Let’s get one thing clear about Barcelona’s incredible 6-1 triumph over Paris Saint-Germain last week. This was not a story of scintillating football. Nor were PSG filleted by a series of mesmeric manoeuvres that no team could possibly hope to withstand. This was not simply another Lionel Messi masterclass, complete with deft touches and intricate wizardry. In fact, this wasn’t really about Barcelona at all. This was about PSG and one of the most spineless implosions football has seen in living memory.
The Parisians are laced with footballers of the highest calibre. Edison Cavani is comfortably Ligue 1’s top scorer with 27 goals. He is ably supported by the likes of Javier Pastore and Marco Veratti. Indeed, such is their embarrassment of riches that Angel Di Maria fell short of a place in the starting XI on Wednesday.
PSG have made the accumulation of an impressive role call look easy since being bought by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011. Each transfer window sees them summon new players to their side seemingly at will. But, as evidenced by Wednesday’s fare, wealth can’t buy you everything in football.
When asked to defend a four-goal surfeit at Camp Nou, PSG’s motley amalgamation of mercenaries were terrified. Frozen. Horrified at the scandal materialising before them yet simultaneously powerless to arrest it. Their pleas for the referee to brandish Barca a red card were pathetic even by the lofty standards of professional footballers. Their tardiness in returning for the second half illustrated hesitancy rather heroics. They looked hopelessly out of their depth, like they simply didn’t belong.
Such inadequacies are rarely as blatantly obvious as they were on Wednesday, but they certainly aren’t uncommon. Contrary to popular belief, football’s nouvea riche clearly require more than money to navigate the journey from mid-table mediocrity to European stardom. Just like Manchester City.
The blue half of Manchester has become a by-word for profligacy since being taken over by Sheikh Mansour in 2008 and the two Premier League titles since 2012 are testament to their obvious on-field improvements. But it is just as obvious that they are far from a genuine European football superpower. Despite almost a decade of top quality coaches, each given free reign with Mansour’s millions, they remain a pariah on football’s grandest stage.
Granted, they reached the Champions League semi-final last year but that tie will be remembered for the turgid quality of football and grim predictability with which Real Madrid wore them down. It seemed universally understood that Manchester City were going to stick to the script of the underdog and had no intention of doing otherwise. Ultimately they ushered Real Madrid into the final and all seemed right in the world.
But as previously mentioned, this inferiority complex is hardly attributed to a lack of financial muscle. Manchester City have, according to Goal.com, spent over £1 billion on players since 2008, but still seem out of place at the highest echelons of European football. If money was the sole silver bullet to Champions League success, they would have mounted that summit several years ago.
Such aspirations are paltry compared to reality. Last year’s grating semi-final appearance is their apogee to date. At a club festooned with astonishing wealth, their Champions League record is the only thing one could describe as ‘poor’ at Manchester City.
As the blue half of Manchester continues to aspire to the pedigree of their neighbours donned in red, the blue segment of London has been much more swift in outpacing their urban rivals.
In the two seasons following Roman Abramovich’s 2003 takeover, José Mourinho steered Chelsea to consecutive Premier League titles. They did so following a suitably lavish transfer spending spree, but the club captain remained John Terry, a product of Chelsea’s academy. In doing so an indelible link between the club’s previous life was maintained, something Manchester City in particular have neglected. But what is more important is that Mourinho gave Chelsea a confidence that eludes PSG and Manchester City even to this day.
He imbued in them a sense of belonging, an arrogance whereby they demanded to dine at European football’s top table even if the club’s history suggested they would be best placed elsewhere. Not having won their domestic league in 50 years, Chelsea were in truth waging war with clubs whose pedigrees vastly outweighed their own. But unlike PSG on Wednesday, that didn’t faze them and they have Mourinho, and all the obstinacy and bullishness that goes with him, to thank for that.
Chelsea quickly amassed a collection of seismic European nights, spectacular success but also heartbreaking agony. Ultimate triumph would not come until 2012 but Chelsea became a regular fixture in the Champions League latter stages with remarkable swiftness. They were denied a final berth by a ‘phantom goal’ in 2005, by a shambolic refereeing performance in 2009 and missed ultimate glory by the width of a post in 2008.
Their trajectory was always upwards, their players unflinching in their drive for Champions League glory. And each and every game was played with a sense that they were in their rightful place.
In 2012 Chelsea beat Bayern Munich in Munich in the Champions League final having overcome Barcelona in the semi-final. Two of Europe’s footballing giants, both felled. Attributing such success to Chelsea’s new-found wealth is easy but is ultimately only part of the story.
Transforming a club’s bank balance is indeed important, but it is transforming a club’s mindset, a club’s definition of themselves, which ultimately dictates their ability to challenge for the greatest honour of all.
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena