Paris Saint-Germain returns to the bread and butter of Ligue 1 on Sunday night at the Parc des Princes when the star-studded circus takes on a fumbling Lyon side in the sixth game of the season.
Mauricio Pochettino’s team enter the clash as pace-setters with five wins out of five in the top flight.
Lyon – one of the big beasts in the French football firmament – comes to the capital lying seventh in the table with eight points after five games.
Lyon enjoyed a successful outing in the Europa League on Thursday night with a 2-0 win at Rangers.
PSG’s fortunes in the Champions League on Wednesday night were the stuff of nightmares. They drew 1-1 at Bruges. And they had goalkeeper Keylor Navas to thank for bailing them out on several occasions.
Not the pyrotechnics expected from a team unleashing Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, and Lionel Messi for the first time.
The fabulous three failed to fire. It was Ander Herrera – admittedly set up by Mbappé – who scored PSG’s goal in the 15th minute.
It was canceled out 12 minutes later and Bruges outmuscled their illustrious opponents who left the Stadion Jan Breydel chastened.
“There were certainly aspects of the game in which Bruges were better,” said Pochettino.
“But we started the game well, we scored but we gave them the chance to believe by conceding a goal that we shouldn’t concede. We have to work to improve.”
Some of that prized British phlegm may have seeped its way into the Argentine’s core during his five years in the country as boss of Tottenham Hotspur.
But the 49-year-old will know his lot revolves around winning – one title in particular.
Cash-soaked Qatari owners have pumped in a couple of billion euros for players and coaches who have furnished Paris Saint-Germain with seven Ligue 1 titles in the last nine years as well as six triumphs in the Coupe de France and as many in the Coupe de la Ligue. There have also been eight French super Cups.
But despite the splash, the biggest bauble of them all – the Uefa Champions League – has not washed up in the trophy room at the Parc des Princes.
The lavish transfer investment – more than 400 million euros on Neymar and Mbappé alone – has intensified expectation and scrutiny.
Billed as one of the favorites for the 2022 Champions League crown due to an übersquad that includes the Netherlands skipper Georginio Wijnaldum as well as the Italy goalkeeper Gigi Donnarumma, there was breast-beating and ululation after the stalemate at Bruges on Wednesday night.
A convincing result against Lyon on Sunday night will reduce the criticism of Pochettino’s tactics especially if PSG follows it up with victories over Metz and Montpellier.
But he will be under the spotlight again when Manchester City visits the Parc des Princes on 28 September for the second Group A tie in the Champions League.
Pep Guardiola’s team outwitted PSG over two legs to reach last season’s final where they were undone by Chelsea – led by Thomas Tuchel who had taken PSG to 2020 final and defeat Bayern Munich.
Even a loss against City would not be catastrophic with four games to go in the pool. But it would challenge the notions of supremacy.
“It’s not always the best teams that win the Champions League,” said Messi when he was unveiled to the media after signing a two-year deal with PSG last month.
“Sometimes you need a bit of luck and that’s what makes it so special.”
Fans of Chelsea will attest to that. Bayern Munich battered them in 2012 final but the west Londoners won it on penalties. And in 2021, Guardiola decided to reboot an ominous winning machine for the final with disastrous results.
And yet a modest start in European club football’s most prestigious competition could provide the platform for dominance following a rethink of shape.
Dovetailing Messi, Neymar, and Mbappé into a free-flowing flourish of elite marksmen will take time. Why shouldn’t it?
Just because they’re all rather good doesn’t mean they won’t need the white heat of a competitive match or two in order to synchronize their preternatural patterns.
“Combinations and affinities are not only created in training,” insisted Pochettino – clearly still nursing the bruises from Bruges.
Mbappé, who hobbled off on Wednesday night in the 50th minute with an injured left foot, will be unable to feature in those training sessions until at least next week.
Pochettino’s yen for the trident to compete together will be denied for a match or two. And so the PSG faithful will just have to make do with only Messi and Neymar until Mbappé returns.
Poor lambs. Pochettino might also use the 22-year-old’s absence to define a midfield that provides creativity and solidity for the fun boy three to roam and make merry.
An inconsistent Lyon might not have provided the necessary examination even if the troika had been ready to roll again. Montpellier and Metz are less so. But they could have offered the minutes necessary.
Under normal circumstances, PSG against Lyon would be one of the defining games of the Ligue 1 season even so early in the campaign.
It looms on Sunday though as an irritating adjunct to PSG’s obsession with the Champions League trophy and navel-gazing.
Hara-kiri in the wake of a defeat would elicit such schadenfreude.