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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Heat is on PSG as Neymar and Kylian Mbappe look to keep Uefa Champions League hopes alive

The French champions could be eliminated with a defeat to Liverpool on Wednesday

Neymar, left, and Kylian Mbappe watched Paris Saint-Germain win from the stands at the weekend but both are expected to feature against Liverpool on Wednesday. AFP
Neymar, left, and Kylian Mbappe watched Paris Saint-Germain win from the stands at the weekend but both are expected to feature against Liverpool on Wednesday. AFP

Two great burdens seemed to lift from the shoulders of Paris Saint-Germain head coach Thomas Tuchel as the most important fixture yet of his time in charge of the club neared.

The bulletins from his medical staff were positive: Neymar’s thigh problem had eased considerably, and Kylian Mbappe’s injured shoulder is all but repaired.

That represents over €400 million (Dh354m) worth of firepower given the okay to take on Liverpool at the Parc des Princes on Wednesday in a game that could cast extravagant spenders PSG out of the Champions League before the group phase is even completed.

Both Mbappe and Neymar, who sustained their injuries on duty for France and Brazil respectively during the international recess, missed the weekend’s Ligue 1 meeting with Toulouse.

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They were not missed as PSG duly racked up their 14th win of the season - a 100 per cent record - and reminded the rest of France that even €400m’s worth of attacking panache can appear a supplementary luxury in the chase for domestic pre-eminence.

Edinson Cavani, whose €65m arrival in Paris back in 2013 used to be the high watermark of big spending, scored a beautifully executed goal to beat Toulouse. It was Cavani's fourth in two matches, his 10th of the campaign.

News of a match-ready Mbappe, and a Neymar fit enough to play at least some part against Liverpool is a relief, but it may also clutter Tuchel’s thoughts.

Wary of the lessons of Liverpool’s 3-2 win at Anfield when the clubs met on matchday one of a complicated Group C, the German coach is seeking a delicate equilibrium tonight between containment and aggression. Formidable though a

Neymar-Cavani-Mbappe forward line is, it means putting into retreated positions players who have thrived in the last two months, like Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler; it also poses challenges for those phases when Liverpool have possession and channel their quick breaks through their attacking full-backs, advancing into territory Neymar and Mbappe occupy.

PSG’s imbalances - lavish recruitment of attacking stars, scratchy cover in the ball-winning positions - are a test for any coach, and Tuchel has tackled them by using, more and more frequently, a 3-4-3 formation, the likely scheme for Wednesday.

The German, who succeeded Unai Emery as head coach in the summer - becoming the fifth different man in the job in seven years - has brought a number of fresh ideas, and made a point of establishing his disciplinary standards at a club where a perception had developed that the superstars enjoy special, privileged status.

Tuchel dropped Mbappe from the starting XI last month because he arrived four minutes late for a team meeting.

That sort of authority grows with success. Tonight Tuchel on Wednesday confronts a brutal arithmetic. If PSG lose, and Napoli win at home to Red Star Belgrade, the Parisians will be out, and scrabbling for a Europa League spot.

He knows his PSG cannot afford to look as insipid as they did at Anfield, when Mbappe’s late goal appeared to retrieve a point, for 2-2, but Liverpool, more dynamic, then struck an injury-time time winner.

“It’s important to stay focused,” said Tuchel of the rematch, “and that means keeping the balance between staying cool and being aggressive. We know it’s a crucial game.”

It is certainly that for the image of the club, battered in recent weeks on a number of fronts.

There were concerns about PSG’s adherence to Uefa’s Financial Fair Play guidelines, by leaked reports that racial criteria had been applied to their youth recruitment strategies, and tarnished over the longer-term by the persistent glass ceiling the Ligue 1 champions seem to encounter when faced with high-calibre opposition from outside France.

They sit third in Group C because they have been unable to beat Napoli - the clubs drew in Naples and in Paris - or Liverpool so far, and while the group phase has not been an insurmountable barrier since PSG’s lurch into the big-budget bracket of super clubs, they have stayed stubbornly shy of a Champions League semi-final.

Take away two successful last-16 ties against Chelsea, and over the last six years, PSG have left club football’s most prestigious tournament almost as soon as they have encountered pedigree opposition.

Barcelona, who have beaten PSG three times in knockout ties since 2011, famously reversed a 4-0 first-leg deficit to knock Emery’s PSG out in the last 16 in 2017. Manchester City had eliminated Carlo Ancelotti’s PSG in the quarter-finals a year earlier.

Real Madrid dispatched them last March. Liverpool, five times champions of Europe, can inflict similar damage on the reign of Tuchel on Wednesday.