PSG, Ligue 1 and their European conundrum

The Parisiens continue to dominate their league and may qualify for the Round of 16 in the Champions League, but will we ever fall in love with the idea of them being crowned European champions?

Another convincing win. Another Neymar-led performance. Another day where Patrick Vieira, like most before him, may start to wonder if Ligue 1 is either a stroll in the park or Paris Saint-Germain are just an extremely good team.

After their 3-0 victory against OGC Nice at the Allianz Riviera, Thomas Tuchel’s men now sit eight points clear of second-placed Lille, unblemished after eight matches, with a goal difference of +21.

PSG always seem to coast through their league. They can only play what is put in front of them, but even they must be starting to think that it has become a little embarrassing: show up, play, dominate, outscore, repeat. It all seems too easy, especially when their closest rivals in the past few seasons, AS Monaco, change the composition of their team so often, and are now closer to relegation than having any credible title challenge.

The “PSG Project” has been a domestic success so far. The first stage was to ensure the dominance of their domestic league, which can have a bright, luminous green tick next to it on the to-do list after winning five titles in the last six years, the anomaly coming in that rip-roaring of a season when Monaco dared to dream and toppled the Parisien monopoly. The next stage, naturally, would be to build a team that can challenge on the continental front, tussling with the bigwigs, nudging ever closer to having the famous shot of the team name being engraved into the trophy with the big ears.

Alas, PSG continue to falter when you start to believe that they may have turned the corner. Their underwhelming performances in the Champions League against the top tier sides have been well documented, the loss to Liverpool at Anfield the latest entry to the catalogue. Inept, disastrous, naive – these are some of the words that have been used to describe a team that, by now, should be eating on the same plate as the kings of Europe. Their failings have been attributed to the lack of high-level competition in their league as complacency sets in, the idea that they are a threat to the current European hierarchy being exactly that: just an idea.

The good news, Tuchel would like to tell himself, is that this particular hurdle in their first game came early on. In some way, the hope is that the naivety, the lack of a coherent dynamic, fluid transition from defense to attack and vice versa, will evaporate as they continue to find ways to make everything work in their favour.  There were times when Thiago Silva would look perplexed as to why Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson were being given so much space to do what they pleased.

Such space was not afforded to Manchester City in their game with Lyon, once a dominant figure in France, and PSG could take a leaf out of their book when it comes to the application and discipline needed to challenge proper opposition, especially away from home. It is that lack of work ethic and attention to defensive detail that makes it hard to love this team.

The appointment of Tuchel was an interesting one. Never has he had to manage the calibre of egos that are found in this group of players, and with his all-energy, all-demanding managerial approach, how can he entice his more flamboyant players to do the dirty, gritty work? Could you imagine Tuchel instructing Neymar to track his runner and contribute to the defensive side of the team’s structure? “Where is this written in my contract?”, he would ask himself as Tuchel waves his arms in the air, emphasising a point that may have gone over one of Neymar’s signature haircuts.

PSG can be a very exciting team to watch when they are in the mood. When it all comes together, when all the parts are working in a symphony reminiscent of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, or Tchaikovsky’s Pas de Deux, it looks brilliantNeymar’s lazy runs and twinkling Nike feet from the left, Thomas Meunier’s overlapping adventures from right back, Kylian Mbappe’s drop of the shoulder, Cavani’s tireless work rate from the front. It can all be very overwhelming sometimes. Bayern Munich felt it last season, but the problem is that they struggle to replicate that rugged, sometimes ugly away performance often needed to topple more elite opponents.

The Champions League has long been dominated by a select few of Europe’s top clubs. To break the chain of command would be a welcome move away from the standard teams that grace the latter stages year in, year out. Think back to FC Porto in 2004, if you can. Or Inter Milan in 2010. Those were the rare occasions where a Bayern Munich, or Real Madrid, or Barcelona were not the talk of the town but, for once, we could celebrate an unfamiliar name on the trophy.

