PSG resume struggle to stay on top in France while eyeing Europe

Ligue 1 starts again on Friday, with Paris Saint-Germain on top – but they struggled to get there, and their owners expect success, says Vaishali Bhardwaj

When Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) took over Paris Saint-Germain a year and a half ago, they had grand plans – and a specific timetable. “Our aim is to qualify for the Champions League every year as of 2012,” stated new PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaïfi. “Then, from 2015, we want to play a major role in the French championship”. Al-Khelaïfi went on to add "We want the new Messi… We want to invest in the big stars of tomorrow, from all over the world, including from France."

Al-Khelaïfi’s comments showed that QSI planned to build a side that could win titles quickly while creating the potential to become a football powerhouse in the longer term.

With that in mind, ahead of the 2011/12 season, PSG decided to invest in personnel. New sporting director Leonardo came from Inter Milan to take responsibility for the recruitment of players, and he soon put the Qatari chequebook to good use, signing Javier Pastore, Kevin Gameiro and Salvatore Sirigu, among others. With fresh faces in the squad, coach Antoine Kombouaré was able to lead PSG to the top spot in Ligue 1 at the close of 2011.

Koumbare congratulates Pastore as PSG lead the way

Despite his side being 'autumn champions', though, Kombouaré was dismissed on December 29th and replaced by Carlo Ancelotti. Considering the team’s position in the league, Kombouaré’s sacking seemed harsh – but QSI clearly believed the former Chelsea and AC Milan boss was the man for the long-term plan.

Even so, the 53-year-old wasn't expected to sacrifice immediate success. Despite starting 2012 atop Ligue 1, the Parc des Princes side were overhauled by Montpellier. René Girard’s side won Le Championnat as a true collective, while PSG were still performing as a group of individuals, albeit talented ones.

Still, they had qualified for the Champions League, as per Al-Khelaïfi's timetable. And once the summer transfer window opened, they certainly became active, to say the least. The club spent an estimated €112m on Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marco Verratti, Gregory van der Wiel and the AC Milan duo of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Al-Khelaïfi and Leonardo welcome Thiago

With such talent in the team, many unsurprisingly tipped les Parisiens to win the league title ahead of the new season. And six months on, PSG do indeed lead Ligue 1, again as autumn champions – although only on goal difference, and the journey to the summit was far from smooth.

The club started the season with three draws against Lorient, Ajaccio and Bordeaux as Ancelotti struggled to fashion a first-choice XI from his reshaped squad. When he did, the club went on a five-match winning streak, starting with a 2-1 at 2011 champions Lille.

Firmly on track, PSG faced a major test in the Champions League at Porto. They failed, losing 1-0, and drew their next game at league leaders Marseille. Four straight wins without conceding a goal only masked the problems within the team – and only two of the wins were in the league, narrow 1-0 scrapes against Reims and Nancy.

In November, inconsistency caught up with them. A shocking 2-1 home loss to Saint-Etienne was glossed over with a 4-0 Champions League whitewash of Dinamo Zagreb, but then a poor 1-1 at Montpellier was followed by a home loss to nine-man Rennes. With PSG in third place, Ancelotti's anger exploded into the public domain.

Rennes harsh PSG's buzz at the Parc des Princes

"It is unbelievable. Our attitude out there was not good," the Italian said after the game. "We've lost two games at home, and that's unacceptable for a team that wants to win the league. We aren't yet playing as a team... We have to change things – and I'm going to change things. We need to be more concentrated, more determined and harder… I'm not scared to say it: we are in a crisis."

Considering that the defeat to Rennes was only PSG’s second league defeat, Ancelotti’s comments seemed rashly premature – especially when the team then beat Dynamo Kyiv in the Champions League before thrashing Troyes 4-0. But when Saint-Etienne sent PSG out of the Coupe de la Ligue on penalties and Nice beat them in the league at the start of December, critics began asking questions in earnest.

Some said that Ancelotti was struggling to deal with the many star names, and certainly he was unhappy with his players’ performances: "My players don't make a team. They're still a group of individuals,” he said. “We still don't have any consistency in our game. It's neither solid nor unified.”

One of the players Ancelotti singled out for criticism was Pastore. Clearly finding it difficult to accommodate the playmaker, the coach admitted that he was dissatisfied with the 23-year-old’s “disappointing” displays.

While some critics questioned individual performances, others attributed PSG’s problems to the players not focusing on the domestic cause. Still more blamed Leonardo's transfer policy for the lack of cohesion on the pitch.

Ancelotti and Leonardo: under pressure

Ancelotti, too, came under intense scrutiny as November wore on and rumours about his future fuelled speculation about his potential successor. L’Equipe reported that Pep Guardiola’s advisors had begun talks with the club while Le Parisien reported that Arsène Wenger had met PSG’s owners in a Paris hotel.

The Spanish press believed that QSI preferred José Mourinho – and Marca claimed that Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez would consider a 'swap deal' with Ancelotti replacing the Portuguese at Madrid. Comments in the Italian media from Ancelotti himself about wanting to coach Madrid one day hardly helped quash the speculation.

The conjecture over Ancelotti and the club’s poor league form came to a head before PSG’s final Champions League group game, at home to Porto. Win and PSG would top their group; lose and Ancelotti could be on his way out of Paris.

He's still there. Although the 2-1 victory was slightly fortunate, the pressure on Ancelotti subsided and the Porto win has seemingly been the turning point for the club. PSG beat both Evian and Valenciennes 4-0 in December; they then crucially defeated title contenders Lyon 1-0 before a 3-0 victory at Brest ahead of the winter break confirmed them as autumn champions in top spot.

Ibra and Pastore celebrate Lavezzi's winner against Porto

This time, they will be expected to stay there. The next five months will not be an easy journey for anyone at PSG. There is ongoing uncertainty about the future of some players – such as last season’s joint top scorer Nenê, who seems set to leave the Parc des Princes after seeing his playing time on the pitch reduced.

But there is optimism too. While some players may be leaving the club, others are joining – like Lucas Moura, the highly-rated Brazilian midfielder Lucas Moura who completed his long-awaited move from São Paulo for €45m last week. QSI believe that the 20-year-old represents the future of the club – after all, Al-Khelaïfi did say that he wanted to find the new Lionel Messi.

Whether Moura is quite that good is another matter, but PSG will still be looking ahead to 2013. The club undoubtedly has the players and coach to win the league and progress in the Champions League, provided they can continue their good run of recent results. And if that happens, then 2013 might well be a very successful year for PSG – and indeed Ancelotti.

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