Paris Saint-Germain hit with injury deja vu ahead of Uefa Champions League clash with Manchester United
In a repeat of past years when star players were absent for key European fixtures, strikers Cavani and Neymar are both unavailable for Tuesday's last-16, first leg
Behind the scenes at Paris Saint-Germain, a suspicion lurks that Europe bears the club a grudge. There’s all the attentive scrutiny by the governing body, Uefa, of big-spending PSG’s obedience - or otherwise - to Financial Fair Play guidelines. And then there’s the cruelties of the calendar, which seems to deliver brutal medical bulletins at just the wrong time each February.
Hence the weary sense of deja vu on Sunday when fitness tests on Edinson Cavani, the centre-forward, revealed the thigh problem he developed just after scoring the only goal of the weekend’s Ligue 1 victory over Bordeaux is serious enough to rule him out for up to a month. Cavani will not play in Tuesday night’s first leg of the Uefa Champions League last-16 tie at Manchester United.
Nor will Neymar, recovering from a broken bone in his foot, sustained in January; nor Thomas Meunier, the Belgium international full-back, ruled out by a mild concussion suffered 10 minutes from the end of the Bordeaux match.
These are absences that even a squad as expensively assembled as PSG’s has difficulty compensating for. In French domestic football, which PSG dominate, they can be borne. But in the Champions League, the competition towards which the club’s extravagantly-funded ambitions are focused, experience has taught PSG that to miss a superstar is to fall short of required standards.
The back catalogue of debilitating injuries, on the eve of season-defining European matches is long enough to seem like a jinx. Four years ago, they lost four men (Yohan Cabaye, Serge Aurier, Marquinhos, and Lucas Moura) to injury in the league match immediately preceding a last-16 meeting with Chelsea.
They drew the home leg 1-1 and though PSG would, stirringly, progress on away goals, they soon confronted a familiar barrier, an exit before the semi-finals.
Ever since they came under the transformative patronage of Qatari wealth in 2011, PSG have regularly outspent almost every European heavyweight, but never gone beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Ill-timed injuries hampered them in 2017 when, deprived of captain and central defender Thiago Silva and midfield enforcer Thiago Motta, they set off for Barcelona defending a 4-0 first-leg lead. What they needed most was savvy protectors; without their most able pair, PSG fell to a stunning 6-1 defeat.
Last season, some of the same: against Real Madrid, their hopes of capitalising on an away goal in Spain were diminished by a season-ending injury to Neymar less than a week before the home leg.
The loss of two thoroughbred forwards, Neymar and Cavani, is a double blow, although there is still €180million (Dh748m)-worth of attacking zest available. Against United, Kylian Mbappe will take responsibility for leading the forward line, his speed the standout weapon in this compromised PSG forward line.
The good news for PSG is that Marco Verratti, the Italian midfielder, has reported fit after a lay-off. Verratti’s passing, and the precise delivery of Angel Di Maria, are potent launchpads for Mbappe’s runs.
Asked about strategy in the absence of Cavani and Neymar, PSG manager Thomas Tuchel said: “It’s not so much finding a Plan B and a Plan D”.
He will trust Di Maria, who returns to Old Trafford for the first time since his unfulfilling season at United in 2014-15, to occupy Neymar’s zones of influence, cutting in from the wide positions, and Julian Draxler, the Germany attacking midfielder, will relish the opportunity of a start.
Meunier’s absence may be felt, too. The right-back would likely have been earmarked a role policing the in-form Anthony Martial. As it is, the less experienced Thilo Kehrer and the veteran Dani Alves are likely to share duties on the right flank.
Tuchel, appointed last summer, has always been clear that the Champions League will be his chief judge in this job. His predecessors, Laurent Blanc and Unai Emery, were moved on after failing to meet the club’s expectations in it, and he has watched nervously as United’s confidence grew and his own resources thinned in the weeks leading up to today’s confrontation.
“We have to keep our belief and stay calm,” Tuchel said. “For these sorts of games you need players who are used to high-pressure matches, players with quality and confidence. This would have been a big challenge with our full-strength team. It’s an even bigger one now. But it’s our duty to find the answers.”
Updated: February 12, 2019 07:32 AM