PSG – the European riddle continues
With top spot secured in Champions League Group A, are Paris Saint-Germain finally ready to go all the way in the Champions League?
Being paired alongside Real Madrid would usually have brought woe for PSG but they have taken 13 points from a possible 15, with last month’s 2-2 draw in the Bernabeu the only time they have faltered ahead of Wednesday’s visit of Galatasaray.
Thomas Tuchel seems to have added some tactical discipline to Les Parisiens’ play but qualifying is not the issue, it is progressing through to the latter stages of the tournament that has troubled the club.
This is the seventh successive occasion they have made the knockout rounds of the Champions League but they are still to make it past the quarter-finals.
Gallingly for the club’s ambitious Qatari owners, the last three seasons have ended in last-16 elimination. It is hardly a secret that Nasser Al-Khelaifi and his Qatar Sports Investments are aiming to fund a project that results in European domination for both personal and political prestige. After eight years in charge, Al-Khelaifi and his cohort must be wondering if their investment, by now measuring into the billions of pounds, dollars or euros, whatever your currency, is ever going to be justified.
With Financial Fair Play also stinging them, attempting to buy success is no longer an option and the board have had to scale back their transfer ambitions in a bid to manage the salaries of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar.
Compare their squad to now and arguably their peak in 2015-16 when they somehow lost to a mediocre Manchester City 1-0 at the Etihad having carelessly drawn the first leg 2-2 at the Parc Des Princes.
Laurent Blanc received the chop shortly after that match and was the architect of his team’s own downfall after employing an ill-fitting 3-4-3 for the second leg, rather than their usual 4-3-3.
That meant both Serge Aurier and Gregory van der Wiel played, while Angel Di Maria played as a central midfielder alongside Thiago Motta and Adrien Rabiot.
2016 really should have been their year, and things have gone downhill since then, the worst offence being the infamous 6-1 defeat to Barcelona in 2017, having destroyed the Blaugrana 4-0 in the first fixture.
So what is the outlook for this season? Well, Tuchel has been more conservative with his transfers since taking over in 2018, with summer arrivals Idrissa Gueye, Pablo Sarabia, Keylor Navas and Abdou Diallo less high-profile than in the past. The loan deal to bring Mauro Icardi in from Inter Milan seemed a gamble, as PSG look to life without Edinson Cavani, who is set to depart in the summer on a free transfer.
On paper, all is going well in 2019-20, sitting top of Ligue 1 by five points with a game in hand and seemingly cruising towards a seventh title in eight years.
There would be no surprise if they again dominate domestically and their position in Group A means Tuchel’s side should get a decent draw in the Champions League.
All should be well, right? Wrong. Still the rumours surrounding Neymar and Mbappe’s futures persist and former PSG striker Christophe Dugarry told RMC this week that the German coach is all but “finished” in the 16th Arrondissement. The World Cup winner also described the front three of Icardi, Neymar and Mbappe as “stallions, boys who play wherever they want”, adding that they “focus on their individual performance.”.
And the reason why Neymar and Mbappe supposedly want to leave? Because they know they are unlikely to win the Champions League in Paris due to the lack of competition at home. It would be no surprise if Juventus go further this season with Inter Milan pushing hard in Serie A but the same pressure is not expected to be placed on Les Rouge et Bleu who are unlikely to find an extra gear when their continental rivals are really hitting form after Christmas.
The truth is, unless Ligue 1 improves, PSG will continue to flounder at the top level. You can buy in as much talent as you like but unless they’re being tested, come the business end of the season they will be undercooked and unable to live with the intensity of those playing in Europe’s top divisions.
A nice comparison can be made with Celtic’s situation in Scotland. The Bhoys are on course for a ninth straight Scottish Premiership crown but that is by no means certain due to the re-emergence of Old Firm rivals.
The result: Celtic have topped their Europa League pool with a game to spare. The Gers are also within touching distance of qualification and it appears no coincidence that these two pushing each other week-in-week-out has resulted in both seeing their progress accelerated.
The one season PSG were troubled at home they were found wanting, with Monaco claiming the 2016-17 title.
Home success can bring kudos but unless their domestic stranglehold loosens, Monsieur Al-Khelaifi is unlikely to have his thirst for European success quenched.