Sunday, 16 August 2020

Semi Finalists Again Twenty Five Years On: Remembering the Previous Time PSG Reached the Penultimate Stage of the Champions League

As the match dragged on last Wednesday night it looked like PSG might have blown it, but when they were suddenly once again involved in late Champions League drama it was this time they who came out on top. After years of Champions League misery, they finally matched a feat they had achieved only once before many moons ago. It had taken 25 years but PSG had once again made it to the semi finals of UEFA’s premier competition. Not since the days of David Ginola, Bernard Lama, and George Weah had PSG made it so far.

In their 1994-95 UEFA Champions League campaign Paris Saint-Germain defeated Barcelona in the quarter finals having won all six of their group games in a group that included German giants FC Bayern München, and an FK Spartak Moskva side that had reached the European Cup semi finals four years earlier, and the semi finals of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup just two seasons prior. The Parisians would end up losing to AC Milan in the semi finals but had, until now, nonetheless still progressed further than they have at any point since including the decade just gone when they’ve had a star studded side that has dominated French football. That dominance has seen the club, including the campaign just gone that ended early due to COVID-19, win the Ligue Un title seven times in the last eight years in a run that has also seen four domestic trebles and two domestic doubles. Success in the Champions League, however, has continuously alluded them.

In recent seasons great things have been expected from PSG in the Champions League, at least by some, but each time they have failed to deliver never progressing beyond the quarter finals. Indeed in the last three seasons prior to this everlasting campaign they’ve exited the competition at the round of 16 each time culminating in Marcus Rashford’s 93rd minute winner for Manchester United last season that saw the Parisian’s crashing out. Those events last year were not nearly as terrifying as two years prior, however, when the club blew a 4-0 first leg lead and found themselves on the wrong end of one of the greatest comebacks in the whole history of UEFA competition when they lost 5-1 to FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou with the hosts scoring in the 91st and 95th minutes. This season, however, PSG have put those memories behind them and have made to the semi finals just like they did back in 1995.

The 1993-94 Ligue Un season saw PSG lose only three league games as they ended it as champions for the second time in their history finishing some nine points ahead of their nearest challengers in a division still awarding two points for a win. Alongside their league triumph, the club also reached a European semi final for the second season running. The previous year it was the UEFA Cup, this time out it was the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. As league champions, however, they would be participating in the UEFA Champions League the following season.

In July 1994, at the end of that title winning campaign, Artur Jorge left his job as PSG manager to move to SL Benfica in his native Portugal. Jorge was replaced by a Frenchman born in Spain who went by the name of Luis Fernández. Fernández had been sought after by chairman Michel Denisot who had wanted to replace Jorge with in his own words a coach who could bring "pleasure and efficiency,"

With Fernández in charge, players Jean-Luc Sassus and Laurent Fournier both departed but otherwise the first team squad changed little from the previous campaign with Oumar Dieng joining from Lille OSC the only arrival of any note and he was hardly a big name signing and did not end up playing a big role at the club. One major change, however, saw Paul Le Guen stripped of the captaincy and Alain Roche being given the armband. Some may remember Le Guen better for his later achievements as a manager where he won three league titles at Olympique Lyonnais before a two-year spell as PSG manager where winning the Coupe de la Ligue came via a disappointing half-season in charge of Scottish side Glasgow Rangers. 

PSG had an attack minded squad that included the likes of forwards George Weah and David Ginola and attacking midfielders Raí and Valdo Filho both vying for a place behind them. Liberian George Weah, in particular, would play a key role in the club's memorable European run during Fernandez' first season in charge. Bernard Lama in goal, meanwhile, would star between the posts for France at the European Championships in England in 1996 and, famed for wearing tracksuit bottoms as opposed to shorts whilst on the pitch, he would in goal time and time again make vital saves for the club.

As champions, PSG were favourites to win the title again in 1994-95, especially with a match fixing scandal involving the previous season's runners up Olympique de Marseille seeing them forcibly relegated. FC Nantes Atlantique, however, dominated the league from the off and losing only once all season finished in first place comfortably ahead of Olympique Lyonnais with PSG back in third. PSG lost both games against Nantes and eleven times in total in what was a rather poor league campaign for the defending champions. In the cup competitions, the club fared much better, however, winning both the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue alongside what was a memorable run in Europe.

Having defeated Hungarian side Vác FC-Samsung in the qualifying round PSG started off their Champions League Group B campaign with a home match against Bundesliga champions FC Bayern München. With Lothar Matthäus as captain, Jean-Pierre Papin up front, and Dietmar Hamann, Thomas Helmer, Samuel Kuffour, and Mehmet Scholl amongst others plus a newly signed Oliver Kahn in goal, this was a very strong German side. It was PSG who came out on top, however. On 41 minutes a downward header from a corner hit the crossbar then fell to Weah who slotted home whilst an exceptional 83rd minute volley from Daniel Bravo doubled the home sides lead. 

A 2-0 victory over Bayern was followed by a 2-1 win away at FK Spartak Moskva, which included a stunning strike from outside the box by Le Guen, before two matches with FK Dynamo Kyiv. A 2-1 away win that saw Vincent Guérin score with a superb long range strike for the visitors was followed by a 1-0 victory at home with Weah scoring in both games - three goals in four group stage matches. Next up was a trip to Munich's Olympiastadion and another match with FC Bayern. PSG won 1-0 in Germany and although their winning goal did not come until the 80th minute boy was it a memorable one. Weah skipped past several defenders before slotting home in a move that made him look unstoppable. 

