Thomas Tuchel’s Paris Saint-Germain face Manchester United in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie this week with Ligue 1 under total control and a place in the Coupe de France quarter finals in their back pocket.
But the German and the visiting PSG delegation will know that its what happens on Tuesday night at Old Trafford, in the second leg in early March and in the competition as a whole that will likely define the 45-year-old’s first season in charge in Paris.
Despite the fortunes invested by mega rich owners Qatar Sports Investments (QSi) since their takeover in 2012, PSG have yet to go further than the last eight of Europe’s top competition.
The former Borussia Dortmund manager Tuchel is the latest to try and realise QSi’s dreams.
And according to Jeremy Smith of French Football Weekly, a change in style and mentality under Tuchel should give the club’s owners and fans some hope of a breakthrough.
Gone, says Smith, is the often-ponderous possession-based game of Laurent Blanc and, to a lesser extent, Unai Emery, replaced with a faster paced, more intense and more ruthless brand of football.
Domestically, Tuchel’s first term has gone well – PSG’s 1-0 win over Bordeaux on Saturday evening means they’ve only lost one of their 22 league games to date.
But for PSG managers, maintaining Ligue 1 dominance is the basic requirement – it’s in Europe that they are judged. And on that measure, it’s a case of so far so good.
The manner of their defeat at Anfield in their first group stage outing may have raised questions once more about their mentality, but in recovering to top what was a tough group, Smith feels that Tuchel may be making in-roads into fixing a key PSG weakness.
As Edinson Cavani suggested last summer, the French side’s inability to crack the Champions League hasn’t been down to a lack of technical quality.
Rather, he suggested that the lack of togetherness in a squad characterised by cliques and division had resulted in a collective lack of will that saw them crumble when pressure was applied by quality continental opposition.
However, with Neymar looking happier in his surroundings and his football, Gigi Buffon helping build a good rapport in the dressing room and a unifying siege mentality developing around a perceived lack of protection from referees, Smith feels Tuchel should take some credit for improving the group atmosphere.
But the extent to which that growing unity has been converted into a crucial collective desire to win will be tested in the coming weeks, and not least in the two-legged affair with a buoyant United.
When the draw was made last December, few Red Devils fans would’ve relished the prospect.
But with the departure of Jose Mourinho and the burst of positive energy since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival, the tie has taken on a very different look. The more so, with Neymar set to miss out.
“With strikers as clinical as Mbappe and Cavani, and with creative talents such as Di Maria and Draxler in supporting roles, PSG will always be a threat,” says Smith.
“But in a tight tie that could be decided by the odd goal, Neymar’s singular qualities will be missed.”
Interestingly, the French football expert believes that PSG’s midfield deficiencies could prove an even bigger issue.
The club has failed to replace Thiago Motta adequately. And while the Brazilian Marquinhos has done okay in that defensive midfield role, he’s not a specialist.
But for Smith, the absence of Adrien Rabiot, who has been “rotting in the reserves” due to his wish to leave the club on a free in the summer, could be potentially as big a loss as Neymar.
Although he doesn’t like to, he plays very well in the defensive shield role, as well as arguably being their best box-to-box midfielder. Tuchel seems to want to bring him back into the fray but bridges may be too far burnt by now.
But even allowing for these troubles and for the nature of United’s revival under Solskjaer, it would be fair to say the Red Devils haven’t yet faced a side of PSG’s capabilities under their Norwegian caretaker.
And so, while he’s not as confident as he was when the draw was made, Smith believes that with a team still packed with potential matchwinners and possessing a stronger mentality, PSG can expose the Manchester side’s lingering defensive weaknesses and progress.