Serious things are starting for PSG. Promising in many aspects, like the matches against Lens (3-1), Dortmund (2-0) and OM (4-0), but inconsistent, as we saw again last Saturday in Clermont (0-0), Luis Enrique's men rub shoulders with Newcastle and its fiery atmosphere this Wednesday (9 p.m., Canal), in C1. “It will be a special match for Newcastle after 20 years without the Champions League. It's up to us to know how to manage this kind of moment, to control the match. We are experienced, we have already experienced this kind of atmosphere,” swears Lucas Hernandez, drawing on his experience in Spain and Germany to say that “when you enter the field, you have to forget the context. That’s what being mentally strong is: forgetting expectations, forgetting what’s around you and giving it your all.”
If there is uncertainty about the tactical scheme (4-2-3-1?), Luis Enrique will not change his idea of the game for anything in the world: “We will try to play with our identity and our philosophy,” insists the Spanish technician, who had also scored at St-James' Park, during a defeat of "his" FC Barcelona (3-2) in 1997. "It's a very strong team, no one wanted them in the fourth hat. They did well last season, they’re a fantastic team. There will be a big atmosphere, impressive too. I am jealous of my players who will develop in these conditions. I’m looking forward to this match, it will be an extraordinary encounter,” he salivates.
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A great team? Maybe. But above all a collective. No big name, no superstar. And this while the club went under the Saudi flag in 2021, with what that implies in terms of resources. “They take their time. I was surprised to see what they did, very intelligent recruitment,” underlines Laurent Robert, who accompanied the Parisian delegation for this meeting between two of his former clubs. “It will be a good match, with a lot of goals,” he still guesses. After qualifying for the C1 at the end of last season, the Magpies, who have had three losses in a row (Liverpool, City, Brighton), have found the right rhythm and remain in five matches without defeat, including four wins, with one 8-0 card in Sheffield and a qualification in the League Cup against the City B team (1-0). During the first day of “Champions”, Eddie Howe's players brought home a happy draw from Milan (0-0).
If this meeting represents a life-size test for Paris-SG, it is therefore because of the quality of the opponent, the atmosphere of the “cauldron” of St-James' Park, as described by another former player. Paris and Newcastle, Didier Domi. But also to see how the French champion club will react to the pressure and intensity of the English environment. “This is the kind of stage that we have to go through in a season, we will have to raise the level, especially in the middle. It will be a real test,” swears the beIN MENA consultant and technical consultant of the PSG Academy in the Middle East. “Be careful of the trap because St-James' Park is something... It's going to push very hard from the start. They're not going to stay with 10 men in front of their goal at the start of the match. That’s not the idea at all... They have offensive weapons to hurt Paris, even if Allan Saint-Maximin is no longer there,” underlines Fabrice Pancrate, one of the 11 players to have worn the jersey of the two teams, from David Ginola to Gini Wijnaldum, via Hatem Ben Arfa.
Who are the players to watch? “Nick Pope, a great goalkeeper, performing well every weekend. For me, the small weak point is on the left, Nick Burn lacks speed even if he has a big character and he fights well. The midfielder and the right side with Kieran Trippier, who has a bit of the same profile as Achraf Hakimi, he defends very well and also supports the attack well, he takes set pieces. Right side to watch, the middle we know with Joelinson (uncertain) very strong, Bruno Guimarães... And up front, Aaron Gordon is a great player, Alexander Isak is gaining strength, Miguel Almiron and his left paw... It's a good very balanced team,” explains Laurent Robert, not failing to explain “that there are also heavy challenges on the other side”, that is to say on the Paris Saint-Germain side.
Collective test, but also individual test. See how Gigio Donnarumma reacts to English pressure, he who is not known for his kicking game. Despite advantageous statistics, we expect more from Kylian Mbappé in the game. We also look forward to seeing the “junkyard dog” Manuel Ugarte in this kind of context. Last but not least, Ousmane Dembélé is still waiting to score his first Parisian goal. “He’s a different, extraordinary player, he can make the difference at any time,” judges Hernandez, not worried about his club and national teammates. “He is an extraordinary talent, capable of playing on both sides but also in the center even if he has mainly been used on the right until now,” analyzes Luis Enrique. He creates a lot of danger, he is very fast and he will score goals and make assists. He is progressing but he can still do better.” Much better, especially in efficiency.
“If we stay focused and aggressive for 90 minutes, we will have opportunities and we will be able to win the match,” adds Lucas Hernandez, mentioning in passing that “we will have to know how to manage the strong moments and the weak moments” in this enticing encounter. Another point on which we inevitably expect Paris-SG, which has often been punished in its weak times in recent years, in Europe but not only. The opportunity to show that the new era put forward by management and Nasser Al-Khelaïfi is not just empty words.