Pep Guardiola has a favourite answer, tried and tested over many years, and it comes in the form of a question. Ask him if Manchester City are the favourites to win the Champions League, he will tend to ask who Lionel Messi plays for. The answer, in the past, was Barcelona and they, Guardiola was suggesting, were the likeliest champions (even if, the more observant may note, they never even reached the final during their former manager’s time at the Etihad Stadium).
Adhere to Guardiola’s school of thought and Paris Saint-Germain are now the favourites to win this season’s Champions League. And indeed they should start off as the team to beat: just not by Pep logic.
The suggestions that PSG have had the best transfer window ever have ignored the reality that their host of free transfers have come at a considerable cost. It is a project based on buying and they have taken advantage of a failing market to acquire players who might not otherwise have been attainable: in that respect, there are similarities with Chelsea, symbolised by Kai Havertz’s winner in May’s final.
But the more pertinent part is that PSG have remedied shortcomings. There is a theory that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. Paris Saint-Germain have operated on the opposite philosophy, emphasising the finest aspects, making Neymar and Kylian Mbappe the two most expensive footballers ever. At times, it has looked as though they bolted a superstar forward line on to a good but otherwise unexceptional side.
It was not a failsafe formula. More balanced teams prevailed. A reliance on the Galacticos has had risks. A semi-fit Mbappe was left on the bench for last season’s semi-final second leg against City. In 2019, they exited the competition without the injured Neymar. Perhaps Messi’s arrival means that, with a trio of the world’s elite forwards – and with apologies to Edinson Cavani and Mauro Icardi, fine strikers in their own right in PSG’s past and present, but who were overshadowed by the glamorous figures around them – they are better equipped to cope with the absence of one of the others.
But PSG were arguably favourites before they got Messi. They neither start as first among equals in spite of him or because of him. Right-back has felt a problem position at times, and certainly Thilo Kehrer struggled there in the 2020 final defeat to Bayern Munich, but the summer buy Achraf Hakimi is a challenger to Trent Alexander-Arnold for the title of the world’s best.
Kylian Mbappe. That's it, that's the tweet. pic.twitter.com/C9ejxkakq7February 16, 2021
Keylor Navas is the serial Champions League winner PSG have never really seemed satisfied with. Gianluigi Donnarumma represents an upgrade in goal, the prodigy whose saves decided Euro 2020. Sergio Ramos may be in decline but it is nevertheless notable that he has only played in one game since 2015 when Real Madrid were eliminated from the Champions League. If Ramos can prove a talisman (when fit: he is yet to debut), a defence also featuring one of the game’s outstanding centre-backs, in Marquinhos, may be redoubtable on the major stage.
And in midfield, Gini Wijnaldum was the great facilitator for Liverpool, a man who specialised in making others play, an unflashy workhorse who was often at his best in the biggest games. Leandro Paredes, Idrissa Gueye and Ander Herrera all began at least one leg of last season’s semi-final: it is uncontroversial to suggest Wijnaldum is an improvement on each. It means PSG look stronger in every department.
Questions remain: if the French league serves as an adequate preparation for the defining European games, if PSG can avoid the temperamental failings they showed in last season’s exit to Manchester City, if Mauricio Pochettino can make more of an impact after an underwhelming start last season and with some attackers who scarcely want to press. Then there are the vagaries of knockout football.
Aggressive recruitment has not yet given PSG a team with the chemistry Messi’s best Barcelona sides exhibited. There is no guarantee they will win their group, let alone the competition. But this may be the first time ever that they begin as the outstanding candidates to secure the prize they want most.
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