More PSG pain: Champions League agony proves money can't buy winning mentality

Kylian Mbappe PSG Paris Saint-Germain 2018-19Getty Images

Paris Saint-Germain have a problem. A very big problem.

Following Wednesday’s embarrassing Champions League exit at the hands of Manchester United on the away goals rule following a 3-1 defeat at Parc des Princes, the European title that they crave to cement the status of the club remains as elusive as ever.

It’s certainly true that fortune deserted them in the French capital as they crashed out to a contentious, last-gasp Marcus Rashford penalty, but the bottom line is that Thomas Tuchel’s side manufactured themselves a position from which they simply had to progress.

Over 100 sides in Champions League history had defended two-goal advantages earned in the first legs of knockout ties and not a single one had been eliminated until PSG incredibly bucked that trend in spectacular fashion.

It means that it has been three seasons since the Parisians graced even the quarter-finals of the competition and having never progressed further in the eight years since QSI began injecting money into the club, that represents a desperately poor return on over €1 billion.

The long-term damage the defeat will do, however, is more significant than the short-term embarrassment of losing out to an under-strength United.

PSG already had the reputation of being mentally fragile on this stage, a belief that was cemented when they incredibly failed to defend a 4-0 first-leg lead against Barcelona in 2017. That, too, was an unhappy historic first for the French champions.

That 6-1 defeat was also referred to by United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the build up to Wednesday’s fixture.

“Last year Juventus lost 3-0 to Real Madrid and then went 3-0 up in second-leg; PSG vs Barcelona in 2017,” he reminded his players.

Gianluigi Buffon PSG Paris Saint-Germain 2018-19Getty Images Doubtless, that chastening night is scarred in the minds of the PSG players who were present at Camp Nou, yet on this latest evidence, it is also seared into the very fibres of the club.

Following the exit at the hands of Barcelona, a deliberate move was made to sign players with a ‘champion’s mentality’.

Dani Alves and Gianluigi Buffon joined from Juventus in successive summer transfer campaigns and were expected to provide the psychological fortitude to steer the club through critical moments, while the 2017 world-record arrival of Neymar, absent due to injury from both legs, was designed to send a message out about the team's strength. 

At Old Trafford, as PSG stroked the ball about easily and won 2-0 in a thoroughly comprehensive fashion, they looked a side finally with the European experience, knowledge and quality to be a genuine threat this year.

Yet, just as in the case of La Remontada a couple of years earlier, they buckled tamely in the second leg.

A grave individual error from 22-year-old defender Thilo Kehrer after a couple of minutes set the tone for the match, inviting United into an early lead, and though the English side were barely threatening, even the great Buffon was infected by PSG’s penchant for critical blunders by gifting Romelu Lukaku a second goal.

Despite Juan Bernat’s equaliser in between times, these errors left Tuchel’s side walking a tightrope and after a string of chances were passed up, they were punished in stoppage-time by a penalty so debatable even staunch Manchester United advocate Rio Ferdinand admitted they were lucky for it to be awarded.

“We deserved to score two or three goals but we didn’t do it,” Tuchel lamented. “I don’t have words to explain this.

"In the Coupe de la Ligue against Guingamp [a 2-1 home defeat] there were three penalties. Here, Manchester United scored three times without a single chance. It’s difficult to analyse.”

Difficult to analyse and difficult to stomach from a Parisian perspective.

Kylian Mbappe Thiago Silva PSG Paris Saint-Germain 2018-19

From their collapse at Camp Nou to their pantomime in Paris, the Ligue 1 champions seem to be able to find new ways of failing each year in the competition they are fixated upon winning.

Those wounds suffered in Catalunya two years ago were reopened on Wednesday and will only run deeper in the years ahead. Worse, it will be difficult to escape a mindset of failure, with visiting sides always set to face the Parisians with the belief that a comeback is always possible against such a weak-willed side.

Even the greatest clubs, however, can suffer from such issues. Between 2003-04 and 2009-10, for example, Real Madrid never once made it past the quarter-finals of the Champions League and crashed out in the last 16 for six consecutive years. 

This was Los Blancos in the Galactico era of Iker Casillas, Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo et al. If a team containing such an array of all-time greats can suffer apparent stage fright, it can happy to anyone.

Madrid, though, had their illustrious history to call upon and before their stunning exit to Ajax earlier this week had won three successive Champions League titles.

The French side do not have such a luxury.

PSG can change the players, the staff or even the directors all they wish: what they really need is a fresh mindset and a winning culture.

That is something they have discovered money cannot buy.