MADRID — It was written in the stars that a Frenchman would shine at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday night, when Real Madrid hosted Paris Saint-Germain in their Champions League round-of-16 second leg. It just wasn’t the one we all expected.
For his big audition in the Spanish capital ahead of a widely speculated move to Madrid this summer, Kylian Mbappe did what he does best: score goals and be the best player in the world. Yet the star of the show was his “big brother,” Karim Benzema.
When the talk of the town was about Mbappe and his future, Benzema sent a reminder, not only to the whole of the Spanish capital but the rest of the world, that he is still the boss. He became the oldest player to score a hat trick in Champions League history, the first French player to score three hat tricks in the competition and he sent his team to the quarterfinals via a 3-1 win on the night and a 3-2 aggregate victory — sending the Bernabeu into a frenzy in the process.
His celebrations, his evident joy, spoke volumes. Apart from his performance, there was little else from a disappointing Real Madrid side. They lacked intensity for the opening hour, but they can always rely on Benzema, who on this night overtook Alfredo Di Stefano as the third-leading goal scorer in Real Madrid history with 309 goals — just behind Raul and Cristiano Ronaldo.
He has been their saviour on more than one occasion this season — and in the previous one, too. His three goals on Wednesday bring his total to eight in the Champions League this season and 77 in his career (only Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski have more). This season, he has 30 goals and 11 assists in 31 matches across all competitions. That’s 41 goal involvements in 31 matches, in a team that’s struggled to create chances for him, at the age of 34. This is Ballon d’Or territory.
The incredible thing in this game is that he didn’t even need much to score. The striker took full advantage of PSG’s complacency and errors. How could Gianluigi Donnarumma give away the ball in the manner that he did on Madrid’s first goal? What was Neymar doing with his terrible pass that led to the counterattack for the second goal? And what about Marquinhos’ assist for Benzema’s third? These were schoolboy errors, but Benzema was there to punish the Parisians all the same.
Just when we thought there was a new prince in Madrid, the king struck three times to remind everyone that the Santiago Bernabeu remains his castle.
If Ronaldo was watching from his sofa in Manchester, he surely would have appreciated Benzema’s performance. It was a very Ronaldo-esque display, full of talent, efficiency and guts. The Frenchman bailed out his team much like his ex-teammate did so many times before.
Of course, this victory and Madrid’s march to the quarterfinals is as much Benzema’s success as it is PSG’s failure.
Once again, Paris failed mentally. They choked, throwing away a two-goal lead in an unthinkable way.
We have been here before, of course. They conceded three goals in 16 minutes and 41 seconds on Wednesday, which last happened to them in the Champions League in the infamous Remontada in Barcelona (wherein PSG’s 4-0 first-leg advantage ended in a 6-5 aggregate defeat) almost to this day five years ago.
At PSG, managers are hired and fired, players come and go, but some things never change. There is a lack of leadership, a lack of resilience, in every squad, year after year. The mindset of the entire football club is wrong.
The players shot themselves in the foot again. They were in control and gave it up far too easily, and too quickly.
Mauricio Pochettino had no answers. He was apathetic on the touchline, almost like he had seen a ghost. How could he leave Neymar on the pitch for the entire game considering the pressure PSG were under? Never mind the fact that the Brazilian just came back from a long-term injury. It is highly unlikely that Pochettino will still be the club’s manager next season, despite being under contract until June 2023.
The PSG hierarchy will blame the referee and VAR for allowing the first goal to stand, not calling a foul on Benzema after his physical challenge on Donnarumma in the build-up, and this is part of the problem. When they capitulate like this, it is never their fault. There are always excuses, fault lying elsewhere, and PSG never look at themselves, admit their mistakes or the flaws in the way the club works — or in this case, doesn’t work.
The season is now over for PSG. They will win Ligue 1 but that is almost a minor detail. They failed to win the Trophee des Champions against Lille, they were knocked out of the Coupe de France in the round of 16 by Nice and they were humiliated again in the Champions League at the same stage.
This is the worst season the club has endured since Qatar Sports Investments took over in 2011. And it will be very hard to get over it.