PARIS — Paris Saint-Germain put in an absolutely textbook away performance. Bayern Munich had the majority of possession, most of the territory and took more shots. PSG defended well, rode their luck on occasion and counter-attacked brilliantly, picking off their opponents one, two, three times. It was a lesson in how to play on the road. The only difference was that the French club were at their Parc des Princes home.
Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but only just. On the surface, Bayern’s sticky start to the season continued with defeat coming from a game in which manager Carlo Ancelotti made curious selection decisions, including leaving Mats Hummels, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery on the bench. But in reality they really didn’t play that badly; they weren’t brilliant and do need to improve, but this wasn’t a disastrous performance.
Bayern just had the misfortune to run into Edinson Cavani, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. The build-up to the game was dominated by a supposed feud between the former pair, with a disagreement over who should take a penalty threatening to overshadow one of the most enticing games in this season’s Champions League group stage.
But for all the talk of simmering antipathy, Cavani and Neymar behaved themselves perfectly well, even if quite what else anyone expected them to do is unclear. Wrestle, maybe? Late in the game, Neymar stood aside as Cavani whipped a free kick at goal; the effort went over but the Brazilian forward offered his Uruguayan teammate a high-five by way of consolation.
More than a test of whether grown men could go 90 minutes without clawing each other’s eyes out, this was to be the first serious test of PSG’s new forward line, which has previously had to deal with no stronger an opponent than Lyon. The expensive, FFP-bending, vastly talented trio look like they could punch a hole in any defence but here was their first genuine examination and it was one they passed handily.
But for all the talk of the Neymar-Cavani relationship and even despite each man scoring, it was the youngster who was the star. Mbappe, nominally playing from the right but essentially moving to wherever he pleased, was astounding, a frightening combination of pace and crystal-clear thinking, the sort of thing that defenders dread.
One of those defenders was David Alaba. In setting up PSG’s third goal, Mbappe so thoroughly befuddled the Bayern full-back that you felt quite sorry for him; with a single devastating shimmy, the 18-year-old sent Alaba to Saint Denis while he went to Versailles.
The Austrian, let us not forget, is one of the finest left-backs in the world but he changed direction at least three times as he tried to work out where Mbappe had gone. By the time his world had stopped spinning, the PSG teenager had played the ball into the middle where, after more Bayern hesitation, Neymar poked home.
After the game, former PSG boss Ancelotti acknowledged Mbappe’s excellence but admitted his team had made it slightly easier for them.
“When they have space, they show their quality,” the Bayern manager said when asked whether it is possible to plan for such a talent. “The first half we gave them space to express their quality. The key is to have good balance. We didn’t, and that’s the reason for the result.”
But Ancelotti probably shouldn’t be so hard on himself. His team selection might have raised eyebrows but it was his attempt to combat the movement of PSG’s front three. Much was made about the omission of Hummels in favour of Nicklas Sule, but playing a slightly quicker defender wasn’t the worst idea in the world. It just didn’t work.
“Every game I have great players on the bench,” said Ancelotti. “This is my job. I think today the two best players on the pitch were Sule and Javi Martinez.”
It was his way of saying “I could’ve put Giacinto Facchetti at his peak in there, and it probably wouldn’t have made a difference” but, that being said, one area in which Hummels might have helped was the organisation of Bayern’s defence, which was chaotic at times.
Take the first goal, scored in just the second minute, which displayed the psychological problem of having to defend against this absurd trifecta. Neymar floated in from the left and the Bayern back line, apparently terrified of not only him but the other two prongs of the hosts’ trident, rushed towards them. In doing so, they briefly forgot about PSG’s eight other players, allowing Dani Alves to take advantage of the abundant space and fire into the net.
The second was a slightly more straightforward counter-attack, with Mbappe setting Cavani up for a terrific shot that you nevertheless suspected the injured Manuel Neuer might have saved had he been playing. For the third, Mbappe again caused panic. Could Bayern have done better? Probably. Would they have still stopped PSG? Probably not.
But away from the woe of one team was the joy of the other. After 79 minutes, Mbappe’s number was raised and a few things were striking. First was the way he spotted that he was coming off, then turned away and pretended it wasn’t happening, like a child who just wants to stay on the park for a bit longer.
Second, he was replaced by Angel Di Maria, still one of the world’s great talents, but whose entry meant those in the stadium felt cheated at being denied 11 more minutes of Mbappe’s shimmering ability.
Finally, there was the home fans’ noise as they cheered him off from a game in which he didn’t score. They love him already and he loves them. For all the justified cynicism about the circumstances of his arrival in Paris, the signs are that his time there is going to be special.
By Nick Miller