Lionel Messi stood frozen, stunned in the Santiago Bernabéu.
His right hand was on his hip. His left hand was holding his head. His eyes were closed.
It looked like he wanted the field to swallow him up.
Watching the celebrations was the last thing Messi wanted to do as Paris Saint-Germain capitulated to Real Madrid.
Especially given the way Karim Benzema had just completed a hat-trick in 17 minutes to shift the Champions League last-16 game in Madrid’s favor for the first time.
It summed up PSG’s implosion that the winner came straight from the kickoff after Benzema scored his second. PSG gave the ball away, gifting a rapid home attack that ended with Vinícius Júnior cutting into the penalty area, a feeble attempted clearance from Marquinhos and Benzema flicking the ball into the bottom corner.
“We paid dearly for our mistakes at the end,” Marquinhos said. “It’s tough to explain.”
Very tough to explain.
It seemed harder to toss away a looming place in the quarterfinals when Kylian Mbappé had scored a memorable late winner in the first leg and produced another moment of magnificence — created by Neymar’s pass — to score in the first half in Madrid.
The upstarts of European football were still beating the kings of the continent 2-0 on aggregate with a half hour to go.
“We were convinced we were the better side,” PSG sporting director Leonardo said, “and that we were going to go through with a squad that could win the competition.”
Instead, PSG conspired to get itself dumped out of the Champions League 3-2 on aggregate by the record 13-time champions of Europe.
“The worst feeling is that we were the better side,” PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino said. “But we lost the tie in 10 minutes.”
This isn’t why one of the greatest players of all time came to PSG. Nor why so much was invested in linking the 34-year-old genius up with Neymar and Mbappé.
The wait for a first Champions League title goes on for PSG after 11 years of Qatari ownership and more than $1 billion in transfers.
Whichever managers come and go — and Pochettino will be fighting to remain in charge next season — PSG too often looks like a group of players masquerading as a team.
All the money and talent can’t achieve success where it is craved most. This was meant to be the season when everything came together, with Messi arriving from Barcelona.
But still only one European final has been reached, losing to Bayern Munich in 2020. Only one other semifinal has been contested, losing to Manchester City last season.
No wonder there were reports of PSG President Nasser Al-Khelaifi becoming heated in the search to blame the match officials after the latest exit.
There will be recriminations at PSG.
Winning the French title is the easy part of the year. Take away last season’s aberration when Lille was crowned champion, PSG is now coasting to an eighth title in nine seasons.
It’s the European Cup which PSG’s leadership wants to parade in Paris — and Doha — for a club where collecting trophies can seem more about projecting sporting power for the Emir of Qatar than delivering for the Parc de Princes regulars.
“When things happen, we have to think about it and ponder why it happened,” Leonardo said. “But we need time for that.”
How much time will Leonardo or Pochettino get?
Someone will take the blame.
Pochettino tried to shift responsibility onto the referee for not penalizing Benzema for a foul on goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma before the first goal that launched the comeback in the 61st minute.
“It’s unbelievable,” Pochettino said, grumbling about VAR. “It’s impossible to accept because it’s a clear foul. I’m not complaining.”
Sure sounded like that.
“The next few weeks are not going to be easy,” Pochettino said.
Will PSG accept the excuses?
“It’s a big blow,” Leonardo said. “We have to accept our mistakes and our ability to handle difficult situations. We lost and there are things to analyze.”
Leonardo talked of needing to “find solutions as quickly as possible.” Marquinhos reflected on the team being more “mature in Europe next season.”
But when a team can’t even lift the European Cup with Messi, Neymar and Mbappé, then when will it?
Especially when Mbappé is out of contract in three months after PSG rejected Madrid dangling more than $150 million to sign him last year.
It’s more likely the next time he plays in the Champions League it’s against PSG — and maybe for Madrid. How painful would that be for Messi to watch?
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