“Neymar? He’s a top player, I hope it’s nothing big. I’d prefer to see the best players on the pitch, even if it’s against us.” With the Brazilian winger likely unavailable for Marseille’s clash with Paris Saint-Germain in the Coupe de France on Wednesday, Rudi Garcia could afford to be magnanimous towards his opposition on this occasion, even if another loss in that competition looks likely to follow yesterday’s 3-0 defeat at the Parc des Princes.
Even before Neymar’s exit late in the match, though, PSG had hardly been at their best, relying on an own goal from Rolando and a deft, if uncharacteristic strike from Edinson Cavani for two of their three goals. That said, in a match that was marked from the outset with a robust physicality (and eleven bookings), the leaders turned in a determined performance, offering a renewed focus with nary a hint of the side that had conceded a raft of chances to Strasbourg a week ago. Perhaps more important than that solidity, though, was a newfound embrace of team play, something which this side have lacked too often in the current campaign and will be all the more necessary given the potential absence of Neymar for next week’s return leg against Real Madrid.
It is true that the jet-heeled play of Neymar and Kylian Mbappé has given the capital side two players who can win a match on their own, to the point that hewing to a particular tactical approach or offering any sort of discipline can fall by the wayside. More worryingly, this sort of attitude had seemingly spread beyond the club’s two record purchases, as many in the team frequently took it upon themselves to play as they saw fit, with Dani Alves and Layvin Kurzawa among the chief culprits. However, the loss to Real Madrid a fortnight ago and even the aforementioned win over Strasbourg served as forceful reminders that relying solely on individual quality will not be a recipe for success, at least not to the level desired by the club’s hierarchy.
Against a Marseille side that had been perhaps unlucky to draw in the reverse fixture in late October, though, there was a unity and aggression to match the visitors’ own, and the result, rather than being a mere matter of chances being taken, was deserved and showed any number of players rising to the occasion. Perhaps, surprisingly, foremost among these was Kurzawa, whose season-long duel for the role of starting left-back with Yuri Berchiche seemed to have reached a nadir for the former Monaco man when he was dropped for the visit to Madrid. However, here, he sparkled, not only for his attacking prowess (a clever give-and-go with Adrien Rabiot ahead of the goal notwithstanding) but for his defensive drive, totally shackling Florian Thauvin and offering a firm rejoinder to those who would have Berchiche back in the eleven come next Tuesday.
Thiago Silva was similarly imperious, as the captain marshalled the back-line superbly, and Mbappé often proved a more inventive presence than his normal state of play, seeking to be a creator rather than the predatory striker who burst onto the scene some eighteen months ago.
Lassana Diarra was also assured in midfield, even against the powerful duo of Luiz Gustavo and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, and looks likewise ready for the challenge of the Spanish side. Giovani Lo Celso, in for the injured Marco Verratti, was indeed the only player for the hosts not to impress, but after his calamitous showing in Madrid, he is unlikely to feature in any event.
A consummate performance against one of the best sides that France can offer should have Unai Emery quite pleased this week, but the matter still remains of how he could replace Neymar come next Tuesday, if the Brazilian’s ankle injury sustained last night is serious enough to keep him out.
Despite his cautious optimism after the match, and what is likely to be heavy pressure to have him feature, the manager must have a plan in place to cope with his absence if they are to hope to turn around a 3-1 deficit. PSG have certainly turned in impressive performances against the odds before, including a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge at this stage despite playing with only ten men for most of the match, but this represents a different sort of challenge given the club’s summer investment.
Emery would unlikely deviate from the team’s now-characteristic 4-3-3, meaning he has three realistic options to replace the Brazilian, one of whom, the out-of-favour Julian Draxler, should probably be dismissed out of hand.
That leaves the Spaniard with a decision between Ángel Di María and Javier Pastore, a pair of players who have themselves often been on the periphery this season, despite their talent and experience. Di María may seem the natural choice, given his flurry of goals at the beginning of the calendar year, but he isn’t a naturally left-sided player, something which could see a knock-on move of Mbappé to the opposite flank to accommodate his inclusion.
However, might Pastore prove a better option? The lanky Argentine’s career in the French capital has been beset by injury, but he has consistently impressed when called upon. Furthermore, he offers much more defensive solidity than does his countryman, having been hugely impressive in that aforementioned draw against Chelsea, despite playing a much deeper midfield role. He also has a more versatile range of passing and can take up a variety of positions to support the attack, influencing a match without needing to take on opponents as Di María can sometimes be wont to do.
Emery still has plenty of time to make this decision ahead of the Real Madrid match, and will likely use the next two matches (including Saturday’s trip to Troyes) as a sort of sandbox to put the pieces together. Whatever decision he takes, though, yesterday’s performance will have undoubtedly served as a tonic to the club’s spirits. Neymar or not, this team proved itself capable of playing with determination and focus, and on that evidence, a once-faint hope of recovering that deficit in Europe now seems tantalisingly within reach.
1 | While Le Classique drew the majority of the attention on Sunday, the earlier encounter between Rhône-Alpes rivals Lyon and St Étienne, France’s premier local derby, carried arguably more needle and passion. OL’s 5-0 humiliation of St Étienne in November equalled perhaps the most disastrous night in the club’s 99 year history and left the 10 time Ligue 1 winners in turmoil. However, the wizened Jean-Louis Gasset has since managed to reinject Les Verts with some confidence and this return fixture offered a chance at redemption. Mariano Diaz’s graceful chest, turn and half volley had put Lyon ahead but an increasingly confident St Étienne begun to impose themselves as the second half wore on and Mathieu Debuchy’s equaliser, his second goal in four games since his return to Ligue 1 from Arsenal after the standout Rémy Cabella’s cutback, was heartily deserved as injury time approached. The pile on of jubilant St Étienne players that followed underlined how crucial a goal it was for this historic club’s self-esteem.
2 | Astonishment at Nantes’ challenge for European places before Christmas has unfortunately been matched by surprise at their continued grip on a Europa League spot since the winter break. Although Claudio Ranieri’s influence on the club this season cannot be understated, Les Canaris’ form following the New Year has taken a dramatic downturn with just a solitary league win in seven. Remarkably still in fifth, Saturday’s visit of a floundering Amiens represented a chance to steady themselves as Ranieri’s charges looked to take advantage of the fact that their competition’s equally average displays had, as yet, failed to threaten their return to Europe.
However, Gael Kakuta’s superb curling effort, Prince Gouano’s stoic defensive display and a 1-0 Amiens’ win meant Nantes were finally edged out of a guaranteed European place by Montpellier. With the chance to coach Italy a possibility this summer and his side already stuttering, Ranieri’s reign at Nantes may have already peaked.
E.D. with A.W.
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