Paris (AFP) – Paris Saint-Germain knew what they were doing when they appointed Mauricio Pochettino as coach a little over six weeks before renewing their rivalry with Barcelona in the Champions League last 16.
Tuesday’s game at the Camp Nou will be the ninth between the sides in the competition in eight years. History is on Barcelona’s side, and in the era of the super club, going out in the first knockout round of Europe’s elite competition is potentially disastrous.
PSG’s exit at the hands of Barcelona at this stage in 2017 was certainly that, with an astonishing 6-1 second-leg demolition wiping out a 4-0 first-leg advantage.
But the Qatar-owned club responded to that humiliation in stunning fashion, by buying the architect of their downfall, paying Neymar’s release clause for a world record fee of 222 million euros ($264m at the time) in a move that caused consternation in the Catalan capital.
PSG’s hopes of gaining revenge over Barcelona on the pitch this time have been hit by the injury to Neymar which rules the Brazilian out of the trip to his old home, and could rule him out of the second leg on March 10 too.
However, the hope is that Pochettino can get the better of his old foes.
When it came to changing coach midway through this season, Pochettino was a natural choice to replace the sacked Thomas Tuchel in many respects.
He is a former PSG captain, and was a free agent having previously done an excellent job at Tottenham Hotspur.
– ‘Impossible to work for Barca’ –
Yet his relationship with Barcelona — or lack of it — also works in the Argentine’s favour.
The 48-year-old spent a large chunk of his playing career in Catalonia, but did so wearing the blue and white of Barcelona’s city rivals Espanyol. He was part of two Copa del Rey winning sides at Espanyol, in 2000 and 2006.
Pochettino then began his coaching career when he took over a struggling Espanyol team in early 2009. He quickly revived their fortunes and oversaw a 2-1 win over Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the Catalan derby at the Camp Nou.
That remains one of the finest results of his managerial career, for all the sterling work he did at Tottenham, including taking them to the 2019 Champions League final. It also remains Espanyol’s only win away to Barca in the last 39 years.
He left in 2012, but the ties to Espanyol remain strong.
“I would prefer to go and work on my farm in Argentina,” he famously joked in 2018 when asked if he might ever coach Barcelona.
It was a theme he recently returned to during an interview with French broadcaster RMC Sport.
“I have a real affection for Espanyol. I spent 12 years there as a player, five as coach. Seventeen years of my footballing life,” he said.
“I have spent more time there than at any other club, and they gave me the opportunity to become a coach. That is why, given the big rivalry, it would be impossible for me to work for Barca.”
– Still finding his feet –
Yet for all that, Pochettino must know elimination at the hands of Lionel Messi and co. would be a huge setback for him so early into his reign in Paris.
He has won eight and drawn one of 10 games so far, but none of the teams he has come up against yet are near the level even of the current Barcelona.
The absence of Neymar is an enormous blow, especially when added to that of Angel di Maria. Marco Verratti is a doubt, and Pochettino is still trying to put his stamp on the team.
Kylian Mbappe, with four goals in Pochettino’s 10 games, has not consistently produced his electrifying best for some time. The new coach has chopped and changed formations too.
“We want the team to be confident playing in different systems, but it’s not always easy to get a lot of work done in just 40 days,” he insisted after Saturday’s win against Nice.
“We have to be ready, and the team will be ready.”
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