PSG stages comeback to oust Atalanta, reach Champions League semis

PSG's Neymar celebrates with teammate Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting after his team's win in the Champions League quarterfinal match between Atalanta and PSG at Luz stadium, Lisbon, Portugal, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (David Ramos/Pool Photo via AP)

LISBON, Portugal — After a night of frustrating misses, Neymar finally found a way to come through for Paris Saint-Germain.

The world’s most expensive player helped set up two late goals as PSG staged a stoppage-time comeback to beat Atalanta 2-1 on Wednesday in the Champions League quarterfinals.

Relief for the Brazilian, who has often been criticized for failing to lead the big-spending French club to Europe’s most coveted trophy. Agony for Atalanta, which had been so close to reaching the semifinals in a remarkable Champions League debut season.

The Italian club on a modest budget had led through Mario Pa?alic’s curling strike in the 27th minute.

But Neymar set up Marquinhos for the 90th-minute equalizer and was involved in the build-up to Eric Choupo-Moting’s winner in the third minute of stoppage time.

That goal meant PSG returned to the last four of European football’s elite after a 25-year absence.

"I never thought we’d be back home tomorrow," Neymar said. "At every moment, we just went for one thing: progress to the last four."

The substitutes helped transform PSG’s fortuntes — first with Kylian Mbappe’s arrival with 30 minutes remaining and then Choupo-Moting 20 minutes later.

"When I came on I thought I can’t lose," said Choupo-Moting, whose high, diagonal pass reached Neymar on the left flank in the 90th minute. The Brazilian’s scuffed shot was turned in by Marquinhos.

Atalanta was stunned, PSG re-energized.

It was another run by Neymar that unpicked a tiring Atalanta before feeding Mbappe, who squared across for Choupo-Moting to slide the ball over the line.

It was a painful collapse for Atalanta, ending an improbable run in a season when the team’s home city of Bergamo had been among the hardest hit regions of Europe from the coronavirus.

The lack of access to the stadium could not deter Atalanta fans flying from northern Italy to the Portuguese capital, even if it was just to cheer for the fleeting moments when the team bus passed beneath them.

They will have another chance next season. A second consecutive third-place finish in Serie A gives Atalanta a return ticket the Champions League.

"At this moment, it’s quite painful," Atalanta midfielder Marten de Roon. "Tomorrow, I will be proud of our team and club but at this moment I feel disappointment. "

The pandemic meant the quarterfinals are not being played home and away as usual but as single games in neutral Lisbon with no second chances.

"It was a crazy game, a tough game and opponents," Choupo-Moting said. "I think we showed till the last moment that we believed in ourselves. It wasn’t easy because we had some good occasions that unfortunately we couldn’t score."

The Cameroon international came on to replace the struggling Mauro Icardi, who managed just a single off-target shot. At least Neymar was getting in sight of goal more often, but scuffed several good chances in the first half — including a glaring miss in the third minute.

Receiving possession on the halfway line, the Brazilian ran half the length of the pitch and had only goalkeeper Marco Sportiello to beat but skewed the ball wide of the post.

And it took a sprawling save by PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas to keep out Hans Hateboer’s downward header.

But Navas was beaten in the 26th minute. Duvan Zapata’s pass caught PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe and fell to Pa?alic, who curled into the roof of the net for his 12th goal of the season.

Once again, PSG looked to Neymar to find a way back into the game.

Once again, he missed, dragging a shot wide and looking like a player who has only had two competitive games since March due to the pandemic ending the French league.

Even a free kick from Neymar lacked any pace and was easily saved. And when right back Hans Hateboer gifted Neymar an opening in the 42nd with a sloppy back pass, the forward could only strike wide.

Mbappe was only introduced for the final half hour, having just recovered from an ankle injury, but he was also frustrated in front of goal.

Still, the star duo of Neymar and Mbappe still made their impact by acting as the support cast, creating the goals that kept PSG on course for a first European Cup to add to this season’s domestic trophies.

"We’ve already won four titles this season but the most important is this one," Choupo-Moting said. "We really believe in ourselves and we did it today. Everybody knows we have top quality individuals, but we wanted to show it also as a team. It’s a big step today against a very good opponent. Respect to Atalanta, but I’m very happy we did it. "

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