With PSG, it all seems a bit self-centred. Imagine the scenes if PSG were to win the Champions League, the trophy hoisted above Silva’s smiling face, Tuchel on the side quietly clapping while Nasser Al-Khelaifi beams with a sense of relief, Presnel Kimpembe posting update upon update on his Instagram story with the trophy being haphazardly held in one hand, the famous front three posing for the cameras in a “we may not really get along, but we made it work” sort of way, and the Parisien ultras deep in song and intoxicated beyond belief. They may revel in such successes, but the rest of the football fraternity may feel discontent, and to them, justifiably so: PSG come across as an expensively assembled group of individuals that are more concerned about their marketing endeavours than becoming actual Champions League contenders. It is hard to let your emotional guard down: “How can I trust that you will love me the same way?”

As we enter another Champions League week, PSG host Red Star Belgrade in a match that will most likely follow the same script as many of their encounters in Ligue 1. These will not be the tests that they will be judged on, but it will be important to set a tone for the ones that will matter. Under the microscope, under the scrutiny of the cynic that believes the project is more self-indulgent than anything else, PSG need to deliver a continental showing that will cast away the doubts that all the investing and big spending was not just for brand recognition.

Neymar: £198 million wasted?

“For the price of a takeaway curry for every person in Chile, PSG netted themselves a spicy dish in the form of a tempestuous, flamboyant and overwhelmingly costly Brazilian forward, Neymar.”

By Grey Whitebloom

For the price of a takeaway curry for every person in Chile, PSG netted themselves a spicy dish in the form of a tempestuous, flamboyant and overwhelmingly costly Brazilian forward, Neymar. Following the 26-year-old’s first season in the French capital I am questioning whether the Qatar Sports Investments group could have spent their money a bit more wisely.

In his first season in French football, the tricky winger netted a very impressive 19 goals in a mere 20 games having suffered a serious foot injury in February. However, this does not tell the full story, only 1 of those goals won the game for PSG, and that was the opener, at home to a Troyes who went on to suffer relegation.

“Each point Neymar earned PSG in the 2017/18 league campaign was worth £66 million.”

Furthermore, 12 of the 19 goals (63%) he scored didn’t put his team in front, level the score or lead to a win/draw, thus were completely meaningless. He has scored the second most meaningless goals in Ligue 1 (only Cavani’s 14 beats him), and the joint seventh most out of all the players in Europe’s top 5 leagues.

In a side that judges themselves by their performance in the Champions League, the fact that they were hauled out of the competition in the round of 16 in February fittingly marked the end of their season as well as Neymar’s.

“The Brazilian “Pin-up Boy””

In spite of Neymar’s lack of impact on PSG’s successful Ligue 1 victory and tilt at a European triumph, many people believe that the success of the Brazilian national team lies squarely at the young number 10’s door.

If we cast our minds back to the 2013 Confederations Cup, Brazil play the opening game against Japan and you-know-who scores an absolute peach to cement his stardom on the world stage, as this is at a time where Neymar is yet to leave his boyhood club Santos and join Barcelona.

The commentary of the first goal that Neymar scores completely sums up the expectation that the forward faced 5 years ago; “the young man with a nation’s weight on his shoulders.”

One year later and the pressure intensified as the real deal arrived in South America; the World Cup. With Brazil down 1-0, having conceded a Marcelo own goal, who is forced to step up and drag this shell of a side through against an unfancied, but undoubtedly talented Croatia side; Neymar, of course.

“The Seleção’s utter dependence on the (at the time) 21-year-old can be seen by one of the most stunning football results in history, Germany’s 7-1 demolition of the national team in the absence of Neymar.”

Admittedly, this score line was also influenced by the missing captain, Thiago Silva, but the whole ordeal with bringing out Neymar’s jersey during the national anthem would have been befitting if the player had tragically passed away, not been injured.

