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PSG are overwhelming Ligue 1 favourites – but is Champions League victory any more likely?

Franck Fife, AFP | PSG players ahead of French Super Cup clash against Rennes at the Shenzhen Universiade stadium in Shenzhen on August 3, 2019.

PSG go into their first Ligue 1 match of the 2019-2020 season on Sunday as overwhelming favourites to take the domestic title. But after years of Champions League disappointments, victory in Europe’s top competition still looks like a longshot.

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As they head into the new French league season with at home against middle-ranking Nîmes on August 11, the Parisians are the overwhelming favourites to take the crown.

But the Champions League is the theatre of PSG’s most passionate hopes for glory, and over recent years the tournament’s knockout rounds have provided stages for the tragic denouement of those hopes.

Debacle against Barcelona

PSG’s Champions League second round matches against Barcelona in 2017-18 seemed to sum up the nature of the club since sugar daddies Qatar Sports Investments bought them in 2011.

In the first leg at the Parc des Princes, the Parisians showcased all the prowess that money can buy, with a brace from Angel di Maria and another goal from his fellow winger Julian Draxler, before attacking powerhouse Edinson Cavani made it 4-0.

However, in the second leg – or La Remontada (“The Comeback”), as Barcelona fans christened it – the French side collapsed in the face of a Catalan masterclass in attacking football; a 6-1 beating that seemed to expose the Parisians as amateurish nouveaux riches.

The overriding impression was that, for all the talent bought by that abundant Qatari money, PSG lacked the grit, nerve and team spirit to vanquish a club like Barcelona – one of the greatest sides in the modern game; turbocharged by the genius of Lionel Messi and a rich footballing culture in which their fans see them as “Mès que un club” (“more than a club”).

Infamous defeat against Man U

In response to this debacle, PSG’s owners allowed the money taps to flow like never before, paying an exorbitant €222 million for Barcelona striker Neymar in the summer of 2017 – making the Brazilian the most expensive player ever – as well as bringing Kylian Mbappé, already established as France’s hottest young talent, to the Parc des Princes from Monaco.

The next season, the Parisians sauntered to Ligue 1 victory – as they have every year since the Qataris took over, except for 2016-17 (when Monaco won). They sailed through the Champions League group stage with similar ease. But – once more – the French team were no match for one of the giants in the contemporary game, as Real Madrid swatted them aside in the last 16, defeating them 3-1 at the Bernabeu, then 2-1 at the Parc des Princes.

The same phenomenon repeated itself in 2018-19. PSG reigned unassailably over Ligue 1 –finishing 16 points ahead of their nearest competitors, Lille, to win their sixth domestic title in seven years.

And in Europe, after defeating Manchester United 2-0 at Old Trafford in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals on home territory, the Parisians looked anxious and flaccid in the face of the Red Devils’ constant buccaneering attacks. Although they were a far cry from the team of Sir Alex Ferguson’s days, United’s striker Romelu Lukaku hit home in the 2nd minute, and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s team didn’t look back until a stoppage time penalty from Marcus Rashford put them 3-1 up and sent PSG crashing out of the competition.

Tinkering in the transfer market

As UEFA Financial Fair Play rules have constrained the club's ability to splash out the cash, PSG’s fans could be forgiven for doubting that this summer’s signings will propel them to the apex of European football.

Spaniard Ander Herrera is a competent midfielder and an indubitable bargain on a free transfer, but appeared to have limited effect in ameliorating Manchester United’s often disappointing results during his time there from 2014 to 2019, and – at the age of 29 – there seems to be little room for improvement.

Likewise, Herrera’s compatriot Pablo Sarabia proved himself a solid attacking midfielder during his past three years at Sevilla and looks like decent value for money in today’s transfer market, at €20 million. However, if Neymar and Mbappé have thus far failed to transform PSG into a team that can get into the Champions League semi-finals, it looks doubtful that a player at Sarabia’s level will do so – while he has precious little Champions League experience and, again, hardly represents an investment in youth, at 27.

Some hopeful signs

Nevertheless, their other midfield signing, the Senegalese anchorman Idrissa Gueye, looks like a formidable addition to the side. He made a significant impression on the English game in his first season at Everton, when he became the first of all players in Europe’s top five leagues to win 100 tackles in 2016-17 – displaying the commensurate mastery of the nitty-gritty of the defensive midfield role that made him an integral part of Senegal’s run to the final of this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations.

What’s more, manager Thomas Tuchel showed some significant improvement on his predecessor Unai Emery last season, with his training techniques considerably sharpening PSG’s passing style – especially in attacking manouevres down the flanks – and further developing Italian Marco Verratti’s often priceless role in generating creative counter-attacking moves from deep in the midfield. So it’s good news for PSG that the German has signed a new deal to extend his tenure until the summer of 2021.

PSG fans can also take comfort in the fact that their closest Ligue 1 rivals have hardly made giant leaps forward in this summer transfer market. Arguably the two most impressive non-PSG players in the French game have been sold to foreign clubs. Winger Nicolas Pépé – who played a crucial role in the dynamic attacking force that propelled Lille to a surprising second place finish in 2018-19 – broke the Gunners’ transfer fee record with an €80 million move to Arsenal. Meanwhile the sometimes explosively talented attacking midfielder Nabil Fékir has transferred from Lyon to Real Betis in La Liga.

With the Parisians’ Ligue 1 victory looking more of a dead cert than ever in 2019-2020, giving them the time and confidence to concentrate on Europe as much as possible, PSG’s more optimistic fans could hardly be blamed for hoping that – despite their underwhelming moves in the transfer market – this time they could finally pull off Champions League success.

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