More than ever this season, PSG’s big dream seemed tantalisingly possible. The summer additions of Kylian Mbappe from Monaco and Dani Alves from Juventus suggested a strengthened challenge, but most of all it was the stunning signing of Barcelona ace Neymar for a world record fee of €222 million that signalled that PSG would mount a challenge for the trophy like never before.
The group stage was easily negotiated, with a final round loss to Bayern Munich offering negligible damage to Unai Emery’s side, yet once again at the first sign of genuine danger in the last 16 they folded.
Real Madrid came through their last-16 clash 5-2 on aggregate, despite enduring a miserable season domestically. The Blancos are currently third in La Liga, 15 points off leaders Barcelona, and exited the Copa del Rey in the last eight to minnows Leganes. Yet they were too strong for PSG.
The Parc des Princes side were punished for their naïve display at the Bernabeu, where they held a 1-0 advantage but folded late on to lose 3-1 to a side steeped in European glory. Back home, they never threatened to overturn the deficit, losing 2-1 on the night. It could have been more.
Six years on from their acquisition by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), PSG are getting no closer to winning the Champions League. A handful of quarter-final appearances followed by successive exits in the first knockout round is a pitifully poor return for a club that will have spent over £1 billion on transfers by the time Mbappe’s original loan deal is converted into a permanent move.
Of course, their greatest investment of all was consigned to watch this encounter from the stands, having broken a foot against Marseille in a recent Ligue 1 victory, potentially depriving Emery of his unique talents for the remainder of the domestic season.
Even without Neymar, PSG had a group of players that should have been capable of unsettling their guests. However, the greater nous of the visitors restricted them to just a single shot on goal in the opening 25 minutes. That was a free kick from Angel Di Maria that deflected over, taking the edge from what was a fervent atmosphere at kick-off.
An attack bought for upwards of €250m was much too easily blunted and in truth the Spaniards advanced without any fuss. By the time Marco Verratti was sent off for a second yellow card midway through the second half, the tie was already over following Cristiano Ronaldo’s third strike of the tie. Edinson Cavani bundled an equaliser soon after but a dreadful clearance by Adrien Rabiot allowed Casemiro to secure victory in Paris.
"We didn't do anything we should have done tonight," PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi admitted on beIN Sports after the game.
"We don't want to over react tonight, we will talk to the players. We need to be calm and relax and we will think at what we have to do next."
PSG have discovered that buying overnight success at this level is no easy task. Neymar’s arrival was supposed to give PSG the aura of a superpower to match their playing staff. As yet, they do not possess the swagger or the attitude to suggest they are at the pinnacle of the game. Perhaps that will only come with success, yet it appears there are key ingredients still missing to lift them to that level.
On the field, they appear short of a top-class defensive midfielder. With Thiago Motta 36 this year, they need a player to act as a foundation for the defence to be constructed around. Meanwhile left-back is another area where there is scope for an upgrade, with neither Yuri Berchiche nor Layvin Kurzawa truly convincing at this level.
It is in the dugout, though, where the building work is liable to start first. Emery may have been appointed on the back of his strong Europa League record with Sevilla, but in his first experience with a true European giant he has flopped.
Emery has lacked the personality to handle the strongest characters in the dressing room and his tactics and game management have not been good enough in big games – particularly in the first leg against Madrid and during the stunning collapse to Barcelona at this stage last year.
It would be unfair to dismiss him as an unmitigated failure – PSG’s domestic dominance this season has been formidable, even accounting for their financial strength – but his failure to win a single Champions League knockout tie is damning enough for PSG to look elsewhere.
"We still believe in our project," Al-Khelaifi said. "This is not the time to make changes. We have time to think about what we need to change, we must be calm.
"We are happy with our investments. We believe in our players, Neymar and Mbappe are the future of the club."
Emery is not. Under the Spaniard, the quality of the squad has undoubtedly improved, yet they are as far from their holy grail as ever. For a spend of €1 billion, PSG must do better.