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Nasser Al Khelaifi

FEATURE | Nasser Al Khelaifi deserves praise after putting his job on the line by appointing Unai Emery

It was a night that no Paris Saint-Germain fan will ever forget. It was an “I was there” moment and I smile joyfully as I reflect on a truly wonderful night at the Parc des Princes.

It was a night where even the most ardent fan of their bitter rivals on France’s south-coast would find it difficult not to be somewhat impressed – whether some of them would admit it or not is another thing.

On Wednesday morning one-word superlatives were used to describe the breath-taking night in south-west Paris with French-based sports paper L’Equipe opting with the headline of “Prodigieux” whilst Le Parisien simply went with “Magique”.

Social media went into meltdown during and after the game and at one stage of the night PSG academy graduate and Champions’ League debutant Presnel Kimpembe was the third highest worldwide trend owing to his fabulous performance against Barcelona’s trio of Messi, Neymar and Suarez.

This was the best PSG performance of the Qatari Sports Investments (QSI) era, there is no argument. The game plan was executed perfectly; the attitude and commitment of every PSG player was exceptional and the result was beyond the wildest dreams of everyone connected with the capital club. This was the big one, forget Chelsea (twice) and Valencia, this was the big knockout-tie victory that everyone had been waiting for to show the rest of Europe the true strength of this PSG side.

For Unai Emery, this was arguably the most defining victory of his managerial career. Granted, he has three Europa League final successes to his name, but this is the Champions’ League last-16 and he will be particularly satisfied with the outcome given his dire record against Barcelona.

PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi opted for Emery at the helm last summer, to take the French Champions past the quarter-final stage of the Champions’ League which has proved a struggle in recent seasons. Emery’s European pedigree, albeit in the Europa League, was enough to convince PSG’s hierarchy that he was the man to break the quarter final hoodoo.

But when the group stage ended in a disappointing second placed finish behind Arsenal, followed by a complicated draw against Barcelona in the last-16 and some patchy domestic form, you would be forgiven for questioning the rationale behind the appointment.

Nonetheless, on Tuesday night everything came to fruition. Emery’s tactical masterplan was carried out perfectly. He pinpointed Barcelona’s weaknesses and instructed his players to brutalise the Spanish Champions and squeeze the life out their Champions League hopes in a way that very few have been able to do during the last decade.

There were huge performances from every player in rouge et bleu, every man played his role faultlessly and won his individual battle. The midfield trio of Blaise Matuidi, Adrien Rabiot and Marco Verratti were in-sync, each man knew at what point to press, at what point to retreat and were flawless in their positional play. The midfield duel was key to the win and the constant high tempo of pressing was too much for Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Andre Gomes thus forcing the Barcelona trio into a catalogue of errors.

So much has been made of the in-efficiency of Barcelona’s midfield three on Tuesday night, but it is important to recognise why they were so ineffective and that was down to Emery’s callous and ruthless approach which got its just rewards.

The discipline of Emery’s side was impressive throughout and in truth the Spaniard instigated a Barcelona-like performance on the Catalans. It was backs-to-the-wall for stuff for Luis Enrique’s array of stars, a rare sight.

What was particularly pleasing, was that amongst all the money spent during the QSI era there were 3 academy graduates (Rabiot, Kimpembe and Nkunku) all playing a starring role against arguably the best club team in world football.

Presnel Kimpembe was making his Champions’ League debut filling in for injured captain Thiago Silva and he did it effortlessly. Adrien Rabiot was instrumental defensively and in attack and showed maturity beyond his years even after being booked inside three minutes of the contest. The defence in general were solid and comfortably dealt with the minor occasions that Barcelona showed threat and the attacking trio of Draxler, Cavani and Di Maria showed just why PSG paid a combined fee in the region of €150 million with some sublime finishing on the night.

Although a 4-0 score line is fantastic, it could and should have been more such was the dominance of the French champions. It was the complete performance. It was an enormous statement from the capital club and huge for the ever-improving Ligue 1.

Emery masterminded the performance and deserves the plaudits for this tactical exhibition but credit must also go to Nasser Al-Khelaifi, whose faith in Emery must not go unnoticed. After the unparalleled success of the Laurent Blanc era, PSG’s Qatari president put his own position on the line in search of Champions’ League glory by sacking Blanc and appointing Emery and if Tuesday night’s encounter was anything to go by, it was completely vindicated. It is unlikely that Tuesday’s result would have occurred under Blanc’s leadership due to the repeated tactical deficiencies that Blanc conveyed over the years in Europe and which ultimately resulted in a change at the helm.

But focus is needed, the tie is not over. If there is one team in world football that con overcome such deficit it is FC Barcelona. Their Champions League home record this campaign reads 3 wins out of 3 (7-0 vs Celtic, 4-0 vs Manchester City, 4-0 vs Borussia M’Gladbach) and German forward Julian Draxler urged caution ahead of the second leg.

He told Sky Germany “4-0 is a super result but we were warned beforehand that very different things have already happened at the Camp Nou. As such, we’re certainly not already through. But now it’s time to enjoy tonight because you don’t experience a game like that every day.”

Finally, Emery has won ‘a big one’ after so-far failing to win any of PSG’s mammoth encounters this season and this one was by far the biggest of all.

Although difficult, It is important that the supporters do not get carried away and think the tie is done, this is easily transcended from the stands to the pitch. Any level of complacency would be dangerous and everyone at the club (fans included) have a responsibility to help the team to see it through.

Emery will be confident that his team can score in the Camp Nou and if they do, Barcelona will need to score six times to advance therefore an away goal is crucial.

If PSG overcome Barcelona, then it will act as a huge statement from the French champions but if they do not get past the quarter finals then would it be viewed as another failure? That remains to be seen however, PSG have given themselves a wonderful platform from which to launch a serious assault on Champions’ League glory in Cardiff in June.

L.D.

 

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