Saturday, January 22, 2022

Lionel Messi arrived and Mauricio Pochettino took over, but did anything really change for PSG this year?

This time 12 months ago, Paris Saint-Germain were preparing to welcome Mauricio Pochettino back to Parc des Princes as head coach having parted ways with Thomas Tuchel. It was a move that resulted in a Champions League title… for Tuchel, who would join Chelsea and lead them to Europe’s biggest trophy.

Just shy of a full calendar year since the Argentine made his return to the French capital and it feels like nothing has really changed for PSG, which is amazing given how much has changed. A summer full of high profile transfers, capped by the historic arrival of Lionel Messi, and it still feels like after missing out on the Ligue 1 title to a plucky Lille OSC side, falling to Manchester City in the Champions League and only winning a scant Coupe de France, this year is a continuation of last.

Sure, 2021 had its moments with Barcelona and Bayern Munich being swept aside in Europe the two most notable achievements but Pochettino has rarely seemed happy in the Parisien hot seat, with summer rumors of a Tottenham Hotspur return followed by strong links with Manchester United.

The ex-PSG captain is still in place at the head of the capital club’s sporting project, but he has been far from convincing and is not expected to lead the team beyond the end of this season — if he even gets that far with Zinedine Zidane linked with taking over the role at some point in 2022.

Pochettino is not the only one on the chopping block with sporting director Leonardo also possibly approaching the end of his second spell with the Ligue 1 leaders after tensions with Tuchel spilled over into successor Pochettino’s tenure and Arsene Wenger touted as a replacement candidate.

It has not all been doom and gloom in Paris with Lionel Messi’s arrival in the same summer as Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi, Nuno Mendes, Georginho Wijnaldum and Sergio Ramos providing a major injection of talent, but it has been a bare minimum return thus far to say the least.

“It is a big pleasure for me to say to my friends that I play with him,” said superstar Kylian Mbappe of Messi to CNN after his Globe Soccer Awards success in Dubai which saw him crowned Best Men’s Player of 2021. “We must enjoy seeing him in Paris. It is an amazing moment in the game’s history.”

The backdrop to PSG’s eventful year has been the slow expiry of their superstar’s contract in the summer of 2022 and his flirtation with Real Madrid over the offseason which included the France international informing PSG and declaring publicly that he wishes to move on.

“I was honest,” added Mbappe. “I gave my feeling and what I have in my heart. I am happy to stay as Paris is my city and I am also French. I want to win everything this season. Paris is where I was born and grew up. To play for PSG is an amazing feeling, to play with family and friends by your side.”

As fate would have it and at the second time of asking after a mistake in the first draw, the Spanish giants have been paired with the French juggernaut in what promises to be the undisputed clash of the Champions League round of 16 come February’s resumption of continental action.

“I will give everything I have to win the Champions League, Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France as well as giving all the pleasure to the fans — they deserve it,” said Mbappe of the Real showdown. “We have to be ready — it is time. It is the most important part of the season,” he added regarding the mammoth doubleheader. “Of course, we want to step up now. It has been two years that we have been reaching the final and semifinal so now we want to win it.”

Doing so represents the final chance for PSG to be crowned Champions League winners before the FIFA World Cup is held in Qatar with the French capital outfit having been under Qatari ownership since 2011 but only having started to come close to success these past few seasons.

Coming into 2022, nothing other than a clean sweep of UCL, Ligue 1 and Coupe de France success will do and the chances of Pochettino’s men pulling that off, based on what we have seen so far this campaign, are slim to none unless Mbappe and his teammates can improve on their lackluster displays so far.

Neymar’s return to fitness will be key after the Brazilian superstar was sidelined through injury towards the end of 2021 but even with him in the team, PSG have looked mediocre at best with a 2-0 home win over City in the group stage back in September the most convincing they have looked.

Given the star-studded nature of the Parisien outfit and their habit of faring better in difficult positions, they are likely to raise their game substantially against a beatable Real who are enjoying a relatively clear run at La Liga this year with the likes of Barca and Atletico Madrid well off the pace.

However, given their incoherent performances and a continued reliance on the perennially fragile Marco Verratti in midfield, success over the opening half of 2022 is far from given — especially with challenges like the Africa Cup of Nations and rescheduled World Cup qualifiers coming up pre-Real.

Pochettino, as it appears likely that he will continue to lead the team, needs his team to assimilate a set style and identity which has so far eluded his team and although it is not impossible, it has looked increasingly unlikely to happen under the 49-year-old’s guidance for a few months now.

Provisionally 13 points clear in Ligue 1 despite 11 dropped, seven more wasted in Champions League Group A as well as a potentially tricky Coupe de France trip to City Football Group-affiliated Vannes OC with a depleted squad in early January, PSG need major and immediate improvement to make the most of what appears increasingly likely to be their final season with Mbappe.

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