The final group match of the campaign saw Spartak Moskva visit PSG's Parc des Princes home and Weah was once again star of the show. Another stunning outside the box strike saw Weah put the hosts in front after half an hour before a low Ginola strike from just inside the box doubled their lead 12 minutes later. Seven minutes into the second-half 2-0 became 3-0 when Weah waltzed past several defenders before slotting home like he had done in the last match whilst a missed penalty from Spartak was followed by Raí driving home a fourth before Spartak finally found the net and PSG settled for a 4-1 win to make it six wins out of six in the group phase. 

Next up for PSG in le Ligue des Champions was a quarter-final tie with the previous season's runners up FC Barcelona. The first leg away in the Camp Nou saw PSG lucky to go in at half-time with the scoreline still at 0-0 after the hosts had absolutely dominated proceedings. Visiting the Camp Nou for the first time, it was only an excellent performance from Lama in goal keeping PSG in the match but he could only do so much and Igor Korneev gave the hosts the lead early on in the second-half. That lead lasted only six minutes, however, with a magnificent header from, you guessed it, Mr Weah drawing the sides level. The match ended 1-1 and with a vital away goal PSG were in a great position going into the second leg.

The first half of that second leg in the Parc des Princes ended goalless but José Mari Bakero headed the visitors in front four minutes into the second-half having seen an earlier shot of his excellently saved by Lama. The hosts were struggling and Barça seemed confident of securing a semi-final place but Raí had other ideas and headed home from a corner on 72 minutes to level the tie at 2-2. Then, on 83 minutes the winning goal came. It was a low drive from just outside the box that won the match and the tie and came from Guérin in a PSG shirt. The Parisians had reached a third successive Europe semi-final and a first ever in the Champions League - one which had come after defeating a Johan Cruyff managed side of Stoichkov, Romario, Hagi, Guardiola, and Koeman. A star studded side famously defeated by Paris Saint-Germain. At full-time Frenandez threw himself into the arms of some his players and there were celebrations all round as PSG were two legs away from the Champions League final.

Seven wins and one draw was an excellent European record for the season but next up would be the might of AC Milan, defending champions who themselves had swept aside Barcelona in last years final. This was a Milanese side that included the likes of Demetrio Albertini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, and Christian Panucci in defence, Zvonimir Boban, Marcel Desailly, and Roberto Donadoni in midfield, and Dejan Savićević, and Marco Simone up front. That strikeforce may have lacked the firepower that Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten had shown for the club in recent years gone by but on the other hand, the Milan defence at times seemed unbreakable.

PSG were at home in the first leg and the great and good of France were in attendance at the Parc des Princes for this historic semi final match up including four-time Formula One champion Alain Prost and former French Open tennis champion Yannick Noah. The game was lively with plenty of chances for both sides but both goalkeepers were in great form and neither side could seemingly find the net. PSG dominated much of the game and an excellent long range effort from Ginola hit the crossbar at one point whilst on another occasion, he was unfortunate to be denied a penalty. In the end, though, the hosts were left to rue missed chances when in second-half stoppage time AC Milan caught PSG on the break and an excellent piece of play ended in Croat Zvonimir Boban slotting past Lama. A valuable away goal for the Italians and a mammoth task in store for the Parisians when they travelled to the San Siro for the second leg.

Whilst PSG had dominated the first leg and earned nothing for their troubles, unfortunately for them, AC Milan dominated the second and managed to get rewarded for their dominance with two goals from Dejan Savićević. Milan broke forward on 21 minutes in a move that ended with the Serb coolly slotting home whilst a similar effort in the second-half saw him double his sides lead. Milan created various other chances including an Albertini free-kick early on in the game that just sailed over. PSG, however, offered little.

2-0 was the final scoreline and one which saw AC Milan through to their second successive Champions League final, but one which they would ultimately lose to AFC Ajax of Amsterdam. PSG, on the other hand, were going home empty handed. A rather impressive European campaign that had seen Paris Saint-Germain win all six of their group games, twice defeating Bavarian giants FC Bayern München in the process, and knock out the previous seasons runners up FC Barcelona in the quarter finals was still nonetheless something to be proud of even if it had ended in a 3-0 semi final defeat.

The following season PSG won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup defeating SK Rapid Wien in the final to become only the second French side to win a European trophy and indeed their European record between 1992-93 and 1996-97 spread over all three competitions would end up reading semi final, semi final, semi final, winner, runner up. Those 96-97 runners up medals also came in the Cup Winners' Cup and after defeat to FC Barcelona, the side they had beaten in the Champions League two years earlier.

Luis Fernandez lasted two seasons at the Parc des Prince before becoming manager of Athletic Bilbao. Fernandez returned to PSG for a three season spell in charge starting in 2000 but did not manage a league championship during either period. Indeed, PSG would not get their hands on the Ligue Un trophy again until 2013 as a club transformed by Qatari billions. Star of that 1994-95 Champions League campaign and top scorer in that season's competition, George Weah left almost as soon as it was over and joined PSG's conquerors AC Milan. In Milan, he made 114 appearances for the Rossoneri some 18 more than he had managed in a PSG shirt. In 1996 he would win the Balon D'or, awarded each year to the player considered best in the world, whilst later he would become president of his home country Liberia. David Ginola also left around the same time and would soon be a Premier League runner up with Kevin Keegan's entertainers at Newcastle United before later joining Tottenham Hotspur and also becoming the face of L'Oreal shampoo in the UK. Most of the rest of PSG's squad would last a few more season's at the club before sides decline set in for the years that preceded a Qatari takeover that has transformed the club into a supposed European superpower.

Despite all that domestic success in recent times, Paris Saint-Germain have of course struggled in the knockout rounds Champions League. But the club have now reached the semi finals once again and will on Tuesday face RB Leipzig as favourites in a tie that due to COVID-19 is being played as a one-off match as we see the 2019-20 Champions League come to a conclusion in Lisbon. Might they go one better this time and make it to the final? We shall soon find out.

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