Now if we fast forward to the upcoming tournament in Russia, yet again Brazil are among the favourites to lift the famous trophy, and yet again, Neymar appears pivotal to their hopes. People often talk of “French arrogance”, but the Seleção’s coach Tite was displaying some of his own when he announced his starting XI in mid-February.

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Despite Neymar’s inclusion in this early squad, one can see how confident the 5-time champions are about their chances at the upcoming tournament. This assurance is not unfounded either based on the players available for the reigning Olympic champions alongside Neymar.

Brazil’s Plan B

Even though Tite clearly has one of the strongest starting elevens for Russia ’18, some of the players he can fall back on should adversities arise are not half bad.

  • Fernandinho – Premier League Champion with Manchester City
  • Douglas Costa – Italian Domestic Double Winner with Juventus
  • Thiago Silva – French Domestic Treble Winner with PSG
  • Ederson – Premier League Champion with Manchester City
A Neymar-less Brazil

With the wide-man having suffered an injury at the start of the year, his national team has had to compete without the world’s most expensive player in two recent friendlies. What followed was an expected comfortable 3-0 victory against the hosts Russia. However, the yellow and green-clad players dispatched a strong Germany side 1-0 in Berlin with the Europeans not registering a shot on target until the 92nd minute. Brazil lined up almost exactly as Tite prophesied at the turn of the year, with the enigmatic Willian taking the injured Neymar’s place.

From this performance, and the strength in depth that this side has, one can see how far Brazil have come since the tournament on their home turf in terms of their dependence (or lack their of) upon Neymar.

However, Brazil’s most recent fixture was against perennial dark-horses Croatia and a Neymar-less Brazil were outplayed, failling to register a shot on target in the first half, despite having the majority of possession. Yet, when the 26-year-old graced the Anfield crowd with his presence, Brazil’s true quality won out and they eased to a 2-0 win with you-know-who on the score-sheet.

In conclusion, Neymar will always be a large part of any team he is at, be it club or country, and despite the lack of importance his goals were shown to carry in Ligue 1, he provides more for the Parisians. His transfer was a worldwide statement that PSG were to be taken seriously on the international stage. Concerning Brazil, the performance against Russia and Germany without Neymar cannot be discounted, by his inclusion against the Croats reinforces the idea that he will be out to claim that sixth star for the World Cup’s most successful side this summer.

Rudi García’s Olympique de Marseille on the Rise Following Recent Struggles

With a return to Champions League football next season nearing ever closer, the disappointment of the last few years could soon be a distant memory for Marseille’s faithful.

By Robbie Chalmers

The French coach has quietly improved the French side with the backing of US businessman Frank McCourt. With a return to Champions League football next season nearing ever closer, the recent disappointment of the last few years could soon be a distant memory.

The second highest number of title wins, most second placed finishes in the country and the first French side to win the European cup. Marseille have a storied history unmatched by most in France’s top flight with success spanning from pre-World War II to Didier Deschamps title win in 2010. Their first title win in 1937 came before rivals PSG were even established and they had the most French Cup wins before the Parisians received a Qatari fuelled cash injection.

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Trophée des champions 2011. Image: Wikimedia

The capital club grab all the headlines now. As France’s standout side they can build a team to compete for the UEFA Champions League and attract world class stars like Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. Since their takeover in 2011 they have amassed four league titles, five league cups and three French cups. In the same period Marseilles’ fortunes could not have been more different. Of course the club don’t have the riches to compete with their rivals and their recent league performances emphasise that.

Since their title win eight years ago they have finished 2nd, 10th, 2nd, 6th, 4th, 13th and 5th. Even in that period Monaco have been promoted, won the league and reached the UEFA Champions League semi-finals. And all this was preceded by Lyon’s seven consecutive title wins from 2002 to 2008. The Marseilles have been outshone and have drifted away from the French elite.

