Can PSG Overcome Officials to Advance in Champions League?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Paris Saint-Germain has disappointed once again in the UEFA Champions League.

It’s something fans of the Parisian club have come to expect. There’s usually some surprise in the hours leading up to the game–this time it was Thiago Silva moving to the bench in favor of Presnel Kimpembe–and then the team as a whole mentally collapses in the waning minutes of the game to allow their opponent to finish them off. Some of the players have changed over the years and you could argue this is the best PSG in team history, but the last two managers, Laurent Blanc and Unai Emery, have not been able to break through the mental wall that appears to be holding this club back from reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League and beyond.

It was no different against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium on Valentine’s Day as the hosts won 3-1 and were clearly the better side. Sure, Paris took the early lead thanks to Adrien Rabiot but not even this PSG supporter will tell you they deserved it. Cristiano Ronaldo equalized right before halftime and it only foreshadowed what was to come. Madrid showed no signs of slowing down in the second half and in fact, Zinedine Zidane went for the win with key substitutions while Emery went more defensive in the hope his team could escape with a draw. That wasn’t the case and four minutes after Zidane’s last substitution in the 79th minute, Madrid scored their second to go up 2-1 and then a third in the 86th minute.

Madrid played exactly how I predicted PSG would and I’m not exactly sure why it wasn’t the other way around. Could it have been Giovani Lo Celso’s inexperience in midfield? Perhaps. Was it the lack of service into Edinson Cavani? That certainly played a role. Did the benching of Silva alter the mindset of the team before kickoff? It’s possible. PSG Talk contributor Marc Damon makes the argument that the capital club lacks the ability to switch to a championship gear in these big matches and I tend to agree with him. Is there more to it than that though?


You have to go back to the 2013-14 Champions League season to find a Round of 16 opponent that PSG was clearly favored to defeat. That year it was Bayer Leverkusen and they won that tie and advanced to the quarter-finals where they eventually lost to Chelsea FC. In the years to follow, Paris has faced Chelsea (twice), FC Barcelona, and Real Madrid in the Round of 16. That’s a combined 18 Champions League titles for those counting at home. To give you some perspective, Real Madrid has faced PSG, Napoli, AS Roma, and Schalke in the Round of 16 the last four seasons. Can you tell the difference?

Paris can do nothing about the draw. Is it rigged? Who knows. People have their speculation but the reason I bring it up is to drive home the point that PSG has battled certain teams much earlier in the tournament than they should. Some of it is their own fault, like finishing second in their group to Arsenal last season, but it at least has to be noted that their road to a Champions League final has been exponentially harder than other clubs. I hear what you’re saying, “but Ed, they would have to beat those teams at some point, right?” You’re exactly right and thanks for reading. However, the narrative around this team would be vastly different if they routinely made the semi-finals or finals and lost than always crashing out in the Round of 16 or quarter-finals.

The other point that I need to bring up is the officiating. I whined about it on Twitter and I was soon joined by Emery and PSG chairman and CEO Nasser Al-Khelaifi after the match. Often lost in last season’s 6-1 defeat to Barcelona is the horrific refereeing that allowed the Catalan club to pull off the stunning upset. As bad as PSG was, and they were bad, if the officiating was even halfway competent, they would have held on and advanced last season. Flash forward to Wednesday’s match against Madrid and it was more of the same.

Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi made a series of bad calls that benefited Madrid. That’s not to say he didn’t throw PSG a bone here or there (he could have sent off Neymar). Overwhelmingly though, the official was poor and his decisions could ultimately sink PSG’s season. Let’s analyze:

Rabiot Yellow Card

The Frenchman never touched Luka Modrić but Rocchi called the foul and handed out a yellow anyway.

No-Call on Ronaldo

I point out Rabiot’s yellow card because here we have Ronaldo charging towards Presnel Kimpembe and while he doesn’t make contact, Kimpembe makes the most of it just like Modrić did in the clip above. Rocchi correctly makes the call and seconds later, Madrid scored their go-ahead goal. In both cases, Rocchi appears to be in a good position and clearly sees both incidents. One embellishment he dishes out a caution for and the other he says play on.

Diving Toni Kroos

The Germany international was actually awarded a penalty earlier in the game when Lo Celso grabbed his shoulders and he fell to the ground as if he was electrocuted. The young Argentine put himself in a bad position and while the penalty was soft, I suppose you could make the argument it was legit. However, what Kroos did later in the game all that proves that he was actively looking to go down the second a PSG defender touched him. In case you were wondering, Kroos did not receive a caution for simulation.

PSG Denied Penalty

With the game tied at 1-1, Rabiot fired a shot on target from outside the box that very clearly hit the outstretched arm of Sergio Ramos. The announcers on FS1 saw it and there were shouts from the PSG players but Rocchi waived play on. If no penalties were given in the game then you could live with this decision but the official called a very soft penalty for Madrid earlier and this was the opportunity to make amends.

You win the Champions League by having a deep squad full of world-class players but you also need a little bit of luck. Unfortunately, the ladder isn’t something PSG can buy and given the last couple of disappointments in the tournament, they’re not likely to get any help from the officials anytime soon. If Paris wants to advance past Real Madrid they are going to need to focus and capitalize on the chances that come their way. They missed far too many opportunities to score and that allowed Rocchi’s poor decisions to affect them more than they should have. The return leg will be at the Parc des Princes on March 6 and believe it or not, a simple 2-0 win for Paris will see them through. Advancing is still possible but it’s up to Emery to re-focus his squad for what promises to be a tense affair in the French capital.

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Tags Adrien Rabiot Champions League Cristiano Ronaldo Presnel Kimpembe Unai Emery
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