A crestfallen Unai Emery at the end of Paris Saint-Germain’s spectacular collapse in Barcelona.Associated Press
March 15, 2017
It is a headline that will never be forgotten, but for all the wrong reasons. “Inqualifiable”—unspeakable—was the single word on the top of French sports daily L’Equipe‘s cover last Thursday morning, as the hangover from Paris Saint-Germain’s crushing humiliation of succumbing to Barcelona, in the greatest comeback in Champions League history, started to throb insistently through the collective Parisian prefrontal cortex.
That single-word expression of disbelief had been used once before by L’Equipe; on the morning of November 18th 1993, after France lost late on to Bulgaria at the Parc des Princes in the infamous final qualifier that saw Les Bleus’ road to the United States for the 1994 World Cup blocked off (see the comparison in the below tweet from @LeMondeHistoire). It’s a word reserved for exceptional circumstances.
It has now been a week since those dizzying scenes at Camp Nou, and getting a gauge on exactly where PSG are at, and how the club and those around it feel, is still not a simple task.
The immediate aftermath was, as BT Sport’s French football expert Julien Laurens told Bleacher Report, “total disbelief and shock,” after a night in which Unai Emery’s team were plunged headlong into their worst nightmare and then seemed to crawl away from it, before those fateful and tumultuous closing minutes.
“It had been a very tense game up until (Edinson) Cavani’s goal,” Laurens said. “After that, no one at the club or among the squad, the staff or the fans could believe the players would not do it.”
Those closing minutes in which Barca monopolised the ball and wrested the tie in their favour were almost an out-of-body experience for Emery’s prone players, “like a tragic sense of inevitability had taken over” following Neymar’s goal, as ESPN’s Paris-based correspondent Jonathan Johnson told B/R.
Moving on is the priority now, with a potential treble of Ligue 1, Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue still in play—the final of the latter, against Monaco, will be played in Lyon on April 1.
Yet the convalescent state of Emery’s squad was clear in Sunday’s narrow 2-1 victory at rock-bottom Lorient—a match that one would expect PSG to win with some to spare normally, but that they made heavy weather of.
“They didn’t play well,” said Laurens, “but they won and it was the most important thing.”
Serge Aurier’s quality is not in doubt, but his latest faux pas couldn’t have come at a worse time for the club.Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press/Associated Press
The residual tension in the ranks, though, was clear; never more so than with the extraordinary episode involving Serge Aurier.
Already criticised in some quarters for playing Sergi Roberto onside for Barca’s dramatic winner (though, from this column’s perspective, it seems harsh to single him out), the Ivorian incurred the exasperation of PSG’s coaching staff for his tardiness in getting ready to come on as substitute for the injured Thomas Meunier, who was limping around the pitch.
Le Parisien, for example, wrote here (in French) about Aurier taking nearly 10 minutes to come on. In reality, it took him nearer three minutes to get changed—and granted, that was still infuriating in the circumstances—with the bigger number being counted from the point when Emery first instructed him to warm up.
The newspaper suggested that a line had been crossed, and Aurier, who has embarrassed the club on more than one previous occasion, might have used up his quota of second chances.
On Canal+’s post-match programme J+1, also referenced by Le Parisien, Emery did his best to swerve his annoyance with Aurier, which had been clear at the time. Back in the studio, pundit and former PSG striker Mickael Madar was rather more scathing in his assessment of the episode, which he called “a lack of professionalism” on Aurier’s part.
The club have tried hard to keep a lid on any outward signs of discontent, as Johnson told B/R.
“The only time they really perked up was to react to the incidents at Le Bourget,” he said, “and then to respond to L’Equipe‘s inaccurate reports on the Friday” (concerning an alleged night out before the game involving Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi, flatly denied as having “no credibility” in the below tweet).
Laurens also pointed to an interview from president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, given to Le Parisien and backing Emery.
Meanwhile, the ultras, who have had a fractious relationship with the club’s management in recent years until being invited back to the Parc in recent months, have a role to play.
“At Lorient on Sunday,” said Laurens, “the 600 ultras who travelled were fully behind the team, never stopping to support them and to chant. It was a great show of unity, and we should have another example of it next Sunday at the Parc where a sell-out crowd will be behind the team to host Lyon.”
The angry and chaotic scenes at Le Bouget airport in the early hours of last Thursday morning, when the PSG party landed from Barcelona, were something that the ultras “distanced themselves from,” Johnson pointed out. Most were still in Barcelona, of course. Yet it’s a healing process for the fans, too—perhaps even more so than for the players.
“All supporters are hurt by what happened,” Johnson said. “Many are truly lost for words about Barcelona. It has traumatised them.”
So what’s left in the campaign after the chance at the ultimate aim was frittered away? For the coach, it’s about a grim battle to hang on to his position, though both Laurens and Johnson believe Emery has hope of doing so.
“The only thing that can save Emery is to do the domestic treble,” Laurens said, “though it is still very much possible.”
His future, Johnson believes, depends on “whether they can really see the signs of progress made under the Spaniard,” along with the simple availability of any better candidates.
The lack of suitable names, of course, kept his predecessor Laurent Blanc in situ for longer than expected. Emery should bear Blanc’s end in mind, though, when accepting the vote of confidence from upstairs.
“Blanc was sacked two months after Al-Khelaifi confirmed him as manager in an interview,” Laurens underlined.
The next step in the recovery will be that first home game since Barca, on Sunday against Lyon. Maybe Bruno Genesio’s ultra-attacking side will prove an ideal opponent, leaving the gaps at the back for Paris to put on a show—and maybe they will have succumbed to their own “remontada” by then, as they go to Roma on Thursday defending a first leg lead in the Europa League.
Overthinking the opponent is not something PSG specialise in, though, and they won’t start doing that now. The answer will come from within, though we are a long way from seeing whether that can save Emery’s Parisian dream.