Published On: Wed, Mar 7th, 2018

Emery's PSG tenure fizzling out after meek European elimination

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Fireworks were still going off in the stands of the Parc des Princes as the final whistle blew. Real Madrid‘s players had been listening to a backdrop of endless explosions since the small hours of Tuesday morning, when a group of Paris Saint-Germain ultras showed up outside their team hotel and attempted to disrupt their rest.

It did not faze them. Yet it did offer a neat contrast with PSG’s performance. Twelve months after blowing up in Barcelona, the Ligue 1 leader found a more understated way to exit the Champions League. As T.S. Eliot famously told us: the world ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

OK, perhaps that is over-dramatising just a smidgen. The world has not ended for PSG, whose Qatari owners have invested too much time and money into their ambition of conquering Europe to back away now. But this season might as well be at an end.

Fourteen points clear at the top of Ligue 1, the only real question left for PSG is whether it will complete another domestic treble. A Coupe de la Ligue final against Monaco presents at least some jeopardy. Meanwhile, in the Coupe de France, two of its remaining three challengers hail from the country’s third tier.

Winning all of those competitions is unlikely to save Unai Emery’s job as manager. If reports in Paris are to be believed, PSG’s sporting director, Antero Henrique, was exploring options to replace him as long ago as last summer, and then tried again after the club lost its final Champions League group game away to Bayern Munich.

Emery is not perceived as being prone to self-doubt. This is a man who wrote a book about his method for success before he ever lifted a major piece of silverware. “For me the one who possesses a winning mentality isn’t necessarily the one who wins in the end,” he told the Guardian’s Johanna Franden in 2016. “But the one who wants to win the most.”

Such words have started to ring a little hollow. At times in the build-up to this Madrid tie, Emery seemed to be getting his excuses in early. During an interview with Jorge Valdano at the end of January, he repeated several times that the Spaniards were the best team in the world. He asserted at a certain point that “we cannot climb 10 stairs in one go.”

True enough, but Emery has not climbed a single step with PSG. To the contrary, he has started to walk them back down. Under Laurent Blanc, this team reached the Champions League quarter-finals in consecutive years. Emery has now twice failed to get them past the last 16.

Worse, this most recent failure might have been avoided if he had acted with as much confidence as he speaks. PSG started brilliantly in the first leg, taking the lead through Adrien Rabiot and holding its own at 1-1 well into the second half. But then Emery withdrew his top scorer, Edinson Cavani, for a full-back, Thomas Meunier, ceding the initiative. Madrid poured forward, and scored twice late on.

In theory, there was still a way back. Even after Neymar was lost to injury, it was possible to look at this PSG team and conclude that it had enough weapons to make up a two-goal deficit at home. Les Parisiens had won all of their previous 19 games at the Parc des Princes this season, scoring an average of four times per outing.

There ought to have been opportunities during a nervy opening spell on Tuesday. Madrid, for all its European pedigree, looked sloppy. Marcelo played a pass straight into touch. Another teammate gifted the ball to Angel Di Maria inside the box.

Yet PSG struggled to carve out chances. The side was missing Neymar’s invention, yet the players who did start were also below their best. Though Di Maria swapped flanks constantly with Kylian Mbappe, the former could not find his range with his passes and the latter opted to go it alone when through on goal, instead of playing a square ball to Cavani for what would have been an easy tap-in.

Madrid, in contrast, was always menacing on the break. Cristiano Ronaldo flashed a diving header just wide moments before he opened the scoring. PSG’s goalkeeper, Alphonse Areola, had already been required to make sharp saves to deny Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos at the end of the first half.

By the time Cavani pulled things level on the night, in the 71st minute, his team was already down to 10 men. Emery cannot be blamed for Marco Verratti‘s idiotic dissent, yet in a greater sense he must take responsibility for the lack of composure shown by his team once again on a big European night.

Madrid scored again, Casemiro making it 5-2 on aggregate. PSG’s supporters continued to set off fireworks, but on this night, their team’s footballing fuse never truly got lit.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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