Bernabeu test a chance of PSG to ‘make it’


Paris Saint Germain's Zlatan Ibrahimovic. (Michel Euler/AP)

Everyone has their own interpretation of what it is to “make it,” but some interpretations are more nuanced and irregular than others.

Actors, somewhat tediously, dream of winning an Oscar. Singers, somewhat desperately, dream of having a number one download single. Novel writers dream that one day, somewhere, somehow, someone, for whatever reason, will read their book, though only the real lost-cause fantasists honestly believe that it will ever happen.

For a European super club such as Paris Saint-Germain, short of actually winning the European Cup, “making it” means one day –after all of this time, and of all that money–beating one of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich in a competitive Champions League game, away from home. Perhaps like the one it plays against Rafael Benitez’s Real Madrid in the Bernabeu on Tuesday.

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Now this might feel like an oddly specific, slightly obscure standard for some kind of breakthrough moment, particularly as it even leaves room for an inglorious win in the oft-maligned group stages of the competition. Other major wins have come along. “Why didn’t they count?” you might ask. PSG has already beaten Barcelona at home—in the group stage this time last year—and even knocked Premier League champions Chelsea out in the Round of 16—also last year—both of which are clearly significant achievements, you might explain.

But they weren’t significant enough. Both of those victories were in some ways mitigated successes. Neither was an unequivocal breakthrough like the one described above. Chelsea wasn’t one of the three clubs that have broken away at the top of European football and although Barca absolutely was and is, it’s always been more vulnerable away from home. Thus a gap is left for a more perfect scenario and I believe you know what it is already.

The unquestionable standard for a breakthrough “making it” European moment has to be that you beat one of Bayern, Barca or Real at their grounds, where they are regularly sensational and oh-so-rarely beaten. Anything else brings with it a weakness to be picked at; a potential to be disregarded. That’s why PSG has its big chance on Tuesday.

Should it arrive, this kind of win is exactly what the French league champion has strived towards since its early days as a nouveau riche club. First the money came in, bringing with it that old combination of hope and power. Then came the brash talk and ostentatious transfer deals at outrageous prices, bringing with them the traditional elements of farce that they always bring. Then, last season, came European respectability via those wins against Chelsea and Barca.

Winning at the Bernabeu would represent a newer, more impenetrable kind of legitimacy than that; the kind where no one asks any questions anymore, because you just beat Real Madrid away from home. It would be a thrilling, aggressive act of caveat-removal. It would be an unequivocal declaration: we’re as good as them; we can beat them wherever you want, whenever we want.

The only problem is that it’s quite hard to do.

If PSG is going to pull this off, then it’ll have to actually be good. Perhaps even very good. This is because the only reason “making it” means anything is because it’s so difficult to do–if it wasn’t, who would care? Try telling everyone that you’re going to make some toast, then showing them the toast a few minutes later and explaining that you’ve “made it”: their faces will not convey the kind of expressions you’re hoping for, unless you like when people frown at you and shake their heads with a subtext of “please leave.”

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And so it is for PSG that it will have to beat a team featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Isco and Karim Benzema, rather than simply continue to inflict weekly destruction on mid-ranking French teams in Ligue 1.

This is no dig at the French top division, or at PSG’s 26 goals in 12 unbeaten league games this season; it’s simply to say that unfortunately that’s not enough. Ronaldo has to be stopped. Kroos has to be dealt with. Benitez has to be skewered and existentially deconstructed in front of the hometown fans. These are the only tests to which there can be no snarky retorts or apathetic shrugs; the only gestures strong enough to dismiss all doubts. It is, alas, the only way.

Will Laurent Blanc’s team do it? Certainly it won’t be intimidated. The reason it can even aspire to this kind of breakthrough is that it’s pieced together a squad that sits comfortably alongside Real’s and carries with it the form that makes beating anyone a realistic idea. If it “makes it” on Tuesday, it’ll be because it is absolutely good enough. If it doesn’t, it’ll have to keep dreaming, like the rest of us.

Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter

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