x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Paris Saint-Germain pitching it up for Qatar after draw against Barcelona

Performance in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final is a step in the right direction toward Gulf nation's grand vision.

Blaise Matuidi's late equaliser against Barcelona has kept Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League hopes alive. Clive Rose / Getty Images
Blaise Matuidi's late equaliser against Barcelona has kept Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League hopes alive. Clive Rose / Getty Images

What a difference a goal makes.

Blaise Matuidi's late, late equaliser for Paris Saint-Germain against Barcelona on Tuesday night would seem to have resuscitated a Uefa Champions League campaign that was seconds away from being given, perhaps prematurely, its last rites by all but the most optimistic of French fans.

Instead, the 2-2 draw salvaged by the Parisian team in the 93rd minute, having trailed twice, now leaves the tie in the balance.

It was the French club's signature performance since Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) bought a 70 per cent stake in the club for US$65 million (Dh238m) in May 2011.

Respect for PSG, and France's Ligue 1 in general, has been slow in coming. PSG's display against Barca, spearheaded by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, demands they be taken seriously. Carlo Ancelotti, the coach, will be delighted; QSI, sole shareholders since late last year, even more so.

For the first 30 minutes, and sporadically after that, PSG were outstanding. And all the club's major signings played a part.

Thiago Silva, who Ibrahimovic called "the best defender in the world" when both joined from AC Milan at the beginning of the season, was immense.

Ezequiel Lavezzi, bought from Napoli, gave the Barca defenders trouble all night and hit the post in the early minutes. Even David Beckham, sitting in front of the back four, was a calming influence in midfield during the early exchanges before inevitably running out of steam.

And then, as ever, there was Ibrahimovic, the team's focal point, bent on revenge against his former club.

But none shone more than the January signing Lucas Moura, whose lightning pace reduced the Barcelona defenders to rotational fouling to stop him.

The Brazilian, it should be remembered, was snapped up by PSG from under the noses of Manchester United; if not exactly a demonstration of shifting power, then at the very least of QSI's aggressive transfer policy (Dh720m spent this season alone) and the seriousness of its pledge to win the Champions League.

In reality, there has been gradual improvement since the takeover. Second place and a return to the Champions League last season, a quarter-final place in this season's competition and a soon-to-be-wrapped-up title. The Qatar experiment, on the pitch, would seem to be a success so far.

But image, for the owners, is as important as winning Ligue 1. And for all of PSG's domestic improvements, nothing gets you attention like giving Barcelona a bloody nose.

For Qatar, success on the pitch is part of a bigger picture, a grand plan to market the country as a leading football hub in the region ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

Weeks after QSI purchased PSG, Al Jazeera bought the rights to broadcast the French league. Barcelona continue to carry the name of Qatar Foundation on their shirts as part of a €166 million (Dh783m), five-year sponsorship deal.

Even Michel Platini, the Uefa president and a staunch supporter of rich-club-baiting Financial Fair Play, was a supporter of Qatar's massive investment in PSG. The club, cynically to many, even bought a trophy player.

"David Beckham goes beyond the sport. He is an ambassador, he is a brand, he is an example to others," the QSI chairman Nasser Al Khelaifi told L'Equipe almost a year before the Englishman was finally captured. "But he is also still a very good football player."

To the sceptics, his usefulness on the pitch is almost an afterthought for QSI. When Beckham did sign in January, Ibrahimovic said "now, we're not only good, but we're handsome too".

On Tuesday, Beckham showed fleetingly that he can still caress a football as well as anyone. The stamina and fitness, however, are on the wane. Stronger legs will be needed in the second leg, where PSG can expect an onslaught from Barcelona.

And what a second leg it promises to be. Before Tuesday's first leg, few gave PSG much of chance of progressing, especially after Barcelona's devastating performance in the 4-0 win over AC Milan.

And once the excitement of Tuesday's drama fades, few will give them a chance in the second leg either; after all, if Milan, with a 2-0 lead, could not finish the job at Camp Nou, what hope for PSG going in on level terms having conceded two goals at home?

Ancelotti will focus on the positives: Moura's performance, the manner of the late comeback and the team's spirit. Barcelona will also be missing the injured Carlos Puyol and Javier Mascherano. They may also be without Lionel Messi, who was replaced at half time with a hamstring complaint.

PSG will hope to emulate Inter Milan in 2010 and Chelsea last year by claiming a result at Camp Nou.

Do that, and the players will have their eyes on that big trophy. A delighted QSL will have their eyes on the bigger picture, too.


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