Talking points columnist Eric Devin returns after the international break to look at the heavy fixture list facing PSG on four fronts.
Despite the distances traveled by Javier Pastore and Ezequiel Lavezzi, the international break was, on the whole, kind to Paris Saint-Germain, as several key players used the lay-off to regain fitness.
David Luiz, Serge Aurier, Marquinhos, Lucas Moura and Yohan Cabaye had all missed time due to injury of late, and with six matches in sixteen days across all competitions, a lengthy injury list was looking daunting. While Moura had failed a late injury test for the trip to Marseille, Luiz and Marquinhos started, while Cabaye made the bench and Aurier had practiced over the last week. Thus, things were looking good for PSG in terms of squad rotation.
Then, disaster struck in Le Classique, as David Luiz, his versatility so integral to PSG’s ability to compete on multiple fronts, pulled up clutching his hamstring just before Blaise Matuidi’s equalizer. Then, with ten minutes to go, Thiago Motta, another similarly versatile player pulled up with a similarly worrying injury. With Motta expected to be out for at least 10 days and David Luiz a month, the prognosis is not good, and both are certain to miss both Wednesday’s Coupe de France semifinal against Saint-Etienne, as well as next weekend’s Coupe de la Ligue final against Bastia. With Barcelona in the Champions’ League next mid-week, the fixture congestion is only just beginning, and both will be sorely missed no matter the length of their absences.
With both players able to switch between central defence and holding midfield, Laurent Blanc could continue to employ the defensive partnership that ended Le Classique, Marquinhos and Thiago Silva, although he has been loath to employ the former Roma man centrally in the biggest matches. However, with Marquinhos only just returning to fitness after his own layoff, his ability to play twice a week for the next month may itself be an issue.
At the base of Blanc’s preferred 4-3-3, Marco Verratti is an able deputy, with his wider role going to one of Adrien Rabiot or Yohan Cabaye. The French U-21 international has been used in increasing amounts in the latter half of the season, and rumours about his departure seem to have died down. Cabaye, meanwhile, has failed to find his best form during his time with the capital side, but does possess the necessary experience to be a capable replacement.
For this writer, however, the real issue will be at right back, a position which Marquinhos has made his own over the past few months. A model of economy, able but not overly flamboyant going forward while technically astute tracking back, the young Brazilian has shattered the stereotype of the marauding Brazilian full back, (think Dani Alves, Maicon, etc.) his restraint key to a much more sound defensive effort. His potential replacements are Gregory van der Wiel and Serge Aurier. Aurier, despite his revelatory campaign at Toulouse last year, has, through injury and lack of form, failed to make an impression at the Parc des Princes, and match fitness would also be an issue, to say nothing of playing in matches of the magnitude of those that are to come for PSG. van der Wiel is more experienced as a former Ajax player and Dutch international, but he has repeatedly come up empty this season, failing to pressure opposing full backs and being somewhat of a liability defensively.
Were it not for Marco Verratti, the right side of PSG’s defense would likely be a target, and that is thus the crux of the issue. With Verratti patrolling midfield, PSG could theoretically afford to have a less than defensively sound player at right back. However, if the Italian drops to the deepest role in the midfield three, neither Rabiot and Cabaye are as capable in the tackle, and the right back would be more exposed.
Conversely, though, if Verratti stays on the right of the midfield three, the prospect of Cabaye or Rabiot trying to contain the likes of Leo Messi at the base of midfield is equally scary. With no real alternatives, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a bit of experimentation on Laurent Blanc’s part against Saint-Etienne this mid-week, knowing that, despite the stakes, Les Verts are the least of his worries this month. That said, as the performance of ten men showed against Chelsea, PSG do have the resolve to come a winner in an individual match, the question is whether they can continue to do so with such a crowded fixture list.