Paris Saint-Germain need Champions League success to justify big spending

Paris Saint-Germain coach Unai Emery walks onto the training field to prepare the team for the crunch clash with Real Madrid. (Reuters)
Updated 13 February 2018

Paris Saint-Germain need Champions League success to justify big spending

LONDON: The league is theirs, as it always seemed it would be once they had reacted to last season’s slip-up by arranging the two most expensive transfers of all time. But league successes barely register any more. Such is PSG’s dominance that the league, although they have only won it six times in their history, no longer brings fulfilment; all it offers is the potential for an embarrassment like last season’s. For them, as for so many of the super-clubs, the Champions League is the only competition that counts.
They’re averaging over three goals per game in the French league and they broke the goalscoring record for the group stage, banging in 25 goals in their six games but the truth is none of that really matters either. Perhaps PSG don’t have to win the Champions League this season, but after a summer of astonishing investment there certainly needs to be a good performance in the competition, and that means not going out in the last 16, even if they have been drawn against the defending champions, Real Madrid.
The pressure is extraordinary, on Neymar in particular. This is the year in which he is expected to redeem the failure of the last World Cup and lead Brazil to glory in Russia, but it’s also a year in which PSG’s owners need him to offer at least some evidence that he will provide a return on their spending. Such is the interest in Brazil that Wednesday’s judging in the carnival in Rio de Janeiro has been moved earlier to make sure everybody is finished in time to watch the game.
Behind it all lies a huge irony, the strange sense that all the investment PSG have made in order to become a European force might actually count against them. This is a problem the former Liverpool midfielder Igor Biscan identified during his time at Dinamo Zagreb a decade ago, when they were midway through a run off 11 straight Croatian championship successes.
His team, he explained, won easily almost every week. The defenders’ job became about delivering good balls to the forward; they forgot how to defend. Everybody, meanwhile, forgot how to fight. What that meant was that as soon as Dinamo came up against any sort of resistance, as they did in Europe, even against a team of players less talented than them, they struggled to impose themselves and their soft center was exposed. That problem is now afflicting teams in leagues much more highly rated than Croatia’s.
Might Bayern have won the Champions League under Pep Guardiola with greater case-hardening at home? Might Juventus be more effective if they didn’t keep dominating Serie A? PSG have only to think back to last season’s last 16 tie against Barcelona to be aware of their own vulnerability. When they were on top, in the home leg, they found Barca, almost equally unused to defending, acquiescent and won 4-0. At the Camp Nou, though, they were so frozen by the prospect of a side actually attacking them that they let in four goals in the final seven minutes.
The tie as a whole was thrilling but it also served as a warning about the dangers of the financial disparities in modern football. Good teams, frankly, shouldn’t buckle as Barca did in Paris and they certainly shouldn’t capitulate as PSG did in Barcelona. It’s not even an issue of having good defenders: PSG could buy as many as they wanted.
Their back four as it stands — Dani Alves, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva and Layvin Kuzawa, with Thomas Meunier, Presnel Kimpembe and Yuri as back up — is perfectly serviceable (with perhaps slight doubts about Dani Alves’ continued ability to get up and down the flank). The issue, though, is one of practice. It doesn’t matter how strong you are — if you don’t use a muscle it will get flabby.
PSG are not the only side facing that problem, but they are perhaps the club most obviously afflicted. And it is brought into sharper relief by the sense that they need European success. Splash out all that money and if you don’t start producing, you soon look pretty silly.

Underdogs with bite and sloppy South Korea: What we learned from the Asian Cup second round

Updated 23 January 2019

Underdogs with bite and sloppy South Korea: What we learned from the Asian Cup second round

  • Can the mighty minnows continue impressive run in the UAE?
  • Or will the big guns start to fire in quarterfinals?

LONDON: Asia’s biggest sporting spectacle has reached its quarterfinal stage — and it’s time for teams to find their A-game. While there are few surprises in the last-eight lineup, the form of some of the big-name sides has been less than impressive. Here we deliver our verdict on the second round.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT — Saudi Arabia’s attack

The Green Falcons started the tournament at top speed. They came in as one of the cup favorites and in their opening two matches illustrated why. A 4-0 thrashing of North Korea was backed up with a relatively simple 2-0 victory over Lebanon. Understandably, that raised hopes that Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men could go all the way in the UAE. Alas, it was not to be as a 2-0 defeat to Qatar in their last group clash left them with a tricky tie against Japan. For all their efforts Saudi Arabia were unable to find the back of the net, the lack of firepower upfront costing Pizzi’s team yet again.

BIGGEST SHOCK — South Korean sloppiness

Boosted by the arrival of Tottenham star Son Heung-Min, South Korea were rightly declared the pre-tournament favorites. They had firepower up front, intelligence and creativity in midfield, and experience at the back. In the four matches in the UAE so far, however, they have looked anything but potential champions. They labored to beat Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines and China in the group stage before almost being shocked by part-timers Bahrain in the second round. South Korea now face Qatar in the last eight and, as Son said after their extra-time win over Bahrain, they need to significantly improve if they are to avoid a shock exit before the semis.

UNDER PRESSURE — Alberto Zaccheroni and the UAE

The Whites owe their place in the last eight to luck more than skill. In some ways that is not a surprise — the hosts came into the tournament without their talisman, the injured Omar Abdulrahman, and on the back of a patchy run of form. But, still, the performances on home soil have been underwhelming to say the least. That was summed up with their extra-time win over Kyrgyzstan, who were playing in their first Asian Cup. It was a far-from-convincing performance and Central Asians were unlucky not to beat Zaccheroni’s side. The UAE will have to deliver their best performance for some time if they are to progress further. Their opponents, Australia, have also performed poorly, which may offer them some encouragement.

BEST HIGHLIGHT — The mighty minnows

The big guns have not had it all their own way. That may annoy their fans, but it does show that Asian football is improving. Only a few years ago the idea that Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain and Jordan would look the equals of Australia and Co. would have seemed fanciful. But in the past two weeks the standard shown by the so-called lesser lights has been impressive — and great to watch. Last summer five Asian teams appeared at the World Cup for the first time and it was hoped that showing would act as a springboard for further progress across the continent. On the evidence of the action in the UAE that wish could be coming true.