In 2016, after the club’s worst league finish in fifteen years, Marseille again sold a number of key personnel due to financial demands and to clear the wage bill ahead of an impending takeover. Goalkeeper Steve Mandanda was club-captain and ended eight years at the club by moving to Crystal Palace, lead centre-back Nicolas N’Koulou moved to rivals Lyon, while striker Michy Batshuayi was sold to Chelsea for a club record fee. Few quality signings were made to replace them and another season of struggles lay ahead. With mass protests in the stands in an already rapturous Marseille ultras following, things looked to get worse. Change was needed, and fast.

Enter Rudi García and Frank McCourt.

Marseille began last season without a permanent manger due to takeover talks that had lasted all summer. In August 2016, it was announced that American businessman Frank McCourt had agreed to buy the club from Margarita Louis-Dreyfus. The purchase deal was completed for a reported price tag of €45 million two months later. Within the next few days, McCourt appointed a new club president in Jacques-Henri Eyraud, employed former Barcelona and Spain goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta as director of sport and, perhaps most pertinently, hired Rudi García as the manager.

Garcia is seen as a fiercely stubborn individual who rules his sides with an iron fist and holds a no nonsense attitude. This authoritative image is only trumped by his drive to play attacking, high energy football – which is not very common in France. His track record in the past makes for impressive reading. He was at the helm of the league and cup winning Lille side in 2011 that boasted Gervinho and a certain Eden Hazard. Winning with a stirring brand of football brought him many accolades including the Ligue 1 coach of the year award. Links to both Arsenal and Liverpool followed.

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Eden Hazard. Image: Wikimedia

Champions League qualification was achieved at Lille the next season, despite many players being sold, and in 2013 Roma brought the Frenchman in an attempt to construct a title challenge of their own.

The Giallorossi preceded to win their first ten games in Garcia’s first season, which was a club record. That season Roma finished second to Juventus but, in the end, reached a club record points tally of 85 points. A similar theme followed his two other seasons at the club with strong starts leading to Champions league qualification. Before Garcia arrived the Roman side had not qualified for Europe’s premier club competition since 2010 and they finished 6th prior to his appointment. His track record of improving sides and making them competitive is there for all to see.

McCourt is hoping Garcia can lead Marseille on a similar path; to regular Champions League football. Monaco’s recent title win gives hope to the club that, with enough investment, they too can upset the PSG apple cart. McCourt’s promise to spend €200m in his first two years have helped bring quality with Florien Thauvin and Dimitri Payet, experience with Luis Gustavo and Steve Manadanda (again), as well as promise in Lucas Ocampos, Clinton N’Jie and Morgan Sanson.

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Rudi Garcia. Image: Rosi Barreto, Flickr

Payet’s €30m return from West Ham was seen as a big coup and shows that they have the means to attract talented players from a more established league. With half the budget remaining, Garcia has the freedom to build a team going forward and there are already signs of improvement. Currently occupying third placed with just eight games remaining a return to Champions League football is close.

With a revamped stadium, an exciting manager, strong financial backing and a wealth of player potential, Marseille are close to returning to the summit of French football. Where PSG lie in wait to greet them there.

Robbie runs the Football Diet blog, check it out here.

Bielsista could force Lille into administration

Marcelo Bielsa arrived in Lille to much fanfare, only to leave amidst confusion, disagreements and as of now, law suits. Now he seems bent on revenge against his former club.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

When Marcelo Bielsa joined Lille OSC back in February 2017, he was hailed as the man to kick-start the Lille revolution – the man who would herald new beginnings under the ownership of Gerard Lopez. A year on, the French club is facing down the barrel of a gun, aimed at them by the very man who came to France tasked with taking them back to the top; Marcelo Bielsa.

Having been suspended and then sacked prior to Christmas, following an unauthorised trip to visit a dying friend in Chile, the Argentine is now suing the club for £16million. L’Equipe report he is demanding £12m for the remainder of his contract, which was due to expire in June 2019 — and, another £4m for damages. If Bielsa is successful in his claim, Lille face the possibility of administration. This would then be closely followed by demotion and a bleak future would beckon.

