Paris Saint-Germain arrived at St James’ Park purporting to know what to expect. In Newcastle United’s first home Champions League game for 20 years, the noise and fervour were palpable. The French champions, housing the best player in the world in Kylian Mbappe, were favourites on paper, but they had to earn the right to play.
In the pre-match press conference, manager Luis Enrique and defender Lucas Hernandez spent most of their time explaining that they’d combat Newcastle’s power, energy and intensity, which would be fuelled by an atmosphere not seen for years on Tyneside. The PSG boss should have understood better than most, given that he played and scored in the last match at that level which could compare in any way, a 3-2 win for Newcastle over Barcelona in 1997.
Luis Enrique spoke about the game and told reporters that Newcastle were the team from pot four in the Champions League nobody wanted to face. There seemed to be an understanding that PSG, while more talented than their hosts, needed to match them for tactical nous and work ethic. But the selection of four strikers and just two midfielders played right into Newcastle’s hands; having an extra man in the middle allowed the Magpies to dominate the ball and stop supply lines to the men who could hurt them, chiefly Mbappe.
That meant it was a nightmare evening for the Parisians. Mbappe puffed his cheeks out at full time and headed down the tunnel after a 4-1 defeat, frustrated that he couldn’t influence the game. He barely got a touch, and when he did, he was snuffed out. The same went for Ousmane Dembele, Gonçalo Ramos, Randal Kolo Muani and Manuel Ugarte. Nobody really threatened Newcastle at all.
That is except midfielder Warren Zaire-Emery. The 17-year-old has long been rated as one of the best teenagers in world football, and against one of the toughest backdrops, he showed why last week. He didn’t shirk a challenge, when the tide was turned against him all night, he stood tall and tried to make things happen. If anything did for PSG, invariably he was involved.
Inside the first five minutes, before Newcastle had truly got up to speed, Mbappe got in down the left. He crossed for Dembele, who volleyed just wide; for a second, the cacophony of noise ceased and everyone fell silent until the ball fell the wrong side of the post by mere inches. But it was Zaire-Emery who first ran into the space and found Mbappe, setting up the attack by striding forward with confidence beyond his years. He simply wasn’t fazed.
Again, when Newcastle had taken the lead through Miguel Almiron and PSG needed a response, it was Zaire-Emery who stepped up. He always seemed to be in space, more of a comment on his own intelligence than a criticism of the Newcastle midfield who didn’t put a foot wrong throughout, and again he used it to good effect. He struck the ball from distance and left Nick Pope beaten in the home goal; like Dembele before him, though, he saw the ball miss the target by a tiny margin.
Newcastle’s midfield were the star of their show and the hub of everything good that happened. Bruno Guimaraes was majestic, always looking to play the ball forward and pressing relentlessly in an organised fashion, in perfect tandem with both Sean Longstaff and Sandro Tonali. But there continued to be times when Zaire-Emery would break free and make something happen.
It was his cross for Hernandez which pulled a goal back for PSG in the second half, perfectly weighted and timed. From then, the visitors had a spell where they threatened to build momentum. Mbappe saw more of the ball, and he interchanged well with the youngster.
The richest from Qatar have not helped PSG conquer Europe and a huge reason for that has been the disregard of their incredible academy in order to sign some of the biggest players in the world and stitch them together into a team unit. Paris is a hotbed for talent as Zaire-Emery attests, and although there seems to have been an acceptance of the wrong approach, far too much elitism and circus plagues the club right now.
Mbappe may be from Bondy, a local suburb, but he is the outlier. There is so much noise that follows him, and his attempts to force a move to Real Madrid have only further stoked the sense of distraction. Long-term, it is unlikely he’ll be part of the plans.
But in Zaire-Emery, a native of Montreuil in the local area, PSG have a player capable of growing into a real star. His ability to stand up in the most testing circumstances only serves as more evidence for PSG’s need to look within and promote a better, healthier culture.