When the draw for the last-16 of the Champions League was made in December, most in France felt that Paris Saint-Germain had struck lucky when they were paired with Bayer Leverkusen. Two months on, the Ligue 1 leaders are not playing with the same spark but still look like having too much for their German opponents.
In the autumn, Laurent Blanc's side were performing so well that this blog wondered whether they could go through the entire domestic season without losing and the idea of them winning the Champions League did not seem at all fanciful.
Since then, PSG have been beaten in Ligue 1, albeit just the once, and were surprisingly knocked out of the French Cup. They remain five points clear of Monaco at the top of the table and have a League Cup final against Lyon to come in April but, as Le Parisien put it, they are not "the steamroller that reigned terror on the fields of Ligue 1 in the first half of the season".
They have, at times in recent weeks, fallen into the trap that caught Barcelona last season, of keeping possession for possession's sake. They have been less penetrating, and for a coach who has always encouraged his full-backs to attack, Blanc will also have been disappointed to see the influence of Gregory Van der Wiel and Maxwell wane in recent weeks.
Blanc, though, admits that his players feel "mentally worn" and says that a physically demanding training camp in Qatar during the winter break is partly responsible for the often sluggish displays of his team since then. They are also, understandably, missing the influence of Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan may not be in his best position on the left of the attack but he has still contributed 20 goals this season and his enthusiasm on the field is infectious.
Cavani will miss the Leverkusen first leg on Tuesday as he continues to struggle with a thigh injury suffered against Bordeaux at the end of last month, and his absence has caused a problem in the PSG attack. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will of course lead the line in Germany, and Lucas will start too, but doubts surround who Blanc will choose to complete the attack in his 4-3-3 formation, with Ezequiel Lavezzi and Javier Pastore both staking a claim.
Pastore impressed, and scored, when starting on the left of the attack in the 1-1 draw at Monaco last week, before Lavezzi took the chance given to him against Valenciennes on Friday, scoring one and then embarking on a trademark penetrating run into the box to force the own-goal that sealed the 3-0 victory despite the shattering news that his uncle had been shot dead in Argentina days earlier.
The resistance offered by a struggling Valenciennes at the weekend, though, was minimal, and the meeting with the side who lie second in the Bundesliga will be an altogether tougher task for the current French champions, even if Sami Hyypiä's side have lost four times in six league games and were knocked out of the German Cup by second-tier Kaiserslautern last week.
"They're fragile just now," says Eurosport 2 Bundesliga commentator Tony Jeffers, who was at the BayArena on Saturday to see the Werkself lose 2-1 to Schalke as they dropped 16 points behind leaders Bayern Munich. "They are going through a blip and the cup defeat was a body blow. Their team is set up in a 4-3-3 formation around (top scorer Stefan) Kiessling. They don't have a plan B. There is a lack of creative spark and up against PSG it will be men against boys you would think."
Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Völler - who played for Marseille when they beat AC Milan in the 1993 Champions League final - reckons that PSG are one of the five best teams in Europe just now, implying that they are in a position to at least match their run to last season's quarter-finals.
Le Parisien, meanwhile, say this is the match in which PSG "dream of imposing themselves as a new European giant". But while they may well be too strong for Leverkusen, there remains a feeling that they will be found out if and when they come up against a Bayern or a Chelsea, and PSG will need to recover their fluid form of the autumn if they are to stand any chance of becoming only the second French side to get their hands on the trophy with the big ears in Lisbon in May.
- Sports & Recreation
- Paris Saint-Germain
- Bayer Leverkusen
- Laurent Blanc