Great expectations: PSG kick off Euro campaign

Laurent Blanc (photo) takes his PSG team to Athens on Tuesday where the French side will be hoping to get their Champions League campaign off to a winning start against Olympiakos. Pressure is on PSG to improve on last year's showing when they reached the quarter finals.

Great expectations: PSG kick off Euro campaign
Laurent Blanc takes his PSG team to Athens on Tuesday hoping to get their Champions League campaign off to a winning start against Olympiakos. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

After guiding Paris Saint-Germain to an unbeaten five-match start to their domestic season, coach Laurent Blanc gets a second crack at a Champions League campaign in which significent success is expected.

Carlo Ancelotti guided the capital side on a strong run to the quarter-finals last season where they narrowly lost to Barcelona on away goals and the club's wealthy Qatari owners will be expecting at least the same this campaign if not better.

After three wins and two draws in five league outings, PSG travel to Athens for the opening round of group matches on Tuesday where they face a stiff challenge against Greek champions Olympiakos.

A good result in the capital will put them in good stead amongst a pool that also includes Europa League finalists Benfica and Belgian champions Anderlecht.

Blanc knows what it takes to succeed in football's biggest club competition having taken Bordeaux to the 2010 quarter-finals where they were knocked out by domestic rivals Lyon.

His team came out on top at Bordeaux 2-0 in their last league outing and club owner Nasser Al-Khelaifi is optimistic about their continental quest.

"This was our best match since the start of the season and I hope it will continue," he said following the Friday win at the Chaban Delmas stadium.

"On Tuesday we start the Champions League which is a very important competition for Paris. It is going to be tough, but we have a team capable of winning all our upcoming matches."

While PSG come into the match as slight favourites, the Greeks cannot be underestimated and have a fine record at their Karaiskakis stadium, a venue that played a role in the first ever Olympic Games in 1896.

Their Spanish coach Michel, who scored 97 goals during 14 seasons at Real Madrid, is looking to take the team past their best run of reaching the quarter-finals, which they achieved once, back in 1999.

A perfect start of three wins in three matches with eight goals scored and just one conceded in league action sets them up nicely, although the 50-year-old former midfielder says he is spoilt for choice with many of his players on top form.

"For sure it is a pleasant headache. The truth is we are in very good condition at this time.

"We needed a boost so that we can seriously tackle the match with Paris Saint-Germain and we got this push at the right time," he said after their 4-0 thrashing of Xanthi at the weekend."

PSG will miss the presence of Brazilian centre-back Alex who is ruled out with a thigh strain while Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani who only played 10 minutes against Bordeaux is another doubt.

Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore has a foot problem but should make the trip and Jeremy Menez is trying to shake off a troublesome kidney although Blanc shouldn't be concerned with plenty of resources stocked within his expensively assembled squad.

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OPINION: Mbappé’s title, but PSG need to breathe new life into Qatari project

After being the star of France's 2018 World Cup triumph, Kylian Mbappé has been the standout player for Paris Saint-Germain in a Ligue 1 title-winning campaign that has been slightly marred by the manner in which they limped over the line.

OPINION: Mbappé's title, but PSG need to breathe new life into Qatari project
Photos AFP

PSG finally wrapped up the title on Sunday after second-placed Lille failed to beat Toulouse, having not won any of their previous three games when the opportunity to confirm a sixth French crown in seven seasons was there.

The Qatari-owned club can still make it a domestic double, with the French Cup final to come against Rennes next weekend, yet this will not be remembered as a vintage year.

While Neymar once again went missing due to injury at the crucial point, Edinson Cavani has struggled with fitness too, and coach Thomas Tuchel has regularly lashed out at the lack of depth in his squad.

The 5-1 capitulation at Lille a week ago was the worst league result for PSG since Qatar Sports Investments bought the club in 2011, and the first time they had let in five in a league game since 2000.

A record-breaking 14-match winning run with which they started the season now seems like a long time ago, the latest Champions League failure clouding Tuchel's first campaign in charge.

Mbappé, at least, has been a constant, revelling in his status as a World Cup winner and hardly ever being rested. He only turned 20 in December, but has now won three Ligue 1 titles in a row.

Mbappé has 36 goals in 40 games this season, with 30 in the league. And, frighteningly, his team-mate Daniel Alves told RMC recently that “he doesn't realise how good he is, he can go much further”.

He is also not used to losing, and may have upset some of his teammates with his assessment of last week's defeat at Lille. “We played like beginners,” he said.

Hollow ring

To be fair, they have usually been exceptional domestically. However, the problem is that as long as they keep failing in the Champions League, domestic success for a club backed by a Gulf state will continue to ring hollow.

The title has effectively been in the bag for some time, but their season has been winding down ever since their exit against Manchester United in the last 16.

That, combined with being knocked out in the League Cup quarter-finals, means Tuchel in his first season has actually done worse than Unai Emery, his unloved predecessor.

Paris Saint-Germain coach Thomas Tuchel has actually done worse than his predecessor, Unai Emery
However, according to sports daily L'Equipe, Tuchel has agreed to extend his contract to 2021. Thoughts have already turned to the future, with new signings needed at the Parc des Princes.

The costly Neymar experiment cannot be said to have succeeded until he stays fit for the games that matter, and there will always be speculation about his future.

“We have a contract, we're not even halfway through that contract,” Neymar's father pointed out to RMC Sport.

Time for a clear-out? 

Mbappé is the one man they really cannot afford to lose, but is it time for a clear-out elsewhere?

Some of the excitement of the early part of the decade has gone, replaced with a staleness. The days of Thiago Silva, Edinson Cavani and Marco Verratti are maybe ending.

Youri Djorkaeff, a World Cup winner for France and a PSG star in the 1990s, offers a frank assessment, suggesting real change is needed higher up.

“If you're not great in every compartment, from the bus driver to the girls who clean the shirts, you will go nowhere,” he told Ligue 1 Podcast, 'Le Beau Jeu'.

“Paris Saint-Germain, after many years without success, have to rebuild everything, restart from scratch, because the foundations are not good. You cannot expect to one day win the Champions League without these foundations.”

The Qatar project needs a breath of fresh air, and all eyes will be on president Nasser al-Khelaifi and sporting director Antero Henrique.

UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules remain a problem, though, with PSG said to have a hole of around 100 million euros and the need to present a balanced budget by the end of June. The next few months will be interesting.

By Andy Scott/AFP