LISBON: Through so many exasperating moments in front of goal — too many for the world’s most expensive footballer — Neymar persevered, determined to rescue Paris St Germain.
Just when it seemed time was running out, the player signed to deliver PSG its most coveted trophy spared the French champions from a humbling Champions League exit against Atalanta.
A night of frustrating squandered scoring chances ended with Neymar setting up the goals that turned Wednesday’s game around, producing a 2-1 victory that sent PSG into the semi-finals for the first time in 25 years.
“Nobody will ever get it out of my head that I want to go to the final,” he said. “We’re a formidable squad, a family, with the attitude that it’s impossible to knock us out.”
Atalanta, the Serie A club on a modest budget eclipsed by Qatar-funded PSG, had led from Mario Pasalic’s curling strike in the 27th minute until the 90th. Neymar then found time to set up Marquinhos for the equaliser and was involved in the build-up to Eric Choupo-Moting’s winner in the third minute of stoppage time.
Relief for Neymar. Agony for Atalanta. And all the emotions could be heard around the empty Lisbon stadium, with no fans allowed inside because of the coronavirus restrictions.
“At this moment, it’s quite painful,” Atalanta midfielder Marten de Roon said. “Tomorrow, I will be proud of our team and club but at this moment I feel disappointment.”
The result is heartbreaking for Atalanta, who were hoping to continue their fairytale campaign for at least a few more days and give the people of Bergamo more reason to cheer.
The northern Italian city suffered terribly at the height of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year. Bergamo’s death toll from Covid-19 has made it one of the worst-hit regions anywhere during the health crisis.
“It leaves us with a very bad taste to have conceded that late winner when the match was about to finish,” Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini said. “That’s what is really hurting us because until that moment we thought we were controlling the match.”
This will still go down as a highly successful season for Gasperini’s team, who scored eight goals over two legs to beat Valencia in the last 16 in March.
That tie was completed just before football across Europe ground to a halt in the face of the pandemic, but Atalanta have since come back to finish third in Serie A for the second year running, scoring 98 goals in the process.
Beating PSG was ultimately a step too far, but that Atalanta came so close is remarkable enough. After all, their annual wage bill is believed to be equivalent to what PSG pay Neymar alone.
The substitutes helped transform PSG’s fortunes first with Kylian Mbappe’s arrival with 30 minutes remaining, and then Choupo-Moting 20 minutes later.
When I came on, I thought to myself, ‘We can’t lose, we can’t go home like that.’ I was confident in myself, confident in the team and then the rest is the history of Paris,” said Cameroon international Choupo-Moting, whose high, diagonal pass reached Neymar on the left flank in the 90th. ‘The Brazilian’s scuffed shot was turned in by Marquinhos to rouse PSG for a thrilling finale.
It was another run by Neymar that unpicked a tiring Atalanta before feeding Mbappe, who squared across for Choupo-Moting to slide the ball over the line.
“It was not only just a technical show,” Choupo-Moting said of Neymar. “He has worked hard for the team.”
Although Neymar was awarded man of the match, the 222 million forward handed over the prize to the less glamorous teammate signed as a free agent two year ago after Stoke City’s relegation from the Premier League.
Only the season being extended because of the pandemic means Choupo-Moting is still a PSG player. The pandemic also meant the quarter-finals are not being played on a home-and-away basis as usual but as single games in neutral Lisbon with no second chances.
With Ligue 1 abandoned in March, PSG had only played two competitive games since then domestic cup final victories in July.
“It was very difficult to prepare the team,” PSG coach Thomas Tuchel said. “There was no rhythm because there were no games, but I could feel in the last days the determination, enthusiasm and effort.”
Choupo-Moting went on in the 79th to replace the struggling Mauro Icardi, who managed just a single off-target shot. At least Neymar was getting in sight of goal more often, but scuffed several good chances in the first half including a glaring miss in the third minute.
Receiving possession on the halfway line, he ran half the length of the pitch and had only goalkeeper Marco Sportiello to beat but skewed the ball wide of the post.
The misses proved costly when Duvan Zapata’s pass caught PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe and fell to Pasalic, who curled into the roof of the net for his 12th goal of the season.
Once again, PSG looked to Neymar to find a way back into the game.
Once again, he missed, dragging a shot wide and looking like a player who has only had two competitive games since March.
Even a free kick from Neymar lacked any pace and was easily saved. And when right back Hans Hateboer gifted Neymar an opening in the 42nd with a sloppy back pass, the forward could only strike wide.
Mbappe was only introduced for the final half hour, having just recovered from an ankle injury, but he was also frustrated in front of goal.
Still, the star duo of Neymar and Mbappe made an impact by acting as the support cast, creating the goals that kept PSG on course for a first European Cup to add to this season’s domestic trophies.
PSG will play Atletico Madrid or RB Leipzig in the semi-finals on Tuesday.
Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2020