PSG’s season has been defined by anti-climax. Signing Lionel Messi was meant to help the club finally ascend from nouveau-riche pretenders to undeniable heavyweights. They may have the world’s most talented attacking trio, but the Mauricio Pochettino team is the least attractive PSG side of the Qatari era.
Their defeat to Real Madrid last week was the most damaging in a decade that has been punctuated by similarly humiliating European exits. It showcased individual errors, a lack of leadership and their fragile mental fortitude. Even with Messi onboard, a full-strength PSG – injuries have hindered them before – could not break the cycle. The desperation with which PSG chase their European holy grail only makes Madrid’s comeback all the more embarrassing.
The Collectif Ultras Paris, a leading PSG fan group, has had enough. The supporters released a damning statement before PSG’s game with Bordeaux on Sunday, bemoaning the lack of a “genuine gameplan” and complaining that the squad is “nothing but a bunch of ‘stars’ who barely complement one another”. They said club president Nasser Al-Khelaïfi was unfit for his job, claimed Mauricio Pochettino was “not the true decision-maker” and blamed the players for being “seen more often at fashion week than at meetings with fan representatives”. The group asked all PSG fans to unite in “non-violent action”.
That action proved simple but dramatic on Sunday. Throughout their team’s 3-0 win over a woeful Bordeaux, the crowd at the Parc des Princes roundly booed and whistled Messi and Neymar. As the two forwards stood over a free-kick in the first half, the din intensified and was followed by ironic cheers when Neymar fired over. Neymar was loudly booed when he tapped in PSG’s second goal in front of the CUP’s stand. Both he and Messi were treated like opposition players all game. Pochettino said afterwards he was “saddened by what I experienced today”, adding that “we’ve all been affected”.
This week has summed up PSG under Pochettino. As the Bordeaux game again showed, their resources and deep squad allow them to breeze past many Ligue 1 sides, especially at home. In other games, the individual brilliance of Kylian Mbappé – who was spared the Parc’s whistles – has often carried them this season. He could have had a hat-trick in the first half against Madrid on Wednesday.
PSG dominated the tie for 150 minutes before Benzema forced their latest capitulation, but their lack of inspiration during the first leg and a keenness to counterattack in the second underlined Pochettino’s shortcomings. Pochettino’s team are a threat when they are asked to counter with their boundless speed and vision, but they do not have the mental strength to cope when put under pressure as they were at the Bernabéu.
Worse still, that plan is largely redundant as PSG are so often cast as the dominant force and faced with low blocks both in Europe and at home. Pochettino is yet to show he can set up a team to unpick well organised defences. Many of PSG’s wins in Ligue 1 this season have been fortunate, undeserved or snatched late on by Mbappé. An astute coach with some talented players can blunt PSG with relative ease, as Christophe Galtier did last weekend when Nice beat them 1-0. Over three games this season, Nice are yet to concede a goal to PSG.
The idea that PSG are a free-flowing, gloriously attacking juggernaut who tear Ligue 1 teams apart on a weekly basis is a rapidly fading mirage. But that’s not to say such a team doesn’t exist in France. Rennes’ devastating 4-2 win at Lyon this weekend underlined their status as the most thrilling attacking outfit in Ligue 1, if not Europe. They were 4-0 up after 49 minutes. Bruno Génésio’s team are everything PSG that are not. They have scored a host of stunning team goals this season from a series of effortlessly fluid, graceful, snappy moves. Few teams can halt their elusive interplay and interchangeability.
Croatian midfielder Lovro Majer, who both plays and looks like his countryman Luka Modric, is Genesio’s creator-in-chief. He has been the revelation of the Ligue 1 season. Majer gracefully drifts around midfield, unpicking teams with his vision and deft weight of pass. He lacks pace but it barely matters. “Many say Lovro doesn’t run enough,” said his mum in an interview with Ouest France this week. “I told him that when he was 12 and he replied: ‘I’m not stupid, I know where the ball will be.’ He sees things other players don’t.”
Majer’s main creative lieutenant, Benjamin Bourigeaud, is perhaps Ligue 1’s most underrated player, such is the quality of his passing, free-kicks and whipped deliveries reminiscent of David Beckham’s. The swaggering Martin Terrier, who drifts between lines, is often impossible to pick up. The supreme skill, unpredictability and one-on-one abilities of teenage wingers Jeremy Doku and Kamaldeen Sulemana provide pace, an ability to stretch opponents and even more creativity. The serene Nayef Aguerd has quietly become one of Ligue 1’s best centre-backs. And striker Gaëtan Laborde’s clinical finishing, keenness to play off others and physicality adds the strength that teams as balletic as Rennes often lack.
Rennes swept aside Lyon nonchalantly on Sunday. They repeatedly played through Lyon’s soft centre, easing off once they had gone 4-0 up. Unlike PSG, the versatile Rennes have proven adept in dancing around low blocks and adapting to exploit opponents’ weaknesses. Despite consistency being a problem, as a host of new signings struggled to settle in the summer before some issues with balance in the new year, Rennes have scored just two goals fewer than PSG. After four consecutive wins, they are now a point from second in the table. This PSG team may not have turned out as expected, but French football has still got what it wanted, albeit from a different source.
French hopes of European success were badly damaged this week. Ligue 1 sides were unusually productive in the first half of the season, with all six representatives reaching the knockout stages of the various Uefa tournaments. PSG were knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid and Lille, who trail Chelsea 2-0 after the first leg of their last-16 tie, are likely to go the same way on Wednesday night. Although Marseille beat Basel in the Europa Conference League and Lyon picked up an impressive 1-0 victory in Porto in the Europa League, Monaco’s frustrating 2-0 loss in Braga and Rennes’ unfortunate 2-0 defeat at Leicester make wider progress unlikely. In just a few short weeks, the hope that Ligue 1 sides would make some headway has morphed into the usual frustration.
Angers’ 1-0 defeat to Reims was their seventh in a row and their 10th in 12 games. Their terrible form – combined with a collective resurgence from the chasing pack – has seen relegation fears return, with just three points separating Angers from the relegation play-off spot. Stéphane Moulin kept the club up for several seasons by playing pragmatic football but earlier this season it looked as if new coach Gérald Baticle had taken the team forward with a more dynamic style. However, as it stands, Baticle has achieved roughly the same results as Moulin overall and their recent slump suggests his progressive style may not be sustainable in the long term.