Still, such commotion had surrounded his arrival. Many hoped his Lille spell would revive the Bielsista myth. El Loco, as named for his erratic behaviour, had been charged with making Stade Pierre-Mauroy the new place to be for young, promising talent. To help achieve this, they also brought in former Barcelona vice president, Marc Ingla and Monaco technical director Luis Campos.

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Marcelo Bielsa during his brief spell at Lille. Image: @LOSC_EN

Bielsa is arguably the biggest influencer in modern day coaching. Pep Guardiola names him as the ‘best coach in the world’ whilst Mauricio Pochettino calls him his ‘football father’. He is renowned for previous spells as Argentina (1998-2004), Chile (2007-11) and Athletic Bilbao (2011-13) manager. Of late, nevertheless, whether it be Marseille, Lazio or now Lille, chaos quickly followed his trail.

Yet the sacking at Lille was his first for a while. Having resigned under clouds of confusion at the three previously mentioned clubs, this sacking burned him – and, could explain the effort he is going to in suing the club.

And despite the trip to visit his dying friend in Chile, there’s no hiding that Bielsa was already struggling at Lille. He was sacked on the back of nine games without a win, having produced the mere three goals. The Lille hierarchy had reason to get rid, which makes suing for unfair dismissal even more remarkable.

Double winners back in 2011, Lille now sit in a lowly 18th position. Sacking Bielsa was proof that Gerard Lopez’s project had failed at the first hurdle. Placing such emphasis on Bielsa’s already flailing powers was clearly a mistake. However, with El Loco now on the rampage and bent on revenge, they may come to regret his sacking.

PSG and the French Ligue 1 Renaissance

Paris is a city which oozes elegance. A city with enough fine wine to get the whole world drunk. A city that counts itself amongst the world leaders in fashion and now also finds itself at the forefront of world football.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

When asked about great European cities, Paris might spring to the forefront of your mind. This is a city which oozes elegance with architecture that resembles an outdoor museum. Think of a city with enough fine wine to get the whole world drunk. A city that counts itself amongst the world leaders in fashion and now also finds itself on the front line of world football. Paris Saint-Germain have gone from Ligue 1 underperformers to European football tyrants in the space of a decade. They now bully where once they were bullied, and this has caused the rest of the league to up their game and turned the French domestic scene into quite the spectacle.

PSG have spent like no other side in Ligue 1 history this summer, and the pressure is firmly on Unai Emery to bounce back from an average first season in charge. Monaco are reigning champions, but are much-changed compared to the outfit that romped to success last term and their chances might depend on keeping Radamel Falcao clear of any fitness issues. Olympique Lyonnais go about their business in a quieter sense nowadays and their chances hinge on how they react to losing talisman, Alexandre Lacazette. Olympique Marseille now have a player in Dimitri Payet and owner in Frank McCourt that is edging towards the boisterous level demanded by their renowned fans. OGC Nice were impressive in their third placed finish last term and Lucien Favre’s men will hope to continue along the recent upward curve. It’s hard to forget Marcelo Bielsa’s Lille – despite sitting in the relegation zone seven games in – who will undoubtedly provide excitement at various points during the season, whether on the pitch, touchline or during the post-match press conference. And lastly, former Leicester City miracle-man, Claudio Ranieri, finds himself with the unenviable task of leading Nantes to glory.

PSG’s spending spree and rapid rise would never have been possible were it not for some very deep pockets. Qatar Sports Investments – established in 2005 by son of the Emir and heir to the Qatari throne, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani – bought a 70% stake in the club on 30 June 2011. From that point onwards they’ve been on a fast-track to the pinnacle of European football having been led to four straight Ligue 1 titles firstly by Carlo Ancceloti, and then Laurent Blanc, as manager along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic as talisman. Their rise caused various calls of foul play and the term ‘financial doping’ is regularly associated with the team – and rightly so, although that story remains for another day. However, the noise recently reached peak volume as they paid Barcelona the princely world record sum of €222m for their Brazilian superstar, Neymar Jr.

