The corridors of the Myriad hotel in the centre of Lisbon, where Paris Saint-Germain have been staying for almost two weeks now, are full of laughter. Life has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic and this season’s Champions League mini-tournament is unlike anything that has come before it, but PSG’s players are trying to make the best of it.
Captain Thiago Silva, whose room is next door to Neymar, plays a trick on his Brazilian teammate and scares him as he walks out into the hallway. Presnel Kimpembe, with his dancing and jokes, and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, the hero of the quarterfinal comeback against Atalanta, spread positive vibes wherever they go. Veterans Keylor Navas and Ander Herrera, two of the most important parts of this squad with their experience and wisdom, help bring everyone together.
Last season, the PSG dressing room was full of divisions. Not anymore. Herrera, for example, has been the one delivering the final words of encouragement in the huddles before kick-off. This newfound togetherness comes from a realisation by the whole squad, in particular by leading lights Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, that the only way to win the Champions League was to do it together. Not just through individual brilliance, but through collective strength.
Since they thrashed RB Leipzig 3-0 in the semifinal to reach the club’s first-ever Champions League final, the Parisians have been in a state of elation. The scenes of celebration after their qualification contrasted greatly with the scenes of non-celebration from the Bayern Munich players, but Thomas Tuchel and his players don’t care. They like expressing how they feel.
At times in the past, that exuberance has led to problems. There have been clashes between players; between Leonardo, the sporting director, and some players; between Tuchel and Mbappe less than a year ago. But those incidents never last. Since the win against Leipzig, the key word the squad have focused on has been “recovery.”
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Ahead of Sunday’s final, PSG have had one more day of rest than their opponents Bayern and they are in good shape as well as in good spirits. The players have used oxygen machines to regenerate their bodies, the club physios have have been working almost all day and night to massage and heal their muscles, while the team’s two chefs are in Lisbon too, preparing all their dinners. Lasagna and fish have been the most popular meals over the past two days.
PSG’s new head of performance, Maxime Coulerot, has been going through all the stats from the last two games, against Atalanta and Leipzig, to see what has been working and what has not. Against the Italians, Neymar was almost unstoppable, looking as if he had a point to prove, and PSG will need their talisman to shine again if they are to overcome Bayern. Though some inside the club are worried that the pressure would get to the players before the final on Sunday, most of the squad has been good; no stress, no problems with sleeping or injuries.
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In the training session on Friday, Tuchel had his whole squad available. Goalkeeper Navas is back from the minor injury that saw him miss the Leipzig game and should start, with Sergio Rico dropping back to the bench; midfielder Marco Verratti is also fit again and should feature, though Tuchel will make a late decision on whether the Italian gets into the XI.
Winger Angel Di Maria, Man of the Match against Leipzig and so impressive in training, admitted he feels a bit tense, but as one of the few in the squad who have lifted the Champions League trophy before, he is keen to add to his collection, having won it with Real Madrid in 2014.
Even for established players, nerves are understandable: this is the biggest game in PSG’s history. Many fans believe that it’s their destiny to win the Champions League this season, that it’s written in the stars in the year of the club’s 50th anniversary. Circumstances and preparation for the mini-tournament in Lisbon have been difficult, but there is so much determination among the players and their will to win makes them stronger.
A source told ESPN: “They are happy to be together, to share their lives with each other, their successes, their fears, their problems. It is great to see because it has not always been like this. With this unity and togetherness, you can achieve anything.”
When the players meet in Neymar or Kimpembe’s room for a chat in the evening, or to listen to music, sing or play video games, they talk about Sunday and dream of finally lifting the trophy. They are only on game away. Bayern will be tough opponents, but this PSG side have never been so ready.