The ‘good’ draw that backfired: crippled PSG take on fired-up Man Utd
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PSG looked clear-cut favourites in December when they were paired with a sorry Manchester United side in the Champions League last 16. But injuries to Neymar and Cavani, and their opponent’s sudden resurgence, have left them with a mountain to climb.
When Paris Saint-Germain were paired with the Red Devils less than two months ago, the consensus in the French press was that the Qatari-owned club had, for once, been treated kindly by the draw.
With victory in the French league already a formality, PSG had emerged on top in the toughest of the Champions League groups, ahead of last year’s runners-up Liverpool, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade.
The deadly trio of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappé – dubbed the “MCN” – were on song, with Marco Verratti dictating the tempo in midfield and veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon adding some much-needed gravitas.
Their future opponents, on the other hand, were “a bit of a laughing stock”, as defender Phil Jones put it on Sunday.
United were a sorry bunch under then-manager Jose Mourinho, their wealth of creative talent clearly unhappy with the stifling approach favoured by the Portuguese manager – and the toxic climate he fostered.
Even before reaching the season’s halfway mark, the Mancunians were a whopping 19 points behind Premier League leaders Liverpool and a trip to Old Trafford was scaring no one.
And yet what a difference two months can make.
Just 48 hours after the Champions League draw, Mourinho was fired and replaced with former striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Since then, the Red Devils have been unstoppable – winning 10 out of 11 games.
Epitomising their transformation, French stars Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, who looked so miserable under Mourinho, are back at their best, netting all three goals at Fulham on Saturday as United burst back into the Premier League’s top four.
Meanwhile, PSG have run into what has now become a traditional patch of rotten luck midway through the season.
The Parisians have lost two-thirds of their much-vaunted, €470 million-worth “MCN” and are missing players in almost every position.
Suddenly, their visit to Old Trafford has taken on a daunting dimension.
A curse and a grudge
PSG’s woes owe largely to misfortune, with Neymar again being ruled out by injury at this stage of the tournament, as happened last year in between two ties against Real Madrid.
The club’s poor run of luck turned farcical during Saturday’s Ligue 1 match against Bordeaux, when Cavani, PSG’s top scorer, damaged a tendon in his hip while taking a penalty, soon followed off the pitch by right-back Thomas Meunier, who sustained a mild concussion.
Both players will miss the game at Old Trafford, with Cavani likely to skip the return leg as well.
Their injuries come on top of the sprained ankle suffered by Verratti three weeks ago, though manager Thomas Tuchel is confident the Italian will be fit to play the full 90 minutes.
"Verratti can play and will play," the German coach insisted on Monday.
But injuries aside, PSG have been their own undoing, particularly in midfield, where Tuchel cannot use Adrien Rabiot because of a festering dispute with sporting director Antero Henrique.
Tuchel needs the Frenchman now more than ever. But he has been told Rabiot is not to be selected because of a contract wrangle that has dragged on. As a result, he may have to use Julian Draxler in midfield instead of playing the German up front.
That would mean pairing Mbappé with the little-known forward Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, who has scored only once in 12 league matches since joining from Stoke.
Solskjaer, in contrast, has an embarrassment of riches up front, with a choice of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku. Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard to probe PSG’s defence.
At least two of the above will necessarily start from the bench – how dearly Tuchel would pay for any one of them.
If they are to stop Manchester’s midfield supply line, PSG will need strong holding midfielders against the fearsome trio of Pogba, Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. That could mean moving defender Marquinhos into the centre of midfield, alongside Verratti or the recently-signed Leandro Paredes.
Yet moving Marquinhos forward would deprive PSG of their most consistent centre-back. Tuchel may have no choice, especially considering Paredes has played only three games for the club – two as substitute – since joining from Zenit St. Petersburg last month.
"I'm worried because we are missing key players," said the German coach, who was hired to reach at least the semifinals of the competition, after Unai Emery and Laurent Blanc were fired for their perceived failures in Europe.
"For the big games in the Champions League, it is absolutely necessary to have key players with a lot of experience," he added.