PSG edge through behind Dortmund as Zaïre-Emery hints at exciting future

Warren Zaïre-Emery scored a fine equalizer for PSG at Borussia Dortmund to cap a display that confirmed the 17-year-old’s rare talent. Photograph: DeFodi Images/Getty Images

And a very merry Christmas to you too, Luis Enrique. It was looking pretty hairy there for a while, as his Paris Saint-Germain side teetered on the brink of a group-stage humbling in the only competition that has ever really seemed to matter to them. Borussia Dortmund were ahead and so were Newcastle, and for all their vigour and enterprise the champions of France were doing their level best to push their coach towards the one door of the Paris Advent calendar you really do not want to open.

But just as the cracker jokes were beginning to write themselves, Paris were saved from a ghost of their past by a ghost of their present, and a ghost of their future. Kylian Mbappé created the equalising goal for the electrifying 17-year-old midfielder Warren Zaïre-Emery and, even if Milan’s late goal on Tyneside gave the closing minutes an unbearable jeopardy, Luis Enrique’s team progressed by virtue of their head‑to‑head record.

Calamity averted. Relieved sighs all around. And for a young, skittish, transitional and sporadically thrilling side, rare signs of hope at the end of a pleasingly open and often utterly chaotic group phase.

“We are a new team: 11 new players, new staff, a new campus,” said Luis Enrique, who made no apologies for ordering his players to keep the ball in the closing stages once it became clear a draw would suffice. “I have been training teams for 12 years at the top level, and all my teams have improved with time. I think in February we are going to be somewhere.”

The irony is that many of the classic criticisms of Paris no longer really apply in the post-Messi, post-Neymar era. Since joining in the summer Luis Enrique has generated perhaps the most articulate vision of what this club should be. Not a decadent star vehicle, not a celebrity television show, but a modern balling unit, full of youth and pace and movement and fun. No longer do they defend with only eight men. In Lee Kang-in, Vitinha and Zaïre-Emery they have one of the most exciting midfields in Europe: verve, mobility, cutting edge and an average age of less than 21.

And for all their latent flaws, the individual errors, the occasional lack of cohesion, their apparent paralysis at defensive set pieces, Luis Enrique’s team would genuinely have been unlucky to go out here: a victim as much of their profligacy in front of goal and a diabolically tough draw as any kind of fundamental structural deficiency. Of course no team this well resourced should ever be satisfied with mere qualification. But there are signs of life here, signs of progress, signs that their parasitic, crud-encrusted Hollywood age is giving way to something more organic and exciting.

Nobody expresses this spirit of the new better than Zaïre-Emery. A native of Romainville in the Paris suburbs, just a few bus stops from Bondy where his teammates Mbappé and Randal Kolo Muani grew up, Zaïre-Emery is one of those rare players who seems to arrive in the professional game fully formed, fully developed, with all the software downloaded. He defends as well as he attacks, and beyond his goal he ran this game in the second half: cutting off the service to Salih Ozcan in the Dortmund midfield, passing short and long off either foot, darting into the channels with all the coiled impatience of youth.

Karim Adeyemi pounces to put Dortmund ahead. Photograph: Martin Meissner/AP

Dortmund, meanwhile, were wasteful. Dortmund are always wasteful. Even when they are winning 5-0, somehow Dortmund manage to look wasteful. This is in fact a tribute to their dynamism and imagination, their determination to keep pressing and chasing down lost causes and creating half-chances out of nothing. And while their Bundesliga form has been patchy, something about this competition seems to bring out the animal in them. Already qualified and playing largely for their own amusement, they tore into Paris, scoring the opening goal through Karim Adeyemi and passing up several other promising openings.

That they were ahead in the first place was largely down to Niklas Süle, who produced a miraculous clearance off the line in the first half that induced a genuine thespian double-take from Mbappé, who had rounded the goalkeeper and was already preparing to celebrate.

Bradley Barcola and Kolo Muani also went close in that first half, while Mats Hummels missed a simple header on the cusp of the break. By this point Newcastle were ahead, and when Adeyemi passed the ball into the net after an error by Achraf Hakimi, Paris’s task had taken on a kind of feverish urgency.

A good job, then, that Paris have some of the most feverishly urgent footballers on the planet. It was Mbappé, a restless and menacing presence all night, who created the chance, driving down the left wing past a quivering Marius Wolf and squaring the ball for Barcola, whose clever flick was demolished by Zaïre‑Emery from 18 yards.

There were other chances – a goal by Mbappé disallowed for offside, a glorious opportunity for Marco Reus late on that would have sent Paris into the Europa League. But when the smoke cleared Luis Enrique and his team had done just about enough: tidings of comfort, if not quite joy.