Paris Saint-Germain are seeking revenge for their defeat in last season’s final when they renew acquaintances with Bayern Munich in the Champions League last eight this week, but the French giants appear to have gone backwards since then despite the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino as coach.
News of Robert Lewandowski’s absence for the quarter-final first leg at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday has understandably been met with some delight in Paris, especially with Neymar recovering fitness following his latest lay-off.
Nevertheless, PSG did not need Neymar when they delivered their signature performance of the campaign so far to beat Barcelona 4-1 away in the last round.
Marco Verratti did play then, and the Italian playmaker’s absence in Munich following a positive Covid-19 test could be a major problem for Pochettino.
The Argentine, a former PSG captain, was appointed by the Qatar-owned club in January with the difficult brief of doing better than his sacked predecessor, Thomas Tuchel.
Under Tuchel, the Parisians won every domestic trophy in France last season before reaching the Champions League final for the first time.
In some ways there is more pressure on PSG now than there was for that 1-0 loss to Bayern in Lisbon last August.
Getting to the final of Europe’s elite club competition was a big step forwards, but going out in the quarter-finals now would be a major setback for PSG and Pochettino, especially as they are trailing in Ligue 1.
The former Tottenham Hotspur coach told AFP in an interview last month that he would need time to make his mark at the Parc des Princes and that he would be unable to make the changes he wants until the next pre-season.
The 49-year-old, who oversaw a 7-2 home defeat by Bayern in one of his last games with Spurs, sought to emphasise the point last weekend, telling Le Parisien: “You can judge me from next season.”
In the meantime, he added: “If we win the Champions League, or the French Cup, or Ligue 1, our influence will have been minimal. As will be the case if we win nothing. It will mainly be down to the players.”
Of the team that started last season’s final, only captain Thiago Silva has departed, while Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who came off the bench, has since switched to the Bayern ranks.
Yet he was replaced by Moise Kean, and the Italian international is an upgrade having contributed 15 goals, including three in the Champions League.
Meanwhile, left-back Juan Bernat has missed almost the entire season due to injury, and PSG have problems in both full-back positions.
‘Highs and lows’
What Pochettino really needs is for Neymar to rediscover his best form and for Kylian Mbappe to deliver — PSG’s best performances under Pochettino have come with Mbappe starring, from his hat-trick in Barcelona to a double in a 4-2 win in Lyon.
However Mbappe has sometimes flattered to deceive and performances have regularly been disappointing, under Tuchel and Pochettino.
They have lost 10 times this season, including three defeats in their last six league games.
Saturday’s 1-0 home loss to title rivals Lille — in which Neymar was sent off — left them three points behind the Ligue 1 leaders with seven matches remaining.
Never mind potentially missing out on winning the French title, PSG could miss out on Champions League qualification altogether by failing to finish in the top three in Ligue 1.
That would be embarrassing for a club of the standing of PSG, who lost 3-1 on their last visit to Bayern for a group-stage match under Unai Emery in 2017.
“We have had lots of highs and lows, so we need to be more consistent like in previous seasons,” captain Marquinhos told Canal Plus after the Lille game.
“We can still achieve great things so we need to focus on the positives and look at what we can improve. The next game is one of our biggest of the season.”