IF Paris Saint-Germain were not such a cast-iron certainty for the Ligue 1 title, then the French football authorities might not have been so hasty to call time on the 2019-20 season. Actually, PSG were “only” 12 points ahead, so in theory, somebody could have caught them in the last 10 games, but it is a big ask to overtake a leviathan, especially one with financial clout that swamps the rest of the league’s net worth. But given the devastating impact the virus will have, it’s a surprise that observers are not proclaiming the post-lockdown world could well be PSG’s time.
It’s ironic that PSG were in their best position in four years to make serious progress in the UEFA Champions League – they were one of four teams who had already qualified for the last eight when the shutters came down and face masks were donned. PSG had shown some resilience in the competition, a quality absent in previous campaigns and had just disposed of media favourites Borussia Dortmund in the round of 16. The competition looks set to be played-out in a World Cup-type format in Lisbon in August – well, at least that’s the latest idea to be thrown on the table, second wave permitting.
Thomas Tuchel, the PSG coach, is expected to be in charge for a third season in Paris. There has been rumblings of personality issues, but Tuchel has the best win rate of all of his modern predecessors – 77.78% – and the stories of lost dressing rooms and boardroom dissatisfaction seem to be a regular feature of the PSG experience. Tuchel still has the possibility of Champions League success and if the competition is scrapped, then he can always caveat, “we could have won that.” According to media reports, PSG do not want to meet Tuchel’s severance cost of around € 10 million, but why are they even thinking of making a change at a time like this?
The Champions League remains the benchmark by which Tuchel will be judged, but PSG could be approaching a rebuilding phase, especially if star names such as Neymar and Mbappé move on in the next 12-18 months. At present, Mbappé is on contract to 2023, but that counts for little and he has already hinted in the media the’s staying because in the current climate there may not be the inclination or money to lure him away from Paris.
Neymar, on the other hand, has supposedly been leaving PSG from the day he joined them. PSG have, apparently, placed a price tag on him of € 175 million, but the Brazilian has not exactly transformed the club since 2017. In some ways, they might benefit from allowing him to leave – since he arrived, the club’s Champions League presence has actually diminished, although it has more or less been business as usual on the domestic front. But Neymar does not have the presence or star quality of the club’s last great talisman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and he has not developed into PSG’s Messi in a weaker league than La Liga.
Admittedly, Neymar has a scoring rate of 0.89 goals per game, but he has been outscored by Mbappé in the past two seasons. Furthermore, in his time at PSG, Neymar has played just 74 games (League, Cup and UCL) compared to 109 and 97 appearances for Mbappé and Edinson Cavani respectively.
He has been very open about his desire to return to Barcelona and frankly, they will probably welcome him with open arms in Catalonia. They are desperate for some positive news and Neymar would take the heat off Barca’s under-fire president. However, they will be aware that Neymar is no longer the player he was, in age, appetite or profile and one of the selling points of his transfer to Paris – emerging from Messi’s shadow and taking a personal stab at the Balon d’Or – just didn’t materialise. Although his raw talent is unquestioned and his bank balance phenominally healthy, there’s a feeling he has not accomplished as much as he should have done by this stage of his career. There’s been too much “will he, won’t he” in reference to his commitment to club and city and there’s been some nasty petulance at times that has prevented him from being placed alongside, for example, Lionel Messi.
PSG have secured Mauro Icardi on a permanent basis from Inter Milan and while he’s not mentioned in the same breath as Neymar, he has done a good job for the club. Already PSG are being linked with everyone and everything and with Thiago Silva leaving Paris after eight years, other players will surely come into the equation. If they have Mbappé settled, they probably won’t need another earth-shattering signing until next year.
If the Champions League does restart with its novel format, PSG may find they have their best chance of winning the trophy their owners have coveted since they rolled into town. Admittedly, they may have to beat teams they have trouble overcoming – Barcelona and Bayern Munich – but in a season where nobody has spoken of them as potential winners, it could just be their moment to shine. They do have the world’s most sought-after talent in their line up, Mbappé, and some of the contenders are not in as good shape as they were a year or two ago.
And if not this season, maybe next? The problem is, PSG are not a club with that very rare quality in football, patience. They have been notable for sacking coaches after successful domestic programmes but are still looking for the ingredient that will enable them to win the Champions League. That vital part of the recipe is not necessarily just cash, but in the post-virus environment, those clubs with stable owners will surely have the chance to differentiate themselves. PSG will not feel the squeeze like other clubs and in the aftermath of lockdowns and dire macro-economics, they could suddenly find themselves as the most comfortable club in the global game.