It’s not clear when, if ever, it’ll be acceptable to write a piece about Paris without drawing attention to why they have that forward line, so consider this that. It is however, not just a forward line but a forward line.
To write words about Mbappe feels equal parts arrogant and ridiculous, given that watching him is an option. There are very few players for whom elite-level football is a joke – George Best, Diego Maradona and Ronaldinho are others – players whose absolute mastery of the game was elevated by an impudence and competitive charisma that is the game incarnate. Mbappe’s riff on the theme deploys a mischievous, challenging personality and absolute joy in being on the pitch, with timing, athleticism and intelligence; frankly we are lucky to be living in his lifetime.
Neymar, meanwhile, is unquestionably the greatest player that oddballs dare to say is rubbish, a sliding, twizzling, leaping bundle of intense, uncut football. He melds instinct with intellect in the way that only a natural can, able to play in any position that is lucky enough to have him want to play in it.
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As for Di Maria, he is no longer two players in one – the central-midfielding left-winger of his peak years has gone. But he may still be better now than he was then, an artist and a scientist who never stopped learning, never stopped honing his expertise. Against Leipzig, he was the best player on the pitch by far, and it is his vision and composure that does most to turn Paris from a brilliant forward-line into a brilliant team.
This is not solely a reflection of his quality – though it is substantial – but of the midfield behind him, where Ander Herrera and Leandro Paredes are schleppers – high-level schleppers – but schleppers nonetheless. Though both played well against Leipzig, they are below the standard that a club which has spent as heavily as Paris ought to have. For that reason, and harsh though it would be, Thomas Tuchel may be tempted to pick the newly-fit Marco Verratti for the final. Should Bayern Munich be their opponents, it is hard to see a midfield without him making a definitive impression.
Supporting them, though, is the superb Marquinhos, who elevates a defender’s sensibility with a playmaker’s eye. And if Paris are to become champions of Europe, he will have to play well on Sunday, because the defence behind him is serviceable but little more. Thiago Silva was unreliable at his peak – the prospect of him being reunited with Thomas Muller is an enticing one – while alongside him, Presnel Kimpembe can be enticed into error, and the full-backs, Thilo Kehrer and Juan Bernat, are acceptable but not exceptional.
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But no football match is settled solely by ability, and somehow, out of nowhere, Paris have conjured some mentality. After years of failure and collapse, they not only escaped against Atalanta in miraculous style, but illustrated the belief it has given them with a 90-minute performance that seeped entitlement and desire. They were quick to the ball because they wanted it as much as they deserved it, out-running the runners and out-passing the passers – even if those runners and passers were hampered by a fearful change of formation which inspired a fearful performance.
So, Paris head into the final not only wanting to win but expecting to win. Whether their opponents are Bayern or Lyon, it is easy to construct an argument as to why they won’t but easier still to consider that forward line and wonder how they can’t.