Reputation Meets Reality in the Champions League

If the misadventures of the Premier League’s moneyed elite in the Champions League this week served as a reminder of one of this newsletter’s mottos — that there are always more players, no matter how many of them you buy — then the starting teams at the Parc des Princes brought another to mind.

On one side, of course, there was P.S.G., a team that is rapidly becoming a definition of insanity in and of itself. It is now perfectly apparent that building a team around Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé does not work, not at the elite level, not when all three of them essentially refuse to engage in any defensive effort. P.S.G. may yet recover from a first leg deficit to Bayern Munich, but this is not a side that can win the Champions League.

On the other was a Bayern team, its attacking line led by Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. The Cameroonian striker suffers, as many do, from the long shadow of the Premier League.

He has spent the better part of a decade and a half as a professional. He has built a steady, respectable career, one crowned unusually late by trophy-laden spells at P.S.G. and Bayern. To many fans, though, he will always be a curiosity: Hey, look at that, it’s that guy who played for Stoke City, except that now he’s in the Champions League.

That is a shame, because Choupo-Moting’s story is telling in a number of ways. It proves, as he discussed with the Times, the value of patience. The timing of his rise suggests a shift in what elite clubs want from forward players, and as a corollary perhaps highlights a deficiency in the academy system. That tends, after all, to produce what teams want now, rather than what they might need in the future.

Most of all, though, it illustrates that Choupo-Moting did not fail to shine at Stoke because of a lack of talent. Ability is often not what determines whether a move is successful or not. More important is whether the team, the style, the environment is right for a player to thrive. Choupo-Moting is evidence of the old truth that there is no such thing as a bad player, only the wrong context.

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