They said he wasn’t fit but he certainly looked it in Lisbon. Kylian Mbappe came off the bench for the final half an hour to wrestle this game away from Atalanta at the death.
Mbappe didn’t score either of the goals that saw PSG sneak through when all looked lost in Europe once more but he still made the difference.
Flat and relying solely on their other superstar Neymar during a first half that saw the Italian team take the lead through Mario Pasalic, PSG seemed to be heading out of the competition early yet again.
But Mbappe’s arrival changed the direction of the game and after a clutch of chances came and went PSG scored twice in the final moments to send Atalanta home from Portugal.
Neymar was involved in the equaliser, supplying a square pass in the 90th minute that central defender Marquinhos turned in to the net with the help of a deflection from defender Mattia Caldara. That alone felt cruel enough for an Atalanta team that had played so well.
But then, 149 seconds later, Neymar and Mbappe combined wonderfully down the left to supply former Stoke City Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting with the winner from six yards.
It was a tumultuous finish to a good game and it was impossible not to feel sorry for Atalanta, the team from Bergamo, the north Italian city ravaged by Covid-19 back in March.
Having stormed through the second half of their season in Europe and in Serie A, Atalanta came in to this unique knockout format of the competition having lost only one game in all formats since the middle of January.
Sure enough, they were confident and purposeful early on while PSG, short of games following the abandonment of the French domestic season, were not.
Atalanta could have scored in only the third minute when captain Alejandro Gomez was denied by PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas and that was not their only chance of the half.
PSG, meanwhile, found novel ways to miss. Neymar had a good game but could not finish. Twice he was one on one with Atalanta’s reserve goalkeeper Marco Sportiello in the first half but on both occasions he missed the target by a distance.
Early in the second period, Atalanta missed a good chance to double their lead. Had Albania defender Berat Djimsiti scored when moving on to loose ball from a set piece, it would in all likelihood have been the Italians who were waiting to meet the winners of tonight’s game between RB Leipzig and Atletico Madrid. It was a pivotal moment.
As it was, Mbappe emerged with half an hour to go to bring an impetus and directness to PSG’s attacking play that had hitherto been lacking.
Taking up a position wide on the left, the French World Cup winner immediately began to find an understanding with Neymar. Between them the two players cost PSG more to buy than Atalanta had spent on all their transfer business in the last 18 years.
Looked at that way, it felt only appropriate they should turn the game the French champions’ way. Twice Mbappe found a way through to goal, once to be denied by the goalkeeper and another time by a defender’s tackle.
Neymar was also to come close before defender Thiago Silva headed a late free-kick over the bar.
When that opportunity went, it felt as though Atalanta may creep over the line. Had they done so, it would have added another line to a remarkable story that began last September when they lost their first three Champions League group games by an aggregate score of 11-2.
To say they have improved since then is an understatement and it would have been fascinating to see them in the last four. As it was, that dream was eventually squashed beneath the expensive feet of the giant club from Paris.
It will be intriguing to see what this result, and its manner, does for PSG’s belief from this point on.