Having waited 19 years and 13 days to reacquaint themselves with the rarefied air at the summit of French football, Paris Saint-Germain were rather dismayed to see their Ligue 1 title celebrations unravel into a sorry mess in the space of barely a week.
Twenty-four hours after a 1-0 win at Lyon on May 12 gave PSG their first title since 1994, supporters clashed with riot police at Paris’ Place du Trocadéro (scene of Zlatan Ibrahimović’s glitzy unveiling the previous summer) and plans for a triumphant trophy presentation at the Hôtel de Ville were shelved. PSG were quick to condemn the “few hundred troublemakers” responsible for the violence, but the title euphoria dissipated further as Carlo Ancelotti abruptly announced his desire to leave the club for Real Madrid.
Sporting director Leonardo then had his suspension for shoving referee Alexandre Castro increased from nine to 13 months, while an initial lack of transfer activity was compounded by a glut of headline-grabbing arrivals at newly promoted Monaco, as well as media reports linking Ibrahimović and Thiago Silva with moves away from Parc des Princes.
The sense of flux was heightened by the unexpected string of rejections that PSG had to wade through before finally appointing a successor to Ancelotti. No fewer than six coaches – José Mourinho, Arsène Wenger, Fabio Capello, Guus Hiddink, André Villas-Boas and Frank Rijkaard – were reported to have rebuffed the French champions’ advances, before former France coach Laurent Blanc eventually took the plunge following a year out of the game.
Leonardo subsequently announced his own departure, later explaining that his ban made it “impossible” for him to continue in his role, but by then he had already set in motion moves that would re-affirm PSG’s status as Europe’s most lavish spenders. In the space of just four days in mid-July, PSG parted with an estimated €114 million to sign Edinson Cavani, Lucas Digne, heir apparent to Patrice Evra as France left-back, and 19-year-old Brazilian centre-back Marquinhos. Thiago Silva and Marco Verratti have since committed to new contracts, while Ibrahimović and former captain Mamadou Sakho are also reported to be renegotiating improvements to their own deals.
Blanc’s reputation was sullied by his tenure as France coach, which ended with a meek 2-0 defeat against eventual champions Spain in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, but as one of the most recognisable alumni of France’s 1998 World Cup triumph he retains a broad popularity that always eluded the outspoken Leonardo. He was also widely acclaimed for guiding a swashbuckling Bordeaux team to the Ligue 1 title in 2009.
Leonardo’s exit robs PSG of the Brazilian’s well-stuffed Serie A contacts book, but it may also help them to shake off the accusation that they are, as former Rennes coach Frédéric Antonetti once put it, “an Italian club who play in France”. PSG’s status as sole representatives of the national capital already guaranteed nationwide unpopularity; Leonardo’s victim mentality, allied with the grotesque investment from Qatar, only exacerbated matters.
Fittingly for a club in the process of turning over a hierarchical new leaf, Blanc is currently reporting to another Blanc, Jean-Claude, whose brief as director general has been widened to encompass some of the dossiers previously presided over by Leonardo while the search for a long-term sporting director continues. A Harvard graduate who arrived from Juventus in 2011, Blanc Snr. has admitted that Ancelotti’s unscheduled departure only served to underline that the club “haven’t got the completely smooth image that we wanted to have immediately”.
With Ibrahimović, Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas Moura, Javier Pastore and Jérémy Ménez now at PSG’s disposal, Leonardo has described the club’s forward line as “the best in the world” and Laurent Blanc says that the arrival of Cavani leaves him with no option but to use the kind of 4-4-2 formation that he once declared extinct. “When you have two strikers called Cavani and Ibrahimović, you play with two central strikers,” he explained.
In any case, PSG are accustomed to playing with two central forwards, as it was with Lavezzi playing in support of Ibrahimović that they closed out the title race last season. Cavani, a French record €64 million signing from Napoli, is still to make his debut, but although there are fears that Ibrahimović will be reluctant to share the spotlight, with over 270 goals between the two players over the past five seasons, their potential is terrifying.
Pre-season results were mixed, culminating in a narrow 2-1 win over Bordeaux in the Trophée des Champions in Gabon on Saturday, when it took the second-half introductions of Verratti and the teenagers Hervin Ongenda and Kingsley Coman to turn the tide against Blanc’s former club in the French equivalent of the Community Shield. Victory, secured by an injury-time header from Chelsea old boy Alex, suggested that PSG retain the battle-hardened spirit that enabled them to inch over the line last season, but motivation is likely to remain a key concern for a team who, by the admission of Thiago Silva, struggle to rouse themselves when they are not competing in the Champions League. Having given Barcelona an almighty scare in the quarter-finals earlier this year, PSG have had a tantalising taste of the European big-time and president Nasser Al Khelaifi has set his team the goal of winning the trophy by 2017.
Last season’s Ligue 1 runners-up, Marseille, have strengthened this summer, while PSG also face an intriguing new threat from Monaco, whose Russian billionaire owner, Dmitry Rybolovlev, has bankrolled extravagant moves for players including Falcao, João Moutinho and James Rodriguez. The expectation is that Monaco will push PSG all the way for the title, but for all the investment their squad retains a Ligue 2 framework and in reality Claudio Ranieri’s side are where PSG were two years ago, when the Qatar Sports Investments splurge was only just beginning. Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas believes PSG are “99.9 percent” certain to successfully defend their title.
The oscillating form of Pastore remains a concern for PSG, and with Kévin Gameiro having recently joined Sevilla, they now possess only two senior strikers, but ahead of Friday’s Ligue 1 opener at 2012 champions Montpellier, the uncertainty of the early summer is fading quickly.