A summer of change has left Paris Saint-Germain with a radically revamped squad, shorn of some of its biggest stars, and for now they remain a work in progress in what could be Kylian Mbappe’s final season in the French capital.
They face Newcastle United in the Champions League on Wednesday in a tie that captures the imagination beyond its significance as the first meeting of the clubs backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia respectively.
PSG already have the upper hand in a tough Group F after beating Borussia Dortmund 2-0 a fortnight ago while Newcastle drew 0-0 with AC Milan.
Avoid defeat at St James’ Park and Luis Enrique’s team will be well on course to qualify for the knockout stages.
Yet PSG’s revenue, far greater than that of their group rivals, means they shouldn’t be struggling to reach the last 16 and getting beyond this stage has never been the problem anyway in recent years.
The problem has been after that, with the Parisians losing in the last 16 five times in seven seasons.
Appointed in July, Luis Enrique won the Champions League with Barcelona in 2015 and his remit is to at least take PSG back into the latter stages while continuing their domestic dominance.
However, winning the competition “is not something we are obsessed with at all, that’s finished,” insisted president Nasser al-Khelaifi recently.
“We are in the middle of building a new identity, our own style and way of playing, and a new culture.
“That is what we wanted to do, and results will follow.”
Emphasis on possession
Lionel Messi, Neymar, Marco Verratti and Sergio Ramos were the headline names to leave a club that previously put too much focus on superstar signings.
While Mbappe stayed going into the final year of his deal after a contract dispute that overshadowed the summer, PSG spent huge sums on new faces who should help make for a better-balanced squad around him.
Randal Kolo Muani and Ousmane Dembele, signed for a combined 140 million euros ($147m), are French international forwards who are close to Mbappe.
Uruguayan Manuel Ugarte looks like the sort of combative midfielder they have desperately lacked in recent years.
Luis Enrique has set his side up in a 4-3-3, putting the focus on dominating the ball and aggressive counter-pressing.
When it has worked, like in wins over Lyon, Marseille and against Dortmund, PSG have been very impressive.
They average 71 percent possession in their games so far, a big increase on last season.
Mbappe is their leading scorer, but their standout player has been Achraf Hakimi.
The Moroccan full-back is not just a threat down the right but has also been given licence to drift into midfield and add creativity there.
The coach has also shown great faith in Warren Zaire-Emery, the phenomenally-talented 17-year-old midfielder, the youngest member of a squad in which the 11 most-used players this season have an average age of just 24.
It all makes PSG a different prospect to the last two years, where neither Neymar nor an ageing Messi could be relied on to help out defensively.
Reigning champions Manchester City look a cut above their rivals in Europe, but this could still represent PSG’s last chance to win the Champions League with Mbappe.
“What he can do technically and physically confirms to me that he is without doubt the best player in the world, and I am not just saying that because I am his manager,” Luis Enrique told UEFA.com at the weekend.
Yet sports daily L’Equipe on Monday cast some doubts on Mbappe’s recent form, saying he had been “effective, muddled, spectacular, frustrating” in equal measure.
Results so far have been mixed, with Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Clermont meaning they have won only four of eight games in all and leaving them fifth in Ligue 1.
But the former Spain boss is optimistic about his new team’s Champions League chances.
“We are one of the favourites in the fight for the title,” he insisted.
“In terms of potential I honestly don’t think any team is better than ours.”
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