“We are not playing for life or death against Dortmund,” said Leonardo one week ago on Canal Plus. After Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-2 win over Lyon – during which they almost surrendered a 3-goal lead, the club’s sporting director gave a live seven-minute interview, methodically providing reassurances on every hot topic in Paris.
“Interview” is in fact an unsatisfactory description, given how comprehensively the Brazilian led the conversation. On Tuesday, L’Équipe titled “An Oscar for Leo” on their front page, in recognition of a spotless performance. Undoubtedly, Leonardo’s return to PSGs last summer has given the club a structuring leader, someone capable of identifying and filling its institutional deficit.
Nonetheless, Leonardo may be factually correct to state that no lives will be lost in Germany and wise to downplay Champions League expectations, but none can question that a fourth consecutive round of 16 elimination would send a wave of hysteria through the club. Concrete events have already weakened his communication, even before the much-awaited clash against Borussia.
Leo’s PR effort was undermined on two occasions within a week. First, a series of mixed messages concerning Neymar’s presence and fitness ahead of Dortmund. While the club communicated his availability, Thomas Tuchel conceded there were doubts as to whether he would be 100% ready. In hindsight, the German spoke truer. Neymar has not played since February 1st and missed Amiens on Saturday. This brings us to the second point, PSG’s last match, against Ligue 1’s 19th placed team.
At 3-0 down 40 minutes into the match in Picardy, PSG knew this was an embarrassment to matter what the final score would be. As it happened, they made their way back to a winning position, before conceding the 4-4 equaliser in extra time. Considering to the fright against Lyon one week earlier, the words “complacency” or “concentration” found their way back into public discourse, at a particularly inopportune moment of the year.
Leonardo has been trying to delicately remove Champions League contention from public discussion since his return. In July, he told Le Parisien: “This year, we have a different vision. It’s time to take a breath, stay calm.” In September, after beating Real Madrid 3-0, Thomas Tuchel also threatened at the start of his press conference: “If anyone asks if we are going to win the Champions’ League I am leaving.” Yet some players didn’t get the memo. For instance, just a few weeks ago, Kylian Mbappé shared his hopes of winning the Champions League this season with France Football.
Since the arrival of Qatari ownership, Paris have been guided by this one obsession. The vast sums of money injected to the capital’s club have all been justified by the belief that they will contribute to a European triumph. Every player at PSG knows that his presence serves to reach that goal. This stubborn objective has created a sense of destiny around PSG. The manager, players, and other officials are asked every year: “Is this the year?”
But, almost by definition, a successful cup run requires approaching each round one at a time. At any given time, you have only one known opponent, and should be concentrated solely on them. Projecting one’s self onto a future great victory is an arrogance reserved for those who have already won. And it is most often a costly arrogance, unless you are Real Madrid, whose European triple defies logic.
PSG’s motivation for European glory has positive impacts on early group stage performances and first legs in knockout rounds, as we have seen in the last few years. But too easily do they believe the job to be done. Too quickly does the enthusiasm turn into anticipation of the next round, of the next step towards an outcome thought to be certain.
Nothing is written yet. PSG needs to stop believing in their own victorious destiny, and instead work and focus on taking one step further. Failure is avoidable too, and refereeing mistakes or injuries to a star player need not be doom-boding events.
Tuchel and Leonardo both have communicated adeptly about the challenge that now faces PSG, demonstrating an understanding of what needs to be done. They know that the premise on which the Qatar’s project is built disserves the team’s focus. The match against Borussia, and any possible further European ties, are therefore more than confrontations between two set of players. This will test whether PSG’s new leadership can overcome the club’s fatal flaw.