A year on, it was another exit from the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, again on away goals. Yet something was very different this time.
“A year ago,” wrote Jerome Touboul in Sunday’s edition of L’Equipe (subscription required), “despite the failure against Barcelona, Carlo Ancelotti received a congratulatory call from Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, satisfied by the bravery witnessed in the return at the Camp Nou. This week, Laurent Blanc didn't receive a comforting call, either from the new emir or from Nasser Al-Khelaifi.”
Having ridden the crest of a wave for most of this season, Blanc is suddenly under pressure. The heartbreaking Champions League defeat to Chelsea was hard enough to digest, and it was followed by another limp and anaemic display in defeat at a spirited Lyon on Sunday.
On Saturday, before the game, it had been Blanc himself casting doubt over his future for the first time as he contemplated signing a new contract (as per Le Parisien, in French). After the Lyon game, the displeasure of the emir’s representative in Europe, president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, was clear enough to do the same.
It’s hard to fully convey the acuteness of disappointment felt by the club and its fans at the Champions League exit. They were just a few minutes away from a semi-final, but Al-Khelaifi tempered his disappointment, saying that Blanc “will continue, of course” (via Le Figaro, in French).
There had been something very concerning about the manner of the defeat, however. Bold all season; PSG retreated into their shell after Andre Schurrle’s opener. €64m striker Edinson Cavani’s crucial misses were more a symptom than a cause, you felt.
The reasonable mind says: judge Blanc on the season in its entirety. PSG’s game has evolved into the spectacle that QSI (and the fans) have always wanted since the former France boss replaced Ancelotti.
Blanc told this journalist in an autumn interview for television that he wanted to instil a “possession-based game” at the club. The statistics tells us that he has succeeded at the highest level in this sense. Only Bayern Munich and Barcelona have had a greater proportion of possession in this season’s Champions League (see WhoScored.com).
It hasn't been keep-ball for the sake of it, either. PSG are an aggressive, attacking beast under Blanc. With five games still to go in Ligue 1, they have already scored 74 times, bettering the 69 registered in the whole of the last campaign.
Yet it’s here and now that represents Blanc’s biggest test. The bad news is that he doesn't have much of a track record of pulling his teams out of sticky spells.
Bordeaux ran into trouble in their Ligue 1 title defence in 2010, shortly before Blanc left the Chaban-Delmas, and they eventually finished sixth—missing out on Europe altogether, let alone a return to the Champions League. When France’s 23-match unbeaten run came to an end against Sweden in Euro 2012, so did the fragile dressing-room peace. Les Bleus imploded, and Blanc left shortly afterwards.
The first signs of discontent have surfaced at the Parc des Princes in recent days. Cavani cut an unhappy figure in Sunday’s match at Lyon, as he had done at Stamford Bridge, and he has been a poor replacement for the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic at centre-forward.
Eurosport.fr, quoting L’Equipe, has suggested that both Ibrahimovic and the influential Thiago Silva have expressed discontent at Blanc’s methods in the wake of the Chelsea loss, underlining “a lack of firmness, of dialogue and experience.”
What is certain is that Saturday night’s rematch with Lyon, in the Stade de France for the Coupe de la Ligue final, is more than mere topping on the season now. Blanc, in particular, has everything to prove, with a return to PSG’s trademark authority imperative.
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