Kylian Mbappe ends PSG era in most fitting way – another Champions League failure

Kylian Mbappe’s time at PSG is coming to an end  (Reuters)
Kylian Mbappe’s time at PSG is coming to an end (Reuters)

It was too late but Kylian Mbappe didn’t know that. The final whistle was sufficiently close that there would not have been time for Paris Saint-Germain to score two goals. They didn’t get one: Mbappe, sprinting clear, lost his footing. It was his final contribution to his hometown club in the Champions League and a symbolic moment. PSG slipped up. Again.

Mbappe’s seven seasons in the French capital have brought four last-16 exits, a couple of semi-finals and a lone, lockdown final, when he missed a fine chance as Bayern Munich prevailed in 2020. In his valedictory campaign, PSG went out to a Borussia Dortmund team who are fifth in Germany just as, five years ago, they lost at home to a Manchester United side who were to finish sixth in England. They have lost as favourites, lost when they had a lead, lost in a variety of ways. They have gone out to Real Madrid and Bayern, to both Manchester clubs and now Dortmund. Manchester City’s triumph last season means each of their conquerors have now won the Champions League. PSG haven’t.

So Mbappe will decamp to Madrid, to a club who know how to win the Champions League, possibly to this year’s eventual winners. Arguably his best Champions League campaign remains his first, when Monaco were surprise semi-finalists in 2017. He has a record 255 PSG goals but none on this stage. He was subdued in his last semi-final, deprived of the oxygen of space by the Dortmund defence, miscuing perhaps his most presentable chance.

Mbappe will have to reflect on another missed chance with PSG (AFP/Getty)
Mbappe will have to reflect on another missed chance with PSG (AFP/Getty)

And if a project remains agonisingly incomplete for PSG, scarcely sated by Ligue Un triumphs, an era of sorts ends now. These have been the galactico years in the French capital, which reached its logical – and yet illogical – extreme when the front three comprised Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi. There may never have been a more star-studded forward line; they were the least successful PSG side of recent years, going out in the first knockout round in both seasons of Messi’s stay, their lack of work off the ball condemning them to defeat against teams with a greater collective commitment.

The chances are that, by the time he retires, Mbappe will be a Champions League winner. Messi and Neymar are; Thiago Silva, Angel Di Maria and Keylor Navas too, but none with PSG. The 2024 Dortmund feel the opposite of the 2021-23 PSG: with no superstars, with less fanfare, going further.

Luis Enrique, the manager of the 2015 Barcelona team who won the Champions League with Messi and Neymar in their attack, was generous in his congratulations to Dortmund. He probably sees something admirable in their approach, if something inexplicable in their progress at his expense.

Mbappe was consoled by manager Luis Enrique (AP)
Mbappe was consoled by manager Luis Enrique (AP)

“I think we deserved to win the match,” the Spaniard said. “We created 31 shots, [hit] four posts and in the two matches we hit the post six times and we didn’t score a goal: unbelievable. Football is so cruel sometimes.” PSG’s identity, their seeming attempt to buy success, means they invite less sympathy than some. Their misfortunes can meet with schadenfreude.

But Luis Enrique has tried to reboot the club: with younger players, more of a Parisian heart, greater running power and fewer over-indulged big names. PSG being PSG, it has not been cheap. They committed over £300m to signings last summer. Some of their spending may not seem entirely wise: Goncalo Ramos and Randal Kolo Muani cost huge fees and have only scored 14 and nine goals respectively. It has left PSG looking overly reliant on Mbappe, seeming to make him still harder to replace.

He will leave a colossal hole, even if there will presumably be the funds to find someone to fill it. Yet without Mbappe, PSG may not start next season among the realistic contenders to win the Champions League. The counterargument is that it is how Dortmund began this year’s campaign; they show that, with proper principles, the unrealistic can become possible.

Dortmund advanced to the Champions League final at the expense of Mbappe and PSG (AFP/Getty)
Dortmund advanced to the Champions League final at the expense of Mbappe and PSG (AFP/Getty)

“Now it is a sad moment but you have to accept it,” said Luis Enrique. “We have to create something special next year and try and win that competition.” It can feel like PSG’s never-ending quest. Just because City and Chelsea, two of their peers among the newly super-rich, got there in the end after years of frustration, does not offer any guarantee of success.

Mbappe may feel he finds that instead at the Bernabeu. He goes after five goals in the knockout stages this season, two of them in the comeback against Barcelona, 14 over his PSG career. But none were in a semi-final, let alone the final. He is already a World Cup great, perhaps destined to be its greatest goalscorer. For now, perhaps the world’s best player is scarcely a Champions League legend. But that is part of a wider story of Paris Saint-Germain over the last dozen years.