As Paris Saint-Germain left the Old Trafford pitch back in mid-February having just turned it into a Theatre of Nightmares for the hosts, things were looking very good for the French champions.
Ligue 1 was in hand, and Thomas Tuchel’s men had just delivered a grown up, clinical display to give Red Devils a big-time taste of Champions League reality.
Such was the quality of their display, many felt that this might just be the season in which the Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) achieved their ultimate goal – their flash Paris ambassadors becoming the kings of Europe.
Results before the second leg seemed only to reinforce the feeling. PSG won the intervening five league and cup ties with a string of commanding performances, their form making the second leg at the Parc des Princes look a formality.
But then the collapse on March 6. And while the wheels didn’t exactly come off their season at that point, they were most certainly loosened.
To their credit, league wins over Dijon, Marseille and Toulouse, plus a cup win over Nantes, followed.
But with the league title within their grasp, a string of surprising stumbles – including a 5-1 defeat to second place Lille – meant they had to wait until the April 21st win over Monaco before they secured the inevitable, their sixth title in seven seasons.
But the Ligue 1 title was never in any real doubt, hence the somewhat muted celebrations.
A week later, however, the cloud that had been cast over their season by the early Champions League exit grew darker, as Tuchel’s men threw away a two-goal lead in the French Cup Final, before losing on penalties to Rennes.
But while another Champions League failure and the manner in which their season has been tailing off calls Tuchel’s position as manager into question (Saturday’s disappointing home draw with Nice just another example), Jeremy Smith of frenchfootballweekly.com believes the German will be given another season in charge. The French football expert believes there was definable progress in his first term.
For the majority of the season I think he did better than his predecessors. He seemed to have been allowed more authority over the team than Blanc and Emery, showed more tactical flexibility and, for a lot of the season, PSG steamrollered the opposition in a way that they hadn’t done in previous seasons.
In the Champions League too, apart from the two games that sandwiched their European season – the 3-2 defeat at Anfield and the Paris nightmare – they had impressed in finishing top of a very tough group and looked the real deal at Old Trafford.
So, what went wrong? Smith offers three, inter-related explanations: a continuing lack of quality in midfield, a preference for and indulgence of past-it stars over talented and more-deserving younger players and a number of key players who just lack bottle.
“You can’t win anything without a midfield; Marquinhos did a great job filling in this season, but he’s not a specialist and you’re weakening your defence by moving your best centre back out of it,” says Smith.
“The decision to banish Adrien Rabiot was totally self-defeating, and the money spent on Neymar has prevented them from investing properly in midfield quality.
“Secondly, while the likes of Dani Alves and Gianluigi Buffon are strong characters who may add something in the dressing room, but both are past their best. Areola is clearly better than the Italian right now, but Buffon was wrongly preferred for the Champions League – and made the huge mistake that turned the second leg and the tie in United’s favour.
“Thirdly – mental weakness. Let’s be fair – Manchester United did little to earn that win – it was all about PSG committing suicide. As soon as United got their lucky second, PSG lost their nerve in familiar fashion and, even if the penalty was very harsh, they should never have put themselves in that position.”
But to be fair to the French side, they’ve shown they can beat anyone in the game on their day.
However, until they properly address the problems that recur season after the season, they’re likely to get the same result.
With rumours circulating that QSI are losing faith in the project and are disappointed with the largely negative PR it attracts, it will be very interesting to assess their level of commitment to the club over the coming months.