Within 10 minutes of kick-off, Kylian Mbappe gave the spectators what they had come to see. The France captain, Ligue 1’s top goalscorer and the poster boy of the nation’s football showcased his elite talent with an electric start, scoring twice and terrorising the AJ Auxerre defence. His first goal put Gauthier Hein in a spin, feinting one way, then the other, before lifting the ball high into the top corner. His second was created by Lionel Messi, and whipped home from the edge of the penalty box.
He settled the contest in two minutes and 14 seconds.
Auxerre are battling hard against relegation, and this result leaves their fate on a knife-edge. They are a point clear of Nantes, who are in the relegation zone. Yet, while defeat keeps their feet to the fire for another week, there is still no hiding the pull factor when Paris Saint-Germain are in town.
Everyone wants a ticket. In Auxerre, the Stade de l’Abbe Deschamps was sold out and the allure was visible across the stands. There was the odd PSG shirt in the home end, homemade signs held up pleading for a player’s jersey and phone cameras out when stars came close. Not just for Mbappe either. Dotted along the Louault stand was a Portuguese flag, with a cardboard sign asking Danilo Pereira for his top. In the main stand before kick-off, PSG’s club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi was being asked for selfies by supporters.
PSG on their travels in France can attract this kind of attention. They are the Parisian Harlem Globetrotters, accumulating titles with their talented but very expensive squad. It’s not just at Auxerre where the PSG bandwagon has had a pull factor.
In Troyes earlier this month, PSG shirts were again dotted around what is nominally the home end. In Angers, stewards were checking for PSG shirts but that was ultimately to no avail. Cardboard requests for players’ jerseys extended to Marco Verratti and Achraf Hakimi, while the PSG warm-up attracted a crowd of its own, drawn to the front of the stand to get a closer look. During that game, before a corner, Mbappe raised his arms to the home end and was met by a cheer and, in the mixed zone afterwards, Messi and Mbappe posed for photos with young Angers supporters, to their delight.
Angers, like Troyes and Auxerre, were on the brink of relegation, and defeat by PSG sent them closer to the edge.
Auxerre are not French also-rans. They were champions of France in 1996, and are four-times Coupe de France winners. Between 2002 and 2007, they competed in UEFA competitions and in the Champions League as recently as 2010-11. It would exaggerate the point to suggest the fans were not there for the home team; the pre-match display of blue and white across the whole ground set the tone while the noise in the second half roared the side towards an extraordinary comeback. The ultras behind the goal, like at all clubs of similar stature, would have something to say about a shirt request for Mbappe too.
But even so, the now newly promoted team were not immune to those caught up in the Messi-Mbappe swirl, a sight that feels unfamiliar to those used to an English audience. Matches against the biggest teams are always sellouts, no matter the country. But as with Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, PSG, along with Marseille, have a nationwide appeal in France.
Football is the country’s No 1 sport, but engagement with it is also slightly different to England — and that’s not an outsider’s observation. “It’s societal,” said former PSG goalkeeper Bernard Lama. “English society has a more sporting base and football is integrated into the lives of fans. It’s not the same thing in France. It’s a cultural difference.”
Auxerre may have a rich history but their average gate in the top flight tends to sit around the 11,500 mark, which is not dissimilar to Angers and Troyes. Those clubs are not on a scale that is comparable to others in France. There is no chance of a similar reaction when PSG go away to clubs like Marseille, Lens, Lille or even Strasbourg next week. Besides, it is not just on their travels that PSG attract outside attention for their superstars. The Parc des Princes regularly hosts fans from all over the world. For the smaller clubs, though, the arrival of PSG is a much-welcome gate receipt boost and, for those supporters, it is a chance to see some of the game’s best players in their hometown.
Performances, though, can flatter to deceive. PSG bring the glitz and the glamour but, on the pitch, they have not been playing like ‘Globetrotters’ — certainly not regularly in 2023. Exhibition football can be beyond them, and that proved to be the case in Auxerre. The goal PSG conceded in the second half jarred with the quality of their individual players. A clearance by goalkeeper Ionut Radu was flicked on by Nuno da Costa, with four-time Champions League winner Sergio Ramos in no man’s land. The move was finished by Lassine Sinayoko, whose shot squirmed awkwardly under Italy No 1 Gianluigi Donnarumma.
It made for a nervy finish as Auxerre put PSG under pressure for nearly all of the second half. Donnarumma had to make four important saves, while the home team had 14 attempts overall, just one shy of PSG’s 15. Hein was a livewire and Han-Noah Massengo, on loan from Bristol City, helped the hosts sustain momentum. Ultimately, they would fall short.
For PSG, this was a performance reflective of their season as a whole: they started superbly but then faded sharply. They limped over the line and that is what they are doing now in pursuit of that record 11th title. Two more injuries, suffered by Fabian Ruiz and Hugo Ekitike, only added to that image.
But they still secured the win, and it was Mbappe who delivered in Auxerre. While they may not be perfect Globetrotters, the Frenchman produced just enough to leave the star-seekers satisfied.
(Photo: Aurelien Meunier – PSG/PSG via Getty Images)