PARIS — A 6-1 humiliation from Barcelona plus the loss of the French title were not enough to end Unai Emery’s tenure as Paris Saint-Germain coach last year.
PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi decided to keep Emery, probably thinking that spending 400 million euros on new forwards would help solve the team’s defensive weaknesses. And bring the Champions League trophy he craves so much to the French capital.
The big investment has brought instant dividends in the French league. After 25 matches, PSG enjoys a 12-point lead over defending champion Monaco going into the home game against promoted Strasbourg on Saturday.
Neymar, Edinson Cavani, and Kylian Mbappe have been formidable, and only a couple of teams threaten PSG’s hegemony. Emery does not have to scratch his head too much to find the appropriate tactics to dominate the local league.
The Champions League is a different story.
A year after the Barcelona fiasco, Emery - a respected tactician who guided Sevilla to three Europa League titles - had the chance to redeem himself at PSG against Champions League-holder Real Madrid in their last-16 first leg match this week.
He took bold risks, but his moves backfired as Neymar, Cavani, and Mbappe were silenced. They left Madrid 3-1 losers, on the verge of another early elimination from Europe’s top competition.
The fact that Madrid was not particularly impressive makes PSG’s loss even harder to take, and other tactical choices might have produced a different result. Emery’s decisions to leave captain Thiago Silva on the bench, to start Presnel Kimpembe at center half, and to omit Lassana Diarra or Thiago Motta in midfield to make room for Giovani Lo Celso turned into big question marks.
Kimpembe did well until the 83rd minute when his poor pass led to Cristiano Ronaldo’s second goal of the evening.
The biggest gamble was likely on Lo Celso as holding midfielder in a position that did not suit him, for a game that everybody expected to be played at a very high pace.
The talented Argentine was often caught out of position and gave away a penalty for a silly foul on Toni Kroos. Emery failed to deal with Lo Celso’s struggles properly and left him on the pitch for an 85-minute ordeal. Surprisingly, Emery praised Lo Celso for his “great match,” preferring to blame the referee for the loss.
“The team played well,” Emery said. “They showed character.”
Emery also left observers puzzled by his decision to replace Cavani with Thomas Meunier just after the hour mark. Cavani, the French league’s top striker, delivered a mediocre performance but, in his defense, had been set up just once by Neymar.
The Brazil star, who was bought by PSG for 222 million euros precisely to be a factor in the Champions League, played second fiddle to Ronaldo throughout the match. Neymar had a hand in Adrien Rabiot’s opening goal with a backheel assist, but his flashes of brilliance were not enough. Neymar’s striking partner Mbappe was disappointing too, failing to convert three good chances.
“We always say the same things, we always do the same things and, in the end, we are always floored in the same way,” Rabiot said. “The problem is that it’s easy to put eight goals against Dijon, or four, in the league. It’s in matches like this that you have to be decisive.”
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