For 89 minutes the dream of Bergamo lived on, for 89 minutes Atalanta held on mightily to an increasingly precarious lead against Paris Saint-Germain. And then it all unravelled. This was a surreal Champions League quarter-final in many respects.
There were no spectators in the stadium as is the norm in these dystopian times, but the ecstatic celebrations were pulled off by the PSG stars warming the stands as their team turned around a 1-0 deficit to win it 2-1.
PSG coach Thomas Tuchel, in a leg brace, sat on a cooler throughout the game, getting increasingly frustrated as the Parisians applied relentless pressure but failed to break down the Italian gridlock…until those last moments.
It was also surreal that Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, a former Premier League man who got relegated with Stoke City, became the hero in the dying moments as the likes of Angel Di Maria and Marco Veratti watched on from the stands.
While Atalanta’s effervescent football and legendary high press, as well as their representation of the city of Bergamo, one of those worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, have already won legions of fans, one also needs to consider PSG’s own dramatic narrative after another dramatic night in the Champions League history.
PSG- Eternal underachievers no more?
Ever since a Qatari conglomerate took over the Paris club, there spending power and tendency to snap up superpowers have attracted envy and ridicule in equal measures.
When PSG made Neymar the most expensive footballer in the world, it sparked off a new wave of incredulity rather than appreciation. Here they go again, the world thought, trying to buy success. Yet, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and company have failed to deliver where it really matters, the Champions League.
While it was Neymar himself who, then a Barcelona player, humiliated them in overturning a massive first-leg deficit a few years ago, the Brazilian himself could only watch on in dismay as Manchester United, the underdogs in the fixture, stunned them at home last season in what was the latest in a series of cataclysmic meltdowns at the grandest stage.
What doesn’t help matters is the fact PSG are perceived to play in a weaker league where they win everything. A team always met by derision and shrouded by a patina of negativity for years, finally came of age last night and showed that it could finally be their year.
Neymar- Rising from the ashes
Neymar, the Brazilian superstar, has often been the prime target of the ridicule mentioned above. He made the decision to leave a vibrant Barca in his prime to emerge from the shadows of a certain Lionel Messi, and, despite proving his brilliance on numerous occasions, has failed to bring the laurel that the vociferous Parisian faithful and their Middle Eastern owners so dearly crave.
Neymar, now 29, has also been plagued by injuries and once nearly went back to Barcelona after repeated spells of frustrations in France. However, last night, he was determined to shake off years of sterility for PSG.
He was fluent in his touch and mentally strong despite the characteristic overzealous marking he faced throughout the game but seemed to have lost his shooting boots as he miscued shot after shot.
One needs to understand the kind of pressure Neymar is under even before the start of a game. One report centered on how Neymar was paid more than the entire Atalanta team.
Most of the world, bar his fans, roots for Neymar’s failure when he gets out on the pitch. On Wednesday night, he didn’t let go till the end, combining with Kylian Mbappe to set up Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting for the winning goal.
That pass, precisely weighted, perhaps signified a new mental strength that PSG have found that my help them and Neymar finally reach the Promised Land of European glory.
It won’t be easy, but there might be a newfound belief that will spur them on. Their comeback win in the quarter-finals suggests so.