Controversy has never been far behind Neymar. Known to be highly influenced by his father, Neymar Sr, and agent, Wagner Ribeiro, his previous move from Santos to Barcelona ended up costing double the originally reported fee of €57m. A €40m signing on fee was even included in the deal – a crucial term his father is known to have demanded. You can only imagine the eye-watering figures behind this summer’s record-breaking transfer. It surely surpasses €222m.

The world record price is only half the story. The way PSG and Neymar’s entourage went about the transfer was like no other. As if pinching Neymar from Catalonia with calls of financial doping left in their trail wasn’t enough, they decided to rub Barcelona’s noses in it. One of European football’s elite had been ruffled, and PSG and Neymar made sure everyone knew about.

Nevertheless, no matter what your cost and what talent you might possess, the importance of gelling with your new teammates cannot be underplayed. First flutters of potential settling-in issues appeared as PSG faced Lyon. On two different occasions commotion commenced between Neymar and Edinson Cavani over set piece duties. How this plays out over the course of the season will be an interesting sub-plot to the Ligue 1 journey.

Neymar’s new side finished in second place during the 2016/17 Ligue 1, with PSG losing out to a vibrant Monaco side who were deservedly praised for their performances at domestic and European level. Yet, you attract attention by showcasing your best talent to such a wide-casting audience.

Leonardo Jardim’s side have since gone on to lose key players throughout their first XI and the youthful outfit which attracted such adulation has since been ripped apart. Benjamin Mendy (£50m) and Bernardo Silva (£45m) left for Manchester City, whilst Tiemoué Bakayoko (£36m) filled the void left by Nemanja Matić at Chelsea. Worse was yet on the horizon with last season’s breakthrough star, Kylian Mbappé, highly courted throughout the summer by rivals PSG, Real Madrid and Manchester City. And to compound matters, Monaco finally succumbed to PSG’s wild wooing of their prodigious talent on the eve of the transfer window’s closure. The agreement is for an initial loan period with an option to buy next summer, with PSG seemingly weary of overstepping UEFA’s financial fair play line – although, it’s plainly apparent the mark was crossed long before this transfer.

Paris-born Mbappé’s move back home was the icing on the cake for what was a highly inflated market following the world record Neymar move. Ever since Paul Pogba moved from Juventus to Manchester United for £90m in the summer window of 2016, the market has gone off on a tandem and there’s seemingly no stopping it. Where once people called Pogba’s transfer fee outrageous, he currently seems reasonably cheap when compared with the fees conjured up for Danny Drinkwater (£35m from Leicester City to Chelsea), Kyle Walker (£50m from Tottenham to Manchester City) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (£40m from Arsenal to Liverpool).

We must bear in mind, however, that Monaco – like so many others – are also the subject of foreign ownership with Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev at the helm – although he did take a £390m hit during a divorce battle in 2015. His team made shrewd acquisitions during the summer to fill the voids left by their high profile departures. They moved quickly to snap up playmaker Youri Tielemans (£22.5m) from Anderlecht, Dutch defender Terence Kongolo (£13.5m) from Feyenoord and young forward Adama Diakhaby (£9m) from Stade Rennais.

Seven games into the Ligue 1 season; PSG and Monaco are separated by the point alone. Both occupy first and second place, picking up where they left off last season. Yet, one imagines that this may just be a false dawn. To keep pace with this powerful PSG side over the remainder of the season, Monaco – or any other Ligue 1 competitor that might rise to the occasion – will need inspiration like no other. Whether the wise old head of Radamel Falcao, the teen prodigy of Youri Tielemans and the tactical nous of Leonardo Jardim will be enough to give Monaco this inspiration remains to be seen.

One thing is surely for certain; Ligue 1 is in for a ride like it has never experienced before.

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