Paris Saint-Germain are one step from realizing the lofty expectations of the French club’s opulent Qatari owners after beating RB Leipzig in the Champions League semifinals on Tuesday.
Marquinhos, Angel Di Maria, and Juan Bernat scored for Thomas Tuchel’s team in a one-sided 3-0 victory to ensure PSG’s first-ever berth in the final of Europe’s premier club competition.
Here are three takeaways from an affair that highlighted the rift in quality between the two sides:
Di Maria’s the man for the moment
Di Maria isn’t always the first name on the team sheet. He doesn’t get the same fanfare as some of his PSG teammates, but he can be the most important player on the pitch. In the biggest moments, he often is. With a goal and two assists against Leipzig, he settled yet another knockout fixture with superlative class. The Argentinian zipped around the field in Lisbon, popping up on the left and right to find openings.
PSG were missing Di Maria’s urgency in last week’s quarterfinal against Atalanta. They were incoherent in the final third, but with the 32-year-old back from suspension and in the lineup Tuesday, the capital side looked far more assured in possession.
Di Maria has always made an impact in the business end of tournaments, contributing three goals and six assists in 12 knockout matches since joining PSG in 2015. His efforts have come against significant opposition, including Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona, and Borussia Dortmund. And who could forget his tour de force in the 2014 Champions League final? Six years ago, in the same stadium in Lisbon, Di Maria, then with Real Madrid, dribbled and sprinted to create chances with stunning regularity and won the Man of the Match award for his tireless efforts.
Until recently, Di Maria was defined by that failure of a season he had with Manchester United. But it was an anomaly, a hiccup in an otherwise fantastic career. Only Cristiano Ronaldo (28) has registered more assists in the Champions League than Di Maria (26) in the last 10 seasons.
Youthful Leipzig lament sloppy play
Julian Nagelsmann’s charges will be kicking themselves after a series of individual errors helped decide Tuesday’s clash before the hour mark.
On PSG’s opener, Konrad Laimer scythed down Neymar on the cusp of the penalty area after the Brazilian played a one-two from a short corner with Di Maria. It was an ill-disciplined challenge and one proving fateful when Di Maria’s pinpoint delivery found a leaping Marquinhos.
Leipzig adhered to the manager’s strict instructions to play the ball from the back for the entire first half, but it played into the unrelenting nuisance of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe’s press.
Loose passes and heavy touches put the Bundesliga side under unnecessary pressure. Only Dayot Upamecano looked composed enough to handle the task, and Peter Gulacsi did little to relieve the burden when the Hungarian ‘keeper’s wayward pass was intercepted by Leandro Paredes. The Argentine found Neymar, whose acrobatic backheel flick was driven home by Di Maria. Two-nil, job done.
The Champions League debutants’ recruitment policy clearly favors youth over experience. Other than 29-year-old Kevin Kampl, no outfield player who started the match for Leipzig was older than 26. The naivety showed as Leipzig resembled a side that progressed one step too far.
Marquinhos anchors PSG’s midfield
Pundits in France were confused when Tuchel first experimented with Marquinhos in midfield in 2018. They didn’t see the Brazilian in any other position than central defense. Tuchel only played Marquinhos at the base of midfield because of injuries, but the tactical maneuver became less of a novelty as time went on. The 26-year-old settled into the role, and Tuchel continued to rotate him in and out of midfield.
Besides the two goals he’s scored in the Champions League knockout stage – including the all-important equalizer against Atalanta and the eventual winner against Leipzig – Marquinhos has managed games superbly from that deep-lying position. He has the energy to cover a lot of ground, and he reads the game well. He’s better beside a more positive midfielder like Paredes, who’s more comfortable on the ball than, say, Idrissa Gueye.
Despite the millions upon millions they’ve spent in transfer fees, PSG found a solution to their midfield woes right at home. Marquinhos has always been good on the ball. Why not plug him into one of the most important positions on the field?