The Champions League quarter-final second leg brings PSG's Adrien Rabiot back to Manchester City. Andrew Gibney examines why the French midfielder was in England - and what went wrong...
On Tuesday night, Adrien Rabiot will step onto the pitch at the Etihad Stadium for the first time – but it could have been very different for the Parisian native.
“We took the decision to go to England," explained Rabiot. "Everything went well, but after six months, the club had not fulfilled certain agreements. So my mother said stop and we returned.”
Mother and cub
Veronique isn't just a picky parent: she is also her son's agent. But while she does have his best intentions at heart, her guidance hasn’t always led Rabiot in the right direction. Speaking to SoFoot, Rabiot listed he reasons for leaving England: unsupplemented language classes, high rent costs, a house that was never provided and even having their phone cut off.
The English sojourn had started with such high hopes. "We had seen him play in France when he was 12 years old and he caught our eye," remembered Barry Payton, the scout who spotted Rabiot for City.
What made him stand out was that he had a great mentality. He was polite and respectful, which is very unusual for a young Frenchman...
"He was a sensitive boy, very intelligent. He played on the wing and he was already tall for his age, but what made him stand out was that he had a great mentality. He was polite and respectful, which is very unusual for a young Frenchman..."
There are usually two sides to a story, and Payton suggested that Veronique became isolated in Manchester and they decided together to return to France. And others attest to the high standards she demands for her son: “She wanted it to be Harvard for schooling and George V for housing,” the leader of a Ligue 1 club told press when they were interested in signing the teenager after his departure from England.
He didn’t join PSG straight after his return, spending a year with the Pole Espoirs Castelmaurou, a training centre near Toulouse before joining the Parisian giants.
PSG arranged a friendly against Auxerre in December 2011 – where his father, Michel, following a stroke, received treatment for locked-in syndrome
Determined not to make the same mistakes as their English opponents, PSG pulled out all the stops to woo Rabiot. The club arranged a December 2011 friendly against Auxerre – where his father Michel, following a stroke, received treatment for locked-in syndrome, which means his movement and communication is limited to his eyelids.
That game, helped by a special stand in the Auxerre reserve ground, made it possible for Michel to see his son play for his beloved club. The PSG team went on to win the game 3-2, Rabiot scoring an opening double before being replaced at half-time so he could watch the rest of the match with his father.
“Unless you've experienced this illness you don't know what it's like,” Rabiot told Le Parisien. “It's a very frustrating feeling. Ever since his stroke, when I go out on the pitch, I'm fighting for him too. He was the one who introduced me to football and he knows it very well.
“He still has all his cognitive functions, he's the same on the inside. When I told him I was turning pro I could tell by his look that he was proud.”
However, it’s not been smooth sailing in Paris either. Both Adrien and his mother are obviously ambitious, but at times that has had a negative effect on his future. In every transfer window since the summer of 2014, Rabiot has been linked with a move away from the Parc des Princes.
Desperately searching for first-team football, the teenager was suffering from expecting to run before he could walk. A successful loan spell at Toulouse in 2013 showed his capabilities, but that was never going to guarantee him a start ahead of Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi.
Before the start of the 2014/15 season, having played 13 games for Toulouse and 31 times for PSG, the 19-year-old (and his mother) weren’t happy with his playing time in the capital and refused to sign a new deal with the club.
Reports suggested that he could go on loan to the Premier League, willing to play out the end of his contract, but even more dramatically he went nowhere and Laurent Blanc left him out of the playing squad. Eventually talks progressed and Veronique allowed her son to sign a deal until 2019.
“I am very happy to remain a player of Paris Saint-Germain, the club that made me the player I am today,” Rabiot told the club’s official website.
“I would like to thank the president who kept discussions open in recent months and the sporting manager for his support. Now I want to concentrate on my football, on my game and give my best for Paris Saint-Germain on the pitch and for the supporters.”
Just after his 20th birthday he failed to turn up on time to meet the team ahead of the Coupe de France final and was removed from the squad
Although he had missed the first 14 weeks of the season, the midfielder would make his mark on the team, finishing the season with 21 appearances, averaging 54 minutes a game.
Sadly, that wasn’t the end of the Rabiot roller-coaster. Just after his 20th birthday he failed to turn up on time to meet the team ahead of the Coupe de France final. He was removed from the squad and it his career was threatened by questions over his mentality rather than his ability.
This season has been his best to date. It didn’t start as well as he would have liked, sent off after 27 minutes in the season opener against Lille and by the time PSG travelled to face Real Madrid in the Champions League, the 21-year-old had only managed four starts in 12 games – but that would all change.
With only 17 minutes gone at the Bernabeu, Verratti had to come off injured – something that he has yet to fully recover from. Seizing his chance, in stepped Rabiot and it was during those 73 minutes that you saw why PSG have persevered with the youngster and not just tossed him on the footballer scrapheap.
Rabiot has an excellent awareness of where he is on the pitch, the passing range to keep it short and intricate or look long and switch the play
Tall with a slender build, at first glance he is deceptively nonchalant, giving the impression of a moody teenager who would grunt replies rather than engage in conversation. However, in closer inspection, he is intelligent, elegant and technically excellent. He has the ability to play all over the pitch.
Rabiot has an excellent awareness of where he is on the pitch and the passing range to keep it short and intricate or look long and switch the play. His curly, tangled locks sway in the wind, adding to the smooth, stylish way he drifts across the pitch.
PSG may have lost 1-0 in the Spanish capital, but Rabiot had been excellent. That was his step up to the big time. He was accepted as a full member of the first-team. Which should have ended any speculation about his future… right? Wrong!
One month after that game, having started eight out of 11 games, Rabiot was interviewed by French magazine show Telefoot. He declared that if his minutes dropped again, PSG should give him a Christmas present by allowing him to leave on loan in January.
"It annoys me,” replied Blanc. "Adrien has to understand that when you have the possibility of going to the end of your contract and to leave for free, you can do it. Otherwise, when you sign a contract of five years with PSG, you have to respect your first club.” As if the coach's harsh words were not enough, club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi also publicly put Rabiot in his place after the youngster was booed during the last Champions League group game against Shakhtar Donetsk.
Tuesday night, finally playing a professional game in Manchester, will represent Rabiot’s biggest test to date.
Blaise Matuidi is suspended and although Verratti has been included in the 24-man travelling squad, it will likely be too early for the Italian to at least start the game. Rabiot will play beside Thiago Motta and the 21-year-old will be asked to provide the creativity, drive and all-round defensive solidity that both missing midfielders usually deliver.
If Blanc goes with Angel Di Maria in the midfield three, Rabiot will likely play more defensive; if it’s Benjamin Stambouli, the youngster will have to provide PSG with an attacking threat. It’s testament to the player that he is able to offer both.
With the game perfectly poised at 2-2, PSG know they have to score, but can’t leave themselves open to be punished on the counter. Blanc will be putting his trust in a player who has consistently made the coach question his worth; for both player and manager, Rabiot’s involvement will be vital.
A Tuesday night in Manchester, eight years after leaving the North-West of England, could be a career-defining moment for the Frenchman and leave City pondering what could have been, if only they had kept Veronique happy.