic woes after lagging 15 points behind Barcelona in LaLiga, many had predicted an early elimination from Europe when they drew PSG in the last 16.
But, not for the first time, the 12-time European champions delivered when it mattered most.
“We knew this was the perfect stage for us to vindicate ourselves in our favourite competition,” said Real captain Sergio Ramos, who has lifted the trophy three times.
“Tactically we played the right way. We believe in what we’re doing,” added his coach Zinedine Zidane.