Paris Saint-Germain head into the first leg of their crunch Champions League last-16 tie against Bayern Munich this week without the injured Kylian Mbappe, with concerns over the fitness of Lionel Messi, and in crisis after suffering damaging back-to-back defeats.
The pressure is firmly on coach Christophe Galtier, given that these big European matches are what define every season for PSG in the Qatar Era and their worrying habit of imploding on such occasions.
Galtier’s brief is to do what all his predecessors — most recently Mauricio Pochettino — have failed to do and win the Champions League after PSG persuaded Mbappe to sign a new contract and stay in the French capital last year rather than join Real Madrid.
They had just gone out in the last 16 for the fourth time in six seasons, the nature of their collapse against Real as spectacular as previous exits at the same stage against Barcelona in 2017 and Manchester United in 2019.
In past years they have been hampered by injuries at inopportune moments, with metatarsal fractures striking down Neymar ahead of a tie against Real in 2018 and ruling him out of both legs of the United debacle a year later.
The Brazilian was also hampered by injury against the Spanish giants last season, but this season it is the other two members of PSG’s all star attack who have been hit by what French media have started to call their Champions League “jinx”.
Mbappe is in the middle of a three week spell out with a thigh injury, meaning he will not play in the first leg but should be fine for the return in Munich on March 8.
Messi missed Saturday’s 3-1 defeat in Monaco with an apparently minor hamstring complaint, but it remain to be seen if the 35-year-old Argentine will be on top form for Tuesday’s showdown.
The post-World Cup hangover that PSG must have dreaded during their outstanding start to the season has not just impacted the fitness of the players who dominated the final in Doha in December.
Galtier’s team have appeared labored and have been regularly outfought by domestic opponents while losing four times in 10 games in 2023.
Paris Saint-Germain’s Argentine forward Lionel Messi, Paris Saint Germain’s Italian midfielder Marco Verratti, Paris Saint-Germain’s Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, Paris Saint-Germain’s French forward Kylian Mbappe and Paris Saint-Germain’s Brazilian forward Neymar take part in a training session in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, West of Paris on February 13, 2023, on the eve of the UEFA Champions League round of Last 16 First leg football match against FC Bayern Munich. (Photo by FRANCK Fife / AFP).
They simply could not cope with Marseille’s high-energy pressing game as they went out of the French Cup in the last 16 last midweek.
“We lost the midfield battle. We can’t afford to come out second best in so many challenges in such a game,” admitted Galtier.
Yet his side fared no better on Saturday in Monaco, provoking an angry reaction from supporters who had unveiled banners with messages for the team such as “Wake Up”.
The coach could lament the stomach bug that ripped through his squad on the morning of the Monaco game, but it was another defeat which laid bare the lack of balance in his squad.
The drop off in quality up front when any of Mbappe, Messi or Neymar are missing is enormous, and brings into focus the club’s decision to allow Pablo Sarabia to leave in January and not bring in a replacement — they failed to complete the paperwork to sign Hakim Ziyech on loan from Chelsea.
Their midfield sorely lacks physicality and the defence is overly-reliant on the ageing Sergio Ramos, with a lack of depth forcing Galtier to move away from playing a three-man defence and exposing his inability to find an alternative.
“We are going through a difficult period but we need to stay calm, keep our feet on the ground and be aware of what we can still win this season,” insisted captain Marquinhos on Saturday.
It is over three months since the group stage ended so it is easy to forget now how the Parisians missed out on top spot in their section.
They finished tied with Benfica on points, head to head, goal difference, and goals scored, but the Portuguese club came out on top thanks to their greater number of goals scored away from home.
Benfica ended up drawing Club Brugge, on paper the weakest side in the last 16, while PSG face a still formidable Bayern.
Maybe it was the jinx striking again.
“We have a big game on Tuesday and we all need to stick together between now and then, remobilise, get some energy and our confidence back and also get some players back,” said Galtier.