There may be no prize greater than three points at stake, but it would be no exaggeration to say that Wednesday’s Champions League meeting with Liverpool is the biggest in Paris Saint-Germain’s history.
Win and the Ligue 1 champions will be on the cusp of the knockout phase, but lose and the very fabric of the club will threaten to unravel.
Even in the event of a humiliating elimination, president Nasser Al Khelaifi will likely be safe, as will head coach Thomas Tuchel, whose excellent work on the domestic front ensures he is untouchable for now. However, sporting director Antero Henrique would be among the casualties.
His departure, however, would pale into insignificance alongside that of Neymar, whose position as one of the world’s biggest stars would become untenable at the heart of a failed project in which he was the keystone.
Ahead of Wednesday’s fixture at the Parc des Princes, the build-up has centred on the 26-year-old’s thigh injury and whether he will be fit to play. If he does not, the French club could get an unwelcome and concerning vision of what the future would be like without the Brazil international.
Neymar has been inextricably linked to PSG’s quest to dominate in Europe since the summer of 2017, when a lavish transfer campaign saw them land the Brazilian for €222 million from Barcelona in a deal that stunned world football. Not only was the game’s transfer record broken, it was utterly obliterated.
A mere three weeks later, Kylian Mbappe followed from Monaco, arriving on a deal of almost equally preposterous figures, though the teenager was signed with one eye on the future. Neymar was expected to make an immediate impact, the ready-made superstar capable of leading PSG to Champions League glory and, in turn, put himself in a position to win the Ballon d’Or.
But ambition and ability are two very different matters, and just as previous iterations of PSG had succumbed in the Champions League knockout rounds, so too would this highly expensive version.
Admittedly, by the time they crashed out at the hands of last season's eventual winners Real Madrid, Neymar was laid up with a broken metatarsal, but just as the club’s Qatari owners had not paid record sums for a mere last-16 place, neither had the Brazilian moved to Paris simply to pick up an incredible pay cheque.
He was sold the dream of winning both the Champions League and the Ballon d’Or, yet the reality has proven different.
Clarence Seedorf, a four-time victor of the competition, believes it was predictable that the move would turn out this way.
"He has to play with players better than him," he told Globo Esporte. "Not technically, but those who have already won big prizes, who can talk to him and who he can respect.
"He's still young; he's not been in Europe for so long. It was a sin to leave Barcelona so quickly. Two more years there and it could have been different for him."
But instead of Camp Nou, he finds himself at Parc des Princes, where there is a track record of failure and unfulfilled potential in the Champions League.
With one win, two draws and a defeat in Group C, Tuchel’s men are now threatening to crash out at an even earlier and infinitely more humiliating juncture than they ever have before during QSI’s seven-year ownership.
Another loss to Liverpool, whose 3-2 victory over the Parisians at Anfield was far more comprehensive than the scoreline suggests, would likely consign the most expensive attacking line-up ever assembled to the ignominy of the Europa League.
But the long-term consequences would be greater; it would act as the catalyst to bring Neymar’s time in France to an end.
Ballon d’Or winners do not play Thursday night football, and Goal understands that Barcelona are plotting a road map to re-sign the former Santos star, who has scored 41 times in 46 matches since moving to France.
One of the conditions for the deal is that they need him to publicly admit his regret at moving to PSG. What better excuse than an early Champions League exit?
Such talent deserves to be showcased on the greatest stage, and even if the South American is not willing to bury the hatchet to move back to his former club, the continent’s other giants would undoubtedly enter the fray should he decide to leave the French capital.
Without Champions League football, PSG retaining their greatest star would suddenly become a task even more difficult than signing him in the first place.
While an instant domino effect at Parc des Princes would be unlikely – Mbappe would remain to take up the mantle of figurehead – the long-term message would be clear: PSG are no longer among Europe’s elite.
"Individually, you don't win anything in team sport," Dani Alves has argued in the build-up to the big midweek clash, but equally, without world-class talent, that task of winning the game's biggest prizes becomes undoubtedly more complicated.
After years of careful but expensive building, it is a slip that even the big-spending Parisians simply cannot afford.
PSG’s European history has been dominated by their inability to perform at the clutch moments. On Wednesday, they will have to learn that skill against a club that has been one of the masters of the art over the years.
Should they fail, a venture long in the making could come crashing rapidly down.
By Robin Bairner
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