For 90 minutes and change, it seemed like the chaos and dysfunction that have ruled the Parc des Princes in the last few months never really existed at all. Like it was all just a misunderstanding, some kind of unsophisticated reading of a complicated situation when everything was really fine all along.
And for 90 minutes and change, it felt like Real Madrid had reached the end of a long cycle of success, reaching a new nadir after last year’s miserable season.
At the end, the scoreboard read Paris Saint-Germain 3-0 Real Madrid and the camera panned to PSG superstars Neymar and Kylian Mbappe up in their luxury box as they celebrated and laughed. And in that moment the grand Parisian project really wasn’t in freefall after all. Far from it.
Angel Di Maria’s poke at the near post in the 14th minute. Di Maria’s brilliant second goal in the 33rd, from outside the box. Thomas Meunier’s bouncing shot to finish off a patient counterattack in injury time. And all was well again.
Going into this game, they were two teams stuck in neutral. Now, one of them has seemingly turned the corner and discovered some kind of magic formula, carving open the path to glory. The other is in crisis, its manager nervously side-eying the newspapers and their speculation about his successor.
But it’s all illusory, of course. In soccer, narratives are a fickle thing. As a rule, they wildly overestimate the importance of the result on the day and diminish the bigger picture. Never mind that seasons, the measure by which soccer is still measured, are played out over nine or 10 months, not a single night.
This is the power of these big European nights. It was merely the first game of the Champions League group stage. Each side will play five more. Real could still very well collect 12 or 15 points and stroll into the round of 16. Objectively speaking, the first round of group stage games barely matters. Little really matters before February, when the knockout stages kick off. In a group with Galatasaray and Club Brugge, you’d bet your house and your mom’s that both Real and PSG advance. And so their head-to-head results matter even less.
But with stats like Real failing to register a single shot on goal for the first time in the decade and a half that Opta has been keeping track of them in European soccer, it’s hard to remove yourself from what you just saw.
0 - Real Madrid failed to have a single shot on target against PSG tonight, the first time they have failed to do so in the UEFA Champions League since Opta began collecting such data in the competition in 2003-04 (in 167 games). Shy. #UCL #ChampionsLeague pic.twitter.com/t4c3yhtHar— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 18, 2019
Especially when it so seamlessly fits in with the story of this early season. The story of Real trying to rebuild its old team – winners of four Champions League trophies in five years – with Cristiano Ronaldo long gone and manager Zinedine Zidane returned after a calamitous three-quarters of last season under his feckless successors. The story of Real dropping hundreds of millions on young players, none of whom have managed to push the veterans they were acquired to replace out of the side – while Eden Hazard has only just gotten fully fit.
After a disorienting preseason in which Real mostly lost and was hammered 7-3 by cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid, it made a halting start to its La Liga season. On Saturday, Zidane’s side very nearly gave away a 3-0 lead against Levante, squeaking through to just his seventh win in 14 league games since returning.
And now this fresh humiliation is being laid at the feet of the club’s fixation on signing Paul Pogba over the summer, which failed. Somehow, it’s just the same old declining core of players on the field, with Gareth Bale proving immovable and even James Rodriguez back in the fold, two years after being written off and cast away on a two-year loan to Bayern Munich.
Yet had the score been the opposite, much of France would have wondered if manager Thomas Tuchel was ever really capable of winning in Europe with his expensive outfit. Neymar’s summer flirtation with a return to FC Barcelona – making him a public enemy to PSG’s hardcore fans, who have raised banners calling him a prostitute, only less kindly – would have been dredged up again, his reputation as a clubhouse cancer reiterated. The loss would surely have been blamed on Neymar’s suspension for these first two European games after going on a rant against referees on Instagram last season. (Insta-ban?) We’d wonder if PSG is cursed, falling short of its European dream again and again. Never mind that it keeps getting bounced in ever more absurd and unlucky ways.
There are so many question marks about both of these giant clubs that the narrative can turn on a dime. Because both teams also had built-in excuses. Real was without the suspended Sergio Ramos and the injured Marcelo, Isco, Marco Asensio and Luka Modric. PSG didn’t have Neymar or the injured Mbappe, Edinson Cavani and Julian Draxler. Only one team needed to explain itself.
But in the end, PSG is probably not as good as its 3-0 victory suggests, its issues far from addressed with an unhappy superstar and an injury plague. Just as Real isn’t as bad as a 3-0 thumping implies. As the stat suggests, a game this bad comes around every few decades. Most of Real’s young signings will settle in and work out and Zidane will find solutions.
It’s just that on nights like these, when Europe’s juggernauts collide, there’s no room for nuance.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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