Paris Saint-Germain just appears to find ways to implode in the Champions League and with this extraordinary exit their head coach Mauricio Pochettino can also expect to depart at the end of the season.
Whether he goes before then and whether he goes to Manchester United remains to be seen – it certainly helps with his availability – although they may have looked on alarmingly as this tie, with PSG in total control thanks to Kylian Mbappe, was chaotically turned on its head. Conversely, maybe Pochettino is perfect for a dysfunctional team that cannot take pressure.
Karim Benzema has listened to debates as to whether Mbappe or Robert Lewandowski or Mohamed Salah is now the best forward in the world and responded with this: a remarkable second-half hat-trick as the 34-year-old so improbably drove Real into the quarter-finals. It was a reminder of his undoubted pedigree on his 500th appearance for the Spanish giants he now captains. Before that, the story appeared destined to be about another France international, Mbappe, but Benzema took over as he was abetted by another elder statesman in 36-year-old Luka Modric.
Going out of the Champions League at this stage will probably also drive Mbappe closer to Real who are confident he will join them when his contract runs out at the end of this season despite PSG throwing money at him to stay. It probably also saved Real coach Carlo Ancelotti, and how he sought out Benzema for a huge bear-huge at the final whistle, and there were significant ramifications everywhere.
PSG only have themselves to blame although that blame will probably largely fall on Pochettino who failed to arrest the turnaround after Real were gifted a way back into this tie through an awful blunder by goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. What a comeback and what a capitulation with Lionel Messi cutting a forlorn figure as he returned to Spain and to a stadium where he has dominated in the past. Instead, PSG lacked leadership and organisation and Pochettino will be pilloried. He will face calls in France to go now.
It seemed all over for Real. It surely was all over. PSG were 2-0 up on aggregate with just 29 minutes to play in the tie. Seventeen minutes later they were heading out and had no answer. They lost all belief despite having Messi, Mbappe and Neymar on the pitch.
While not as incredible as the collapse against Barcelona in 2017, when a 4-0 first-leg lead was lost, it was stunning nonetheless. Both for Real’s revival and PSG’s headless caving in just as they had also done against Manchester United in 2019. In fact, they have lost four knock-out ties having won the first leg.
This competition is their Holy Grail. They will feel cursed.
Real will feel blessed. “Somos los Reyes de Europa” (We are the kings of Europe) read a huge banner unfurled along the length of the south stand prior to kick off as a reminder of Real’s formidable record in the European Cup, as 13-time winners, and there were 60,000 back in the Bernabeu, as Covid restrictions were eased. It felt like more. It certainly felt like more in the manic, massed streets around the re-modelled stadium and that intensity steepled.