The man hired to lead Paris Saint-Germain to Champions League glory delivered the most embarrassing result imaginable.
PSG became the first team to throw away a 4-0 lead from the first leg in the Champions League, losing to Barcelona 6-1 in the second. The awful outcome was made worse by the calamitous way PSG conceded three late goals.
In the previous four seasons, PSG had reached the quarterfinals. That was insufficient in the eyes of Qatari owners QSI, who fired coach Laurent Blanc despite Blanc winning back-to-back domestic trebles and replaced him with Unai Emery.
When PSG dismantled Barcelona at home with an electric display of attacking soccer three weeks ago, the back-slapping and congratulations were in full swing. There was a growing confidence, if not certainty, that Emery was the perfect man to lead PSG to its first European Cup. He was credited with instilling the breathtaking energy the players showed that night.
Now, he and his players will be known as the ones who threw it all away.
“We had everything in hand and we gave them the game,” PSG right back Thomas Meunier said. “We made an enormous amount of errors.”
On a disastrous night, the club’s initials could have stood for something else: Pathetic. Spineless. Gutless.
The French press let rip.
Shortly after the loss, sports daily L’Equipe’s website carried the headline “A Historic Disaster” along with a picture of midfielder Marco Verratti lying on his back with his hands covering his face. L’Equipe’s newspaper called it “Unqualifiable” underlining the shock while delivering a scathingly sarcastic verdict on PSG’s inability to progress in the most favorable of circumstances.
“We weren’t worthy of playing for PSG,” Meunier said.
Angry fans gathered at the airport to jeer and heckle the players when they arrived back.
LACK OF LEADERS
As the exasperated Emery gesticulated wildly on the sidelines, there was no one on the field to stop the damage.
From the first minute, PSG sat far too deep, inviting Barcelona to overrun midfield and camp around the penalty area. That gave PSG the look of a small, retreating army with a massive one bearing down on it, attacks coming from all sides.
Thiago Motta’s absence in central midfield was sorely missed. A great organizer, strong tackler and neat passer, Motta would have added steel and calmness. The hard-nosed Italian is also a relentlessly competitive character and would have got a response from his flagging teammates.
“We were a bit lost,” Meunier said. “We allowed ourselves to be victims.”
PSG also missed veteran left back Maxwell, with Layvin Kurzawa out of position all game and scoring an own-goal.
CHANGING A WINNING TEAM
When PSG routed Barcelona at Parc des Princes, observers marveled at Emery’s tactical innovation.
His three-pronged attack of Edinson Cavani, Julian Draxler and Angel Di Maria worked to perfection, while his decision to pick inexperienced center half Presnel Kimpembe paid off as he contained Lionel Messi.
Then he changed a winning team.
Kimpembe was on the bench for the return leg. Worse, with PSG needing only to see out the last few minutes, Emery kept him there.
Di Maria was overlooked in favor of Brazilian player Lucas. When Di Maria came on, PSG looked sharper going forward and soon pulled a goal back.
If Barcelona had to defend the whole game against Cavani, Draxler and Di Maria, they might have had fewer occasions to charge forward.
PSG’s lethargic absenteeism on the field was mirrored by a complacent approach before the game.
Two days before the match, the club released a video on YouTube called “Supper Club” with four players sitting around a table.
As they pick at their pizzas and slurp soft drinks, Blaise Matuidi and Verratti are joined in conversation by Draxler and Meunier. They are casually discussing the game ahead.
“The first 20 minutes are going to be tough, eh Marco? The field is really big,” Matuidi says. “(Barcelona) attack, attack, and they leave a lot of spaces.”
Draxler then intervenes, telling Matuidi “you will need to run a lot” and they both laugh when Matuidi retorts “I’ll need you to (run) as well.”
The players certainly appeared to taking Barcelona lightly.
When Emery took over he recalled goalkeeper Alphonse Areola from a loan spell and made him his No. 1. Then, uncertain about Areola’s level, he picked Kevin Trapp.
Against Barcelona, Trapp exposed all of his limitations: Poor composure, weak handling, erratic decision making.
On the first goal, the German keeper came up to claim a looping ball with his fists bunched rather than his hands apart, reducing his own surface area.
Trapp appeared to be terrified and his inability to command his back four made sure that panic set in and stayed throughout.
Emery’s future clearly hangs in the balance.
PSG trails Monaco by three points in the French league and Emery’s position will be further undermined if he does not win the title. PSG also faces Monaco in the League Cup final next month.
After the Barcelona match, PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi was asked if Emery was still the right man for the job.
“That’s not a question for now,” Al-Khelaifi said. It will be soon, though.