A shirtless Ángel Di María vigorously twirling his jersey above his head from a balcony at the back of the Tribune Auteil, his team-mates bouncing up and down beside him, the air thick with red smoke and popping fireworks.
A beaming Kylian Mbappé perching perilously on a concrete parapet, his yellow boots dangling over the edge, conducting the chants of the jubilant supporters massed below him in the street. Neymar withdrawing from the celebrations, sitting down on a set of steps and bursting into tears.
Viewed from a distance, the scenes that followed Paris Saint-Germain’s 2-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund at the Parc des Princes on Wednesday night might have looked a little excessive. This, after all, was only the Champions League round of 16 and they were celebrating – to use the time-honoured phrase – as if they had won the thing.
Despite the game against Dortmund being played behind closed doors, PSG fans showed up to welcome their team pic.twitter.com/QiVTqyQgzr
— B/R Football (@brfootball) March 11, 2020
But the huge outpouring of emotion at the end of the match illustrated the massive sense of relief felt by both players and fans at seeing the club’s Champions League hoodoo finally brought to an end following three successive eliminations at the same stage of the competition. After the agony of Barcelona’s remontada in 2017, the disappointment of a meek loss to Real Madrid in 2018 and the humiliation of being eliminated by a Manchester United B team in 2019, the club from the capital had finally broken the curse.
“We’ve suffered for three years [in the Champions League],” centre-back Presnel Kimpembé told RMC Sport. “We’ve made mistakes, but we’re growing and we’re gathering experience. Honestly, I don’t even have the words. The scenes here, they’re magnificent.”
Trailing 2-1 from the first leg, the odds were against Thomas Tuchel’s side, who were without Marco Verratti and Thomas Meunier through suspension and for whom Mbappé was only fit enough for a place on the bench following a throat infection. The coronavirus outbreak meant that they had played only once in the 10 days preceding the game and would have to face Dortmund in an eerily empty stadium.
But whereas they had succumbed to the pressure of having a lead to defend against Barcelona and United, the obligation to go out and win the game against Dortmund allowed them to play with the handbrake off. They dominated the match from start to finish, prevailing courtesy of first-half goals by Neymar and Juan Bernat and allowing their opponents to register only two shots on target. Against United a year previously, tension had seemed to steadily invade the stadium as the game wore on. With no nervous fans on hand to amplify the players’ jitters, the home side’s football seemed uninhibited by external pressures.
If there were no fans inside the stadium, they certainly made their presence felt outside, greeting the arrival of the team bus with a wall of noise and red flares and chanting continuously throughout the match. Several players expressed gratitude after the game, with Layvin Kurzawa even descending to street level to join in with the celebrations in the impromptu fanzone that had sprung up at the junction of Rue Claude Farrère and Avenue du Parc des Princes (showing a less than laudable disregard for the coronavirus protocols in the process).
“We saw our supporters before the match and we heard them during the match, outside the stadium,” said Marquinhos, who led the team by example at centre-back. “Personally, I’d never seen anything like that before. In difficult times, passion comes through.”
The post-match celebrations served to give players and fans a moment of communion in spite of the decree banning supporters from entering the ground. It also represented a significant show of unity after several episodes of tension in recent months. Mbappé took umbrage at a banner displayed by fans after the first leg against Dortmund that accused him, Neymar and captain Thiago Silva of being “afraid to win”, questioning the accusation on his Instagram account and refusing to salute supporters following the 4-0 win over Dijon at the end of February. Neymar, meanwhile, had to suffer the ignominy of being jeered by his own supporters at the start of the campaign following his aborted return to Barcelona.
On to the @ChampionsLeague quarterfinals!
— Paris Saint-Germain (@PSG_English) March 11, 2020
There had been criticism, too, after footage appeared on social media showing players cavorting shirtless at a party organised to celebrate the birthdays of Mauro Icardi, Di María and Edinson Cavani just two days after the first leg against Dortmund. After all that had gone before, what happened after the second Dortmund game felt like a collective healing of wounds.
It also felt like a personal triumph for Tuchel, whose position would have come under serious scrutiny had his side been eliminated. Instead, every single one of his decisions was vindicated, be it leaving out Silva, starting with Mbappé on the bench or picking Cavani and Bernat over Icardi and Kurzawa. The decision to revert to the 4-4-2 formation he had been testing out since December paid off as well, after an unsuccessful switch to a 3-4-3 system in the first leg, with wide players Neymar (four ball recoveries) and Di María (seven ball recoveries) putting in the defensive shifts that are vital if the system is to function effectively.
Idrissa Gueye excelled in midfield alongside Leandro Paredes, who came in for Verratti, while there were measures of redemption for Thilo Kehrer, Meunier’s replacement, and Kimpembé, both of whom were among the chief culprits in last season’s collapse against United. Club president Nasser Al-Khelaïfi described it as “the perfect match”.
The indefinite suspension of Ligue 1 announced on Friday means that Wednesday’s match in Paris could be the last top-level game played on French soil for some time. But whatever the immediate future holds, for the first time in a long time, all is calm at Paris Saint-Germain.