Paris Saint-Germain ousted Atalanta to reach the UCL semi-finals on Wednesday evening, thanks to their Cameroon star
Amidst Paris Saint-Germain’s plethoria of high-profile, big name superstars, there were many contenders for the hero of the night as they took on Atalanta in the Champions League quarter-finals on Wednesday.
Would it be Neymar, the pouting, preening megastar, who so often appears to be playing on a different plain from his teammates in the French capital?
Would it be Kylian Mbappe, returning from injury sustained in the French Cup final, as he stepped off the bench to help turn the tie in PSG’s favour?
Mauro Icardi perhaps? Keylor Navas?
Few, surely, would have predicted that the much maligned Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting would be the man to pop up in the second minute of stoppage time to net a close-range winner and send the French champions through to the final four.
By that point, the momentum was with PSG.
Outplayed during the first half, Atalanta were unfortunate to only be a goal up, and Thomas Tuchel’s side appeared increasingly devoid of ideas or inspiration during the second period as they toiled for an equalised.
The likes of Julian Draxler and Leandro Paredes were introduced to no avail, but a moment of excellence from Neymar set Marquinhos up to equalise in the 90th minute as the Italians failed to clear their lines.
In the immediate aftermath of the goal, Paris sought a winner as Atalanta—stunned by the goal—failed to reset, and Choupo-Moting turned home Mbappe’s cross after some more eye-catching invention from Neymar.
So impressive was the versatile forward, that Neymar even reportedly offered to donate his Man of the Match award to the 31-year-old.
Heading into this fixture, the forward’s most memorable contribution at the capital club appeared destined to be his horror miss against Strasbourg in April 2019, when he got in the way of Christopher Nkunku’s goal-bound effort, and ended up stopping it on the line after being caught in two minds.
It remains a bona fide contender for the worst miss of all time.
Indeed, heading into the final, Choupo-Moting’s main focus appeared to be his post-PSG future; his initial two-year deal ended this summer, and while the Central African penned a new extension to take him up to the end of the UCL campaign, a longer-term deal has not been forthcoming.
He’s been the brunt of some criticism since arriving from Stoke City in a deal that was ridiculed at the time, but in fact made a lot of sense.
Here was an experienced player, a good professional, versatile and multi-talented; good enough to make a difference against Ligue 1’s lesser lights, and content to be a backup option for the biggest games.
For a modern super club like PSG, who sometimes operate in two entirely different spheres, playing Nimes at the weekend and Real Madrid in midweek, it was the kind of acquisition that could represent a valuable asset over the course of a campaign.
It’s the kind of logic that makes their reported interest in Swansea City’s Andre Ayew actually appear a lot more sensible than may first appear.
Choupo-Moting is the kind of player that still has a place at all of the major clubs; hungry, but reluctant to rock the boat, placing himself at the service of the collective and still possessing leadership qualities.
He is still the captain of Cameroon, after all.
“I thought when I was coming on, ‘We can’t lose, we can’t go home like this’. I was confident in myself and the team,” he told BT Sport after the match.
“We had a good feeling in the team. We are enjoying good moments on and off the pitch. We won four trophies but this one is the most important.
“We believe in ourselves,” the forward concluded. “Everyone knows we have top quality individuals but we wanted to show team [work]. I’m very happy we did it today.”
Choupo-Moting’s goal can begin to compensate for what has been a tricky year at PSG, even before the coronavirus pandemic brought the curtain down on French football.
He only netted three goals over the courts of the Ligue 1 campaign—in which he made just five starts—and he enjoyed little over half of the playing time he enjoyed in the top flight in the previous campaign.
His has been a stop-start career, with relegation at Stoke quickly following a long—if unremarkable—tenure at Schalke 04 during which his qualities were somewhat underrated.
As PSG have had their own personal disappointments and frustrations—against Manchester United in 2019, against Barcelona in 2017—so Choupo-Moting has had his fair share of missteps and regrets.
Despite captaining the Indomitable Lions at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, he wasn’t present for their triumphant campaign at the 2017 edition of the tournament after abdicating from international duty for the tournament citing ‘personal reasons’.
Can remember @TheOddSolace suggesting @ChoupoFR would come back from April’s horror miss against Toulouse.
He has improved at @PSG_inside:
– 3 goals in 6 French Ligue Un apps.
– Played all of PSG’s #UCL games so far.
– Second top scorer at the club. pic.twitter.com/RXRy3H7ogV— Ekonde Daniel (@ekondedaniel4) October 6, 2019
Ultimately, he missed the crowning glory of his career, although after his heroics on Wednesday, sending PSG to the final four for the first time since 1995, he remains on course to become the fourth Cameroonian player to win Europe’s grandest prize.
It would be a fitting finale at the highest level for Paris Saint-Germain’s unlikely UCL hero.