Real Madrid, like P.S.G., obsesses over the Champions League, though its reasons are very different. To Real, this competition is a central part of its identity: It has won the trophy 12 times, including three of the last four years; the European Cup defines what Real is.
In Parisian eyes, by contrast, the competition is a symbol of what P.S.G. wishes — no, craves — to be. There is no glory in winning the French domestic championship, not for a club with a budget vastly larger than any of its rivals’. There is no pride in claiming either of the country’s domestic cups, not to a Qatari ownership group that got involved in soccer to accrue that unique soft power, that sense of relevance that the world’s most popular sport offers.
Only the Champions League justifies the investment, only the Champions League validates the project, only the Champions League brings Qatar the kudos it desires: proof that what was once a backwater can become a global player.
It was for the Champions League that P.S.G. sanctioned a $276 million move last summer for Neymar, the Brazilian superstar. It did not sign him from Barcelona, in the words of the midfielder Adrien Rabiot, to help P.S.G. “score eight against Dijon.”
The club does not indulge Neymar — throwing him a lavish, two-day birthday party earlier this month and giving him a variety of “privileges,” in Rabiot’s words again, that others do not enjoy — to perform party tricks in Ligue 1. It does so because it sees him as the sort of player who can deliver in these moments, on the biggest stages, against the most illustrious opponents.
His ability to do so is not in question: P.S.G. knows that all too well — it was Neymar, after all, who orchestrated that humiliation in Barcelona last year. In Madrid, though, in Parisian colors, he could not repeat the trick.
For his part, Neymar’s decision to leave Catalonia centered on his desire to establish himself as the best player in the world, the standard-bearer for the generation behind Lionel Messi and Ronaldo. He could not be heralded as the finest player on the planet, ran the logic, if he was not the finest player in his team. If, from the outside, it looked almost like a step down, there was a sense that the ambitions of player and team meshed rather neatly. Both, after all, had their eyes on usurping the established order.
For Neymar, then, as much as P.S.G., this was a night to shine, and not just because Real has convinced itself the Brazilian yearns to make Madrid his permanent home. This was his chance to demonstrate that his move to Paris had been more than folly, that change was coming.
He did not do it. Neymar did not decide this game: Ronaldo, the man he would depose, did. It should not be a source of great controversy to suggest that Ronaldo, at 33, is now beyond his wondrous peak, no longer the force of nature he once was. He has had to metamorphose into something different to remain pre-eminent. Where once Ronaldo’s embroidery — his dazzling array of tricks, his jet heels — set him apart, now it is his economy, his ruthlessness.
Twice, when the pressure was greatest, Ronaldo delivered. Not prettily, necessarily — he converted a penalty kick to draw Real level, after Rabiot had given P.S.G. the lead, and then scuttled the ball home fortuitously to put his team ahead — but decisively.
It was a model of efficiency, an object lesson of what big players do in big moments.
Neymar was the opposite: endless slaloming dribbles, drifting effortlessly past defenders with sure touches and elegant movement — all culminating in cul-de-sacs. It was an inherently cinematic performance. He played as you imagine a superstar should, as opposed to how a superstar does.
He will have a chance, in Paris next month, to make amends. Unai Emery, his coach, saw enough here to believe his team can score the two goals it needs to progress to the quarterfinals (though it may well require more). The score line, he said, “does not reflect what we saw on the pitch.”
P.S.G. has heard that line before. It has felt this sensation before. It is the mantra of a team that gets so far and then can go no further: We are so close, we will get there in the end. The ceiling, though, never seems to shift. It always there, just beyond reach, unyielding, unforgiving.