Paris St.-Germain and RB Leipzig are playing in the UEFA Champions League semifinals. A first is guaranteed: Neither team has ever advanced to the final in the competition, European soccer’s richest club championship.
The teams enter the field, separately.
If it helps you visualize as you read along today: P.S.G. is in blue shirts and blue shorts, and RB Leipzig is in white shirts and red shorts.
Rory Smith’s preview: New money vs. newer money.
It is quite tempting to split the Champions League semifinals down the middle: tonight’s meeting of new money, and tomorrow’s clash between old. Plenty might find in that some sort of allegory for a battle for the soul of soccer. But while there is some truth that RB Leipzig and Paris St.-Germain do not exist, in their current form, purely to play soccer, what should make this a particularly fascinating game are the differences in how that has manifested.
P.S.G. is the quintessential arriviste superpower: a front line constructed with superstardom as its base material, based around the ingenuity of Neymar, the devastating efficiency of Kylian Mbappé and the predatory instincts of stars like Mauro Icardi and others in reserve. It is a team designed to shock and awe, to blind opponents with its talent and to some extent its glamour. The rest of the team is a little more make do and mend: it is not exactly lacking in quality, but it can be hard, at times, to believe that quite as much thought has been put into who plays left back as who plays up front. There also has been no cogent philosophy: Thomas Tuchel, its coach, is expected to craft a team from the materials he has been handed.
Julian Nagelsmann — Tuchel’s one-time protégé — is different. Leipzig has built a club from scratch with a singular vision, of young athletes playing expansive, front-foot soccer, and it has recruited a team and a coach to match. The source of its money may be distasteful to some; how it has spent it is hard to condemn. Leipzig has become, now, the model for how most upwardly-mobile soccer teams across Europe would like to behave, if only they had an energy drink behind them.
That, then, is the background to the game: whether bright ideas (funded by new money) can overcome shimmering talent (funded by new money). It is, in a sense, an encounter between two different ideas of soccer’s future.
The lineups are out: No changes for Leipzig, but Kylian Mbappé starts for P.S.G.
Julian Nagelsmann holds fast, sending out the same team and the same formation that produced a quarterfinal win over Atlético Madrid.
Gulacsi, Klostermann, Upamecano, Mukiele, Laimer, Sabitzer, Kampl, Angelino, Nkunku, Olmo, Poulsen
The biggest change for P.S.G.’s Thomas Tuchel is up front, where Kylian Mbappé — whose participation in this competition was once in doubt because of an ankle injury sustained in France — starts up front. He was the biggest difference-maker in the quarterfinal victory over Atalanta, a breath of fresh air (and danger) in the second half. Today, he’ll bring that from the start.
Keep an eye on Angel Di Maria too. P.S.G.’s starting lineup:
Rico, Kehrer, Silva, Kimpembe, Bernat, Paredes, Marquinhos, Herrera, Di María, Mbappé, Neymar.
In Champions League news from outside Lisbon: Barcelona is cleaning house, but not everyone is out.
Barcelona, which was pummeled by Bayern Munich last week, 8-2, in one of the more humbling days in the club’s recent history, is cleaning house this week.
The easiest call came fast: Quique Setién is already out as manager, and Ronald Koeman, the former Dutch player who helped the club win its first Champions League title, is in. Koeman’s first job will be to grab Lionel Messi with both hands and hold on to him.
Today it is sporting director Eric Abidal who is out of a job. But Barcelona’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu — a man whom many Barcelona fans blame for the sorry state of the current team — told the club’s television network that he would not be leaving his post.
“I chose not to resign for the benefit of the club,” he said.
Spoiler: That statement may not go over well.
RB Leipzig is already working the referee. No harm in trying.
Today’s winner at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz will face the winner of Wednesday’s second semifinal between Bayern Munich and Lyon at Sporting’s Estádio José Alvalade. The final is Sunday at Benfica.
Unlike in other years, the entire Champions League knockout round — starting with the quarterfinals — is being played in Lisbon, where organizers are quarantining and testing and watching the teams’ every movement. Rory Smith and Tariq Panja wrote about how we got here, and the rules that everyone is living by to get the tournament completed.
The most fun nugget in that story is this: the match ball being used today, and in every game, has Istanbul 2020 printed on it. That was the final’s original site. (Turkey now will get the game next spring, pandemic permitting.)
Here’s some pregame reading.
Don’t know much about the teams? We have you covered if you want to catch up in time to look smart to your friends.
It is not an overstatement to say that Paris St.-Germain was built for these two weeks. Its Qatari owners have spent, quite literally, hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in a (to date unfulfilled) pursuit of the Champions League trophy. But seven straight French titles and more than a dozen domestic cups were never the goal. The Champions League was the goal. It was why the club brought in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Neymar and Kylian Mbappé and everyone else, and while that regularly got the club into the knockout rounds of the Champions League, it never got it into the semifinals until this year. This pandemic-affected, one-off knockout tournament is P.S.G.’s best chance yet to win the title. If it doesn’t do the job, one has to wonder: Will it ever happen?
RB Leipzig’s rise has been a different kind of story. Created out of whole cloth by the Red Bull energy drink empire, the club was founded in 2009 and quickly climbed the German soccer pyramid. Not everyone is a fan of the effort — O.K., let’s be honest: Their German rivals can’t stand RB Leipzig and everything that it represents — but the team has much to sell it: its inventive, bright young coach, Julian Nagelsmann; its commitment to playing attacking soccer; its belief in nurturing talent; its intelligent and productive recruitment. It’s the Red Bull attachment that sets everyone off, even a portion of its own fans, as Rory wrote today.
How the teams got here.
Paris St.-Germain nearly didn’t. Facing Atalanta, the Italian upstarts whose Champions League run had been a ray of hope in its coronavirus-scarred home city, P.S.G. fell behind early, wasted a handful of chances to draw even and needed two goals in the final minutes to snatch a victory. Marquinhos got the first, in the 90th minute, and Neymar and Kylian Mbappé combined brilliantly to set up Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting for the second.
RB Leipzig booked its semifinal place in similarly dramatic fashion, and by the same 2-1 scoreline. Its winner against Atlético Madrid came from an American substitute, Tyler Adams, who scored on a long shot that was deflected in the 88th minute.
Their quick rises into European soccer’s elite are perhaps best signified by this: The teams have never played a competitive match before today.
Neither team has ever reached the Champions League final, either. One of them will be in it by the time they go to bed tonight.