Paris Saint-Germain are under pressure to clinch their place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League at Valencia’s expense after their latest below-par domestic performance.
The French club are top of Ligue 1 and lead Valencia 2-1 from the first leg of their last-16 tie, but a 1-0 defeat away to Stade de Reims on Saturday came as a blow to Carlo Ancelotti’s squad before today’s game at the Parc des Princes.
Furthermore, bizarre comments by sporting director Leonardo — who spent two years as a player at Valencia in the early 1990s — will come back to bite PSG if they are unable to see off their Spanish opponents.
“Maybe we are not made to play in games like these,” claimed the Brazilian after the defeat to a Reims side that had won just once in their previous 19 matches in all competitions. “Perhaps we have a team designed more for Europe than the league.”
The often tepid nature of their domestic performances this season and the contrast with their outstanding results in Europe would appear to back up Leonardo’s claims, but for a man in his position to say such a thing was still a major surprise.
The massive investment in PSG’s squad by their Qatari owners has, after all, been made with domestic as well as European success in mind.
Nevertheless, attentions are now fully fixed on the continental scene, and vital away goals from Ezequiel Lavezzi and Javier Pastore mean that PSG have the edge coming into the return leg of this tie, even if a late Adil Rami goal in the first leg allowed Valencia to maintain hope.
“I don’t think the defeat to Reims will be a problem because everyone is focused on Europe,” former Barcelona fullback Maxwell said.
“This competition is very important and we will be giving everything to try and win it,” he said.
All will be well in the French capital if Ancelotti’s side can progress to the quarter-finals of Europe’s elite club competition, but they will need to cope without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who begins a two-match European ban handed down for his sending-off toward the end of the first leg.
Italian midfielder Marco Verratti is also banned, meaning a Champions League start could be in the offing for David Beckham, who failed to make an impression as a substitute at the weekend.
“They are two important players. Ibrahimovic holds the ball up well and Verratti is young, good technically and controls the way his team plays,” Valencia’s French leftback Aly Cissokho said.
“They will miss them, but they have players who can replace them such as Beckham or [Jeremy] Menez,” he said.
Valencia come into the game on a run of just one defeat in their last 10 outings in La Liga, even if that was a 5-0 home defeat at the hands of a Real Madrid side who, like PSG, are adept at tearing opponents apart on the break.
Ernesto Valverde’s men are fifth in La Liga, one point adrift of the Champions League qualifying spots for next season, although they could have been in an even better position had they not conceded a late equalizer to draw 2-2 at home against cross-town rivals Levante at the weekend.
The two-time Champions League runners-up have defensive problems with Ricardo Costa and French international Rami both missing due to injury, meaning another Frenchman, Jeremy Mathieu, will again partner Victor Ruiz in the heart of the back four, just as he did at the weekend.
“We lost at home, but despite everything we have a chance of winning in Paris,” Cissokho said. “We need to score, so we cannot afford to just sit back, but nothing is impossible in football.”
JUVENTUS V CELTIC
Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo could be forgiven for having the 2005 Champions League final on his mind when the Italian side take a 3-0 advantage into their last-16 second-leg clash against Celtic today.
Pirlo was in the shell-shocked AC Milan team who blew a 3-0 halftime lead against Liverpool before losing on penalties in one of the most astonishing European finals in history.
Celtic, beaten 3-0 at home, need to end Juve’s 17-match unbeaten European run and re-write the Champions League record books when they visit the Italian champions but Pirlo, a 2006 World Cup winner with Italy, has seen it all.
“I’ve been in football long enough to know miracles happen. I can still remember the Champions League final against Liverpool,” the 33-year-old told Scottish paper the Daily Record after the first leg.
“Liverpool scored three goals in just a half, whereas Celtic have a whole game. It would be dangerous to consider that the tie is won yet,” he said.
The Scottish team could get inspiration from South America’s Copa Libertadores where Mexican side America pulled off a remarkable win against Brazil’s Flamengo at the Maracana stadium five years ago.
Trailing 4-2 from the home leg, the Mexicans silenced the famous arena with a 3-0 win regarded as one of the greatest humiliations in Flamengo’s history.
A quick look at UEFA statistics, however, highlights the immensity of the task facing Celtic at the Juventus Stadium.
Only two teams have come back from losing the first leg at home to win a tie in the knockout stages of the Champions League since the competition started 21 years ago.
Inter did it two seasons ago, when they lost 1-0 at home to Bayern Munich, but won 3-2 away to go through on away goals, and Ajax pulled off a similar fightback against Panathinaikos back in 1995-1996.
Like Inter, the Dutch side had only a one-goal deficit to make up, compared with Celtic’s three.
If that were not enough, Celtic are also facing a team who have not lost in European competition for three years, when they were sunk 4-1 by Fulham in the Europa League. Juventus were knocked out of the following year’s Europa League without losing any of their 10 games and are unbeaten after seven matches in the current campaign.
The Serie A leaders are leaving nothing to chance, although coach Antonio Conte might rest Arturo Vidal, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Claudio Marchisio who are one yellow card from suspension.
Celtic will be without captain Scott Brown who has a thigh injury and he will be joined on the sidelines by defender Mikael Lustig who has bone bruising.
Celtic warmed up for the match with a 2-1 Scottish Cup win over St Mirren.