Paris Saint-Germain are seeking revenge for their defeat in last season’s final when they renew acquaintances with Bayern Munich in the Champions League last eight this week, but the French giants appear to have gone backwards since then despite the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino as coach.
News of Robert Lewandowski’s absence for the quarter-final first leg at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday has understandably been met with some delight in Paris, especially with Neymar recovering fitness following his latest layoff.
Nevertheless, PSG did not need Neymar when they delivered their signature performance of the campaign so far to beat Barcelona 4-1 away in the last round.
Marco Verratti did play then, and the Italian playmaker’s absence in Munich following a positive Covid-19 test could be a major problem for Pochettino.
The Argentine, a former PSG captain, was appointed by the Qatar-owned club in January with the difficult brief of doing better than his sacked predecessor, Thomas Tuchel.
Under Tuchel, the Parisians won every domestic trophy in France last season before reaching the Champions League final for the first time.
In some ways, there is more pressure on PSG now than there was for that 1-0 loss to Bayern in Lisbon last August.
Getting to the final of Europe’s elite club competition was a big step forwards, but going out in the quarter-finals now would be a major setback for PSG and Pochettino, especially as they are trailing in Ligue 1.
The former Tottenham Hotspur coach told AFP in an interview last month that he would need time to make his mark at the Parc des Princes and that he would be unable to make the changes he wants until the next pre-season.
The 49-year-old, who oversaw a 7-2 home defeat by Bayern in one of his last games with Spurs, sought to emphasise the point last weekend, telling Le Parisien: “You can judge me from next season.”
In the meantime, he added: “If we win the Champions League, or the French Cup, or Ligue 1, our influence will have been minimal. As will be the case if we win nothing. It will mainly be down to the players.”
Of the team that started last season’s final, only captain Thiago Silva has departed, while Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who came off the bench, has since switched to the Bayern ranks.
Yet he was replaced by Moise Kean, and the Italian international is an upgrade having contributed 15 goals, including three in the Champions League.
Meanwhile, left-back Juan Bernat has missed almost the entire season due to injury, and PSG have problems in both full-back positions.
‘Highs and lows’
What Pochettino really needs is for Neymar to rediscover his best form and for Kylian Mbappe to deliver – PSG’s best performances under Pochettino have come with Mbappe starring, from his hat-trick in Barcelona to a double in a 4-2 win in Lyon.
However Mbappe has sometimes flattered to deceive and performances have regularly been disappointing, under Tuchel and Pochettino.
They have lost 10 times this season, including three defeats in their last six league games.
Saturday’s 1-0 home loss to title rivals Lille – in which Neymar was sent off – left them three points behind the Ligue 1 leaders with seven matches remaining.
Never mind potentially missing out on winning the French title, PSG could miss out on Champions League qualification altogether by failing to finish in the top three in Ligue 1.
That would be embarrassing for a club of the standing of PSG, who lost 3-1 on their last visit to Bayern for a group-stage match under Unai Emery in 2017.
“We have had lots of highs and lows, so we need to be more consistent like in previous seasons,” captain Marquinhos told Canal Plus after the Lille game.
“We can still achieve great things so we need to focus on the positives and look at what we can improve. The next game is one of our biggest of the season.”
Holders Bayern Munich face a test of their ability to defend their Champions League crown without top-scoring striker Robert Lewandowski at home to embattled Paris Saint Germain on Wednesday.
A knee injury has ruled Lewandowski out of both the quarter-final home leg at the Allianz Arena and the return in Paris next Tuesday.
The timing could not be worse with Lewandowski sidelined for the two-legged repeat of last season’s Champions League final when a Kingsley Coman header gave Bayern the title after a 1-0 win over PSG.
Of the 103 goals Bayern have scored either in the Bundesliga or Champions League this season, Lewandowski has contributed to 46 of them with either a goal or an assist.
Yet Bayern proved at the weekend that they can win a big game without him.
Leon Goretzka hit the winner in Saturday’s 1-0 victory at second-placed RB Leipzig to leave Bayern seven points clear at the top of the Bundesliga.
“Obviously, they are better with Lewandowski,” Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann said of Bayern. “But they have a world-class team and brilliant players to play in his place.”
Having already faced Leipzig, Lewandowski’s understudy Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting is set to make only his third Champions League start this season against his former club.
The 32-year-old Cameroon striker left PSG after coming on as a replacement against Bayern in last season’s Champions League final.
“The anticipation is huge,” Choupo-Moting said of facing his ex-club.
“It is the new edition of last year’s final.
“Perhaps nobody would have expected that we would meet again so quickly.”
Bayern, who are on a run of 19 games unbeaten in the Champions League, have a score to settle with PSG, against whom they have lost five of their nine previous matches.
Bayern have the strength in depth to cope without Lewandowski.
Saturday’s match-winner Goretzka has been involved in seven goals in Bayern’s last five league matches.
The burly 26-year-old showed great finishing with a superb shot after being set up in Leipzig by Thomas Mueller, who has nicknamed his team-mate ‘SCOREtzka’.
“I guess Thomas was bored during the international break. I had to score to prove ‘Mull’ (Mueller) right,” quipped Goretzka when asked about his new nickname.
Bayern’s defence will also be boosted by the return of fleet-footed left-back Alphonso Davies and centre-back Jerome Boateng, who were both suspended for the game against Leipzig.
Two phenomenal teams
Bayern Munich and PSG, apart from being finalists last year and being among the top favourites to win this season’s edition have been on great streaks in the Champions League. So when the two teams meet, something’s got to give.
The Bavarians have been almost perfect in Europe since the start of last season and are unbeaten in their last 19 games in the Champions League, winning 18 of those. They have scored two or more goals in 17 out of the last 19 matches, with only PSG and Atletico Madrid preventing them from doing so.
Meanwhile, PSG may not have as many records as their opponents but have been performing at a very high level in the Champions League for quite a few years now. The Parisians have failed to score in just one of their last 43 matches in the Champions League. That game was in the final last year when they went down 1-0 to Bayern Munich.
This season though Bayern Munich have pretty much remained at the level at which they operated last season while PSG have dropped a bit. To be fair to the Parisians, their route to the quarter-final so far has been quite tough having faced opponents like Manchester United, RB Leipzig in the group stage and Barcelona in the Round of 16.
Performance in 2020-21 Champions League so far
|Wins||Draws||Lost||Goals scored||Goals conceded|
There’s never good time to play Bayern Munich but without their top striker Lewandowski, the Bavarians will be at their weakest. The onus is now on PSG to exploit this disadvantage. With Neymar and Mbappe in their ranks, PSG have the tools but can they get their act together when it matters the most? In the Champions League, that hasn’t always happened for the Parisians.
(Stats Courtesy: Sky Sports and WhoScored.com) (With AFP inputs)