PSG have failed to deliver too often in the big matches this season. Sunday’s Classique represents an ideal opportunity to start setting that record straight, writes Matthew Spiro.
“The problem is it’s easy to put eight goals past Dijon or to score four or five in the league,”pestered Adrien Rabiot after the 3-1 loss at Real Madrid. “These are the games we have to be decisive in.”
Fair point. But it’s also easy to blame PSG’s shortcomings on another Ligue 1 team. Rabiot’s comments came at the end of a night that had seen Paris dominate the European champions for long periods, only to be punished for some naivety at the back and a lack of ruthlessness in attack. The remark was blunt and clearly a little harsh on a group of fellow professionals. But it was also revealing – as so often these interviews given in the heat of the moment are.
Rabiot felt that PSG had suffered from being in cruise control in too many games. Unai Emery’s incredibly talented squad have unquestionably proved too good for many domestic opponents. Yet the capital club have also had stern tests that should have been treated as dress rehearsals for Madrid. Namely Bayern Munich away in December and Lyon away in January. What happened on those occasions? PSG did not perform. They lost 3-1 in Germany and 2-1 in the Rhône Valley. So perhaps Rabiot and a few others should have seen the events at the Bernabeu coming.
Two great opportunities for PSG to test themselves
On Sunday, PSG face another such occasion. Marseille will arrive in the capital in fine form – they are the only French team still unbeaten in 2018 – and, in Florian Thauvin, they have the most dynamic player in the league at the moment. The southerners will also bring a steely determination as they try to end a run of seven games at the Parc des Princes without a win. If they fail at the weekend, rest assured they’ll give it another go in the Coupe de France quarter-final four three days later. Either way, PSG face two great opportunities to test themselves against a strong opponent before their Champions League Round of 16 second leg, and above all to find solutions to their problems.
Emery needs firstly to be clear about Thiago Silva’s role. Is his captain still a first-choice defender, or will Presnel Kimpembe keep his place alongside Marquinhos? Clarity here is important for Silva’s own state of mind, plus the rest of the squad needs to know if the Brazilian remains a legitimate captain. Yes, he was once the best defender in the world, and yes, he has earned huge respect in his career. But if Thiago Silva is no longer a first-choice player, he instantly loses the aura and authority that he had built up. Most importantly of all, if Emery is treating Marseille like testing pad for Madrid – as he definitely should be – then he needs to pick the team he wants to play on March 6.
That means selecting his first-choice centre-backs, but also deciding which full backs will play against Zinedine Zidane’s men, who will operate as the holding midfielder, and whether a place can be found for Angel Di Maria or Julian Draxler in a more attack-minded midfield. Right-back Dani Alves and left-back Yuri Berchiche both did well enough in the first leg to warrant another chance. The same cannot be said of Giovani Lo Celso who appeared out of his depth at the base of the midfield.
The fact there are so many question marks over so many key positions reflects poorly on Emery, who has had 18 months to build this team. That said, the Basque may feel disappointed his midfield wasn’t strengthened last summer despite Blaise Matuidi and Grzegorz Krychowiak both leaving. Nobody can be surprised that Thiago Motta, at 35, has missed much of this campaign through injury. And signing Lassana Diarra in January feels like a stop-gap, with the former Marseille man not deemed match-fit enough to play in Madrid following six months in the United Arab Emirates.
So those criticising the coach for playing the 21-year-old Lo Celso out of position should also ask what other choice he had. His options have increased now. Motta is fit and fighting for his place, while Diarra has also had more game time. Meanwhile, the clamour to find room for Di Maria gathered more momentum last weekend when the in-form Argentine impressed again, against Strasbourg.
Emery could be bold and pick Rabiot-Verratti-Di Maria as his midfield behind Kylian Mbappé, Edinson Cavani and Neymar. He could opt for the experience of Motta or the technical prowess of Diarra. But whatever he is going to decide he should decide it this weekend. Pick his best team against Marseille, work on eradicating the flaws that have appeared, and prove that PSG can beat a strong opponent in a high-profile match. Once they have done that there will be no more room for excuses, and when Cristiano Ronaldo and friends come to town PSG, this time, will be ready.