The UEFA Champions League from the eyes of Presnel Kimpembe
From his debut in European football to the moments of happiness, from the first shivers down his spine to the biggest lessons he has learned, the defender gave us his view on the UEFA Champions League.
Presnel Kimpembe's involvement in the Champions League began five years ago. Having only just joined the first team squad, young 'Presko' took his seat on the bench for the first time in a European match. Laurent Blanc had given the youngster the call for the visit of Chelsea in February 2015 (despite only having played 15 minutes for the first team in Ligue 1, four months earlier) - and he discovered the prestige of a European encounter with his eyes wide open.
"Honestly, you're a little bit scared. The atmosphere is not the same. Because normally, you are involved in Ligue 1 or a cup match. And then all of a sudden, you are playing in the Champions League. You see that everyone can feel that positive pressure. And in the stadium, you see that everyone is really up for it. It's crazy. When you hear the Champions League music, you say to yourself wow, I used to watch this on TV and now I am here. You're a little bit overawed, but you also know how lucky you are", reminisces the defender for PSGTV.
Kimpembe didn't feature in the squad for the second leg. But the Parisian hasn't forgotten a thing about that unbelievable evening, from Zlatan Ibrahimovic's red card to the two goals that allowed Paris to equalise.
"For the return leg at Stamford Bridge, I wasn't in the squad so I decided to watch the game with all my friends from where I grew up, in a kebab shop where we were from. We sat down, there were around 30 of us. The game wasn't going well, everyone was depressed and then, Thiago ... Boom! Everyone's kebabs go flying! Soft drinks everywhere! Everyone screaming. And that's when you see that only football can make you feel those kind of emotions... You go from down in the dumps, to being on top of the world, it's really incredible..."
But it would take another two years for the spectator to get his chance to make his mark on one of these huge evenings. Thrown in at the deep end against FC Barcelona by Unai Emery in February 2017 to replace the captain Thiago Silva, the Paris-born defender put in a performance of the highest level, in a lively Parc des Princes. A very special debut for Kimpembe.
"Of course, for my first game in the Champions League, there was a lot of pressure, especially as I was that person that read all the comments on Twitter to see what everyone was saying about you. And already the night before the game you're super nervous… But then on matchday, I managed to get into my little bubble and to focus on the match and the team. I had Adrien (Rabiot), Marquinhos, and they both gave me advice, because even though we were the same age, they had that experience that I didn't. Thiago (Silva), who was injured, also spoke to me before the match. He gave me the good advice that a captain would give to a young player like me."
Even though the youngster, watched the defeat in the return leg from the bench, he still took lessons from the experience: "We all came together. And that's what makes it even better, even though you are always disappointed when you lose. But there you go, it remains football. Every time you learn from your errors and you try to grow."
Presnel Kimpembe experienced the emotional rollercoaster that is European football again last year. First with immense joy, in the first leg against Manchester United in February 2019. A match filled with emotion given that it played host to his first goal for his boyhood club. An important goal, which allowed Les Franciliens to take the lead against the Red Devils...
"I remember the corner taken by Angel (Di Maria). Honestly, I didn't even think if I was going to the front post or the back post. I was up against Matic who was trying to grab me and I said to myself, I had to keep moving because he was big and strong and if he got me, I wasn't going anywhere... So I had to keep moving. When Angel took the corner, I ran to the front post and then to the back. It was a great corner, it came to me, side foot finish, cool as a cucumber. Even when the ball went in, I don't think I believed it was happening. I still have my brothers' video, as they were just next to me in the stands. And on the video, the ball went in, but you can see in my eyes that I still didn't believe it. And when the ball comes out, that's when I open my mouth (laughs). I said to myself yes, I have scored! And honestly, I still can't describe this moment because it was really incredible, a crazy moment."
But just as the defender experienced the highs, he also discovered the inherent disappointment that comes with knockout matches in the second leg. With hindsight, the 24 year old has preferred to take lessons from the defeat.
"The penalty was frustrating, but that's way things go... that's life. It's an experience that will serve me well in the future. We learn a lot, especially in moments like that. It's always difficult to accept it and to turn over a new page, but that's football, and as I say, it's what makes football so beautiful. We will learn from our mistakes and we need to get on with it. I always say to myself that you learn in defeat, not in victory. We have suffered in the past, so I hope now that we will be happy in the future."
And like every season, a new taste of the Champions League for Presnel Kimpembe is never far away. After a perfect group stage in the 2019-2020 edition, the date was set for 11 March 2020 for the defender and his teammates to put the theory into action on the pitch. After the disappointment of the first leg in the Round of 16 against Dortmund (1-2), he knew that there was only one thing left to do: win and secure a place in the quarter finals. The decision to hold the match behind closed doors, denying Paris Saint-Germain of their loyal supporters, did nothing to stop the passion of the Frenchman and his greatest supporters.
"We all realised that we needed to put our lives on the line on the pitch, because all of the fans were behind us and despite playing behind closed doors, we could really feel their presence with us", added the Parisian defender.
A red-hot welcome before the encounter, a victory (2-0) in an empty Parc des Princes, and an incredible moment spent together after the match: it was the perfect scenario for the World Champion, who had put in a solid performance.
"It's a moment that will remain etched in our hearts and minds. We want to thank our supporters, it was important for us and especially for them. They were disappointed not to be able to be there, to cheer us on and celebrate with us. They pushed us on throughout the match from outside the stadium. That experience with the supporters after the match was really special. There was a lot of emotion", concluded Presko. With the hope that in the future, many new pages of European history will be added to his own story...