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PSG

PSG earn slender win to reach knockout stages

Paris Saint-Germain eased into the knockout stage of the Champions League for the third season running on Wednesday with an unspectacular 1-0 win against Cypriot side APOEL at the Parc des Princes.

PSG earn slender win to reach knockout stages
PSG's Brazilian defender David Luiz (R) reacts during the Champions League group match with Apoel Nicosia on November 5. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP

Having needed 87 minutes to get the breakthrough against the same opponents when the French champions triumphed 1-0 in Nicosia a fortnight ago, Edinson Cavani required a mere 57 seconds this time, 'keeper Urko Pardo allowing his shot to cross the line for PSG's fastest ever Champions League goal.

The home side should have won by a greater margin but coach Laurent Blanc will be pleased that they got the job done, as they extended their unbeaten record this season and made it five victories in a row in all competitions.

The result, coupled with Barcelona's 2-0 win away to Ajax in Amsterdam, means PSG and the Catalans are both already through to the last 16 with two games to spare in Group F and first place will probably be decided when they meet at the Camp Nou next month.

"I think we deserved to win by a wider margin, but we did what we had to do because we needed the three points to progress," said Blanc, whose side are a point ahead of Barcelona.

"Now let's try to go on and finish first in the group because it gives you an advantage, a small one but an advantage all the same."

APOEL, meanwhile, are left to fight it out with Ajax to take third place and a berth in the Europa League knockout stage.

"This was our worst match this season in the Champions League. We can't afford to be sad because we didn't deserve any more," admitted their coach Giorgos Donis.

Dream start

Paris, quarter-finalists in each of the last two campaigns, have yet to really impress this season but they were a level above a hard-working APOEL side throughout this encounter after getting off to a dream start.

Many latecomers were still taking their seats inside the Parc des Princes when the Ligue 1 club opened the scoring before a minute had been played, Cavani controlling a low ball into the box from right-back Gregory van der Wiel, turning and seeing his shot helped on its way over the line by Pardo for his eighth goal of the season.

The Cypriot champions were forced to rethink their game plan after that and a brief spell of pressure almost produced an equaliser in the 11th minute.

Home goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu reacted well to keep out a header from Brazilian midfielder Vinicius following Mario Sergio's corner, with captain Nuno Morais blazing the follow-up over from inside the six-yard box.

However, as they chased the game, the visitors were vulnerable to being hit on the counter-attack and they were fortunate not to concede again with 17 minutes played as Cavani headed against the post after superb build-up play down the right flank involving Javier Pastore and Lucas.

Lucas, the Brazilian winger, can be an immensely frustrating player at times but is a joy to watch when in full flow and he was unlucky to see one shot whistle just past the post before forcing a save out of Pardo at the end of a driving run.

Pardo also denied Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi before the interval to keep APOEL in the game against a PSG side once again missing talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has not played for seven weeks because of a persistent heel problem.

The pattern remained the same after the restart as Pardo made one notable stop from Pastore and Cavani shot wide from another van der Wiel centre, but PSG were happy just to see the game out.

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FOOTBALL

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

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