Timing is everything for PSG, under-fire manager Laurent Blanc
This is a story about timing. Two weeks ago, Paris Saint-Germain coach Laurent Blanc had enjoyed the best victory of his coaching career, the 3-1 Champions League quarterfinal first leg win over Chelsea.
It was better than the 1-0 away win in Caen, back in May 2009, which clinched the Ligue 1 title for Bordeaux (that was its 11th straight league win), and the following season's double over Olympiakos that took Bordeaux to the Champions League last eight; it was also better than France's 2-0 Euro 2012 win over Ukraine, which sealed its quarterfinal place at the tournament.
This is Blanc's first season in Paris, after signing a two-year deal, with the second year optional. PSG had wanted a bigger name to replace Carlo Ancelotti last summer, but had reportedly become impressed with Blanc's management of an ego-filled locker room, style of play that was more fluid than Ancelotti's tactical hotchpotch and status in Ligue 1: 13 points clear with six games to play. France Football magazine recently wondered if this PSG side was the best French side of all time.
Remember, it's all about timing. So after the Chelsea win, PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi publicly said that Blanc had been offered a contract extension and would sign it soon. There had been suggestions that Blanc had expected an improved deal to be offered earlier in the season, and not signing this one straightaway was his way of showing his frustration at the delay.
But then, timing got in the way: or rather, two very damaging defeats. First, Chelsea beat PSG 2-0 in the return leg and went through. PSG was five minutes from qualifying, but for the second straight season, was out on away goals. The verdict in France was that PSG did not have a Plan B at Stamford Bridge; that in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to hope for a 1-0 defeat was not good enough; that Jose Mourinho's tactics, to not push for a second goal until late in the game, flummoxed Blanc; that once again, like with Bordeaux in the 2010 Champions League and France at Euro 2012, Blanc had gone no further than the quarterfinal and maybe that was just his limit.
Then, last weekend in Ligue 1, Lyon beat PSG 1-0. It was the second straight game in which PSG had failed to score, and the absence of Zlatan was beginning to cast a long shadow. The press had a field day: Al-Khelaifi had left Stade Gerland without speaking to the coach or the players; captain Thiago Silva and striker Edinson Cavani have been accused of saving themselves for the World Cup; rumors swirled that Blanc had 'lost the dressing room,' with the bigger stars (Silva and Ibrahimovic) unhappy with the coach.
"I will wait for 10 days to give my answer on the contract," Blanc had said after the Chelsea loss. "I have important things to focus on and I don't want to lose my concentration. It's all a question of patience."
The next important thing for Blanc comes Saturday night, when PSG takes on Lyon, again, this time in the League Cup final. Blanc needs a victory, otherwise there is no improvement on last season, when PSG cantered to the title and reached Europe's last eight. On top of that, this year it added Cavani, Lucas Digne and Yohan Cabaye to the squad.
It seems strange to think it, but there is a possibility that the French champion will replace its coach after successive league titles (and if you include Antoine Kombouare, sacked at Christmas 2011, three coaches all gone when the team was top of the table).
On Wednesday, Al-Khelaifi publicly backed Blanc. "I was extremely surprised to read the various comments on our coach Laurent Blanc," he told Le Parisien. "It's very simple: Laurent Blanc is our coach now and I insisted that I want him to stay. I was very clear about that before the Champions League second leg against Chelsea match and my opinion has not changed after that game. Laurent Blanc has my unconditional support and nothing that has happened on the pitch will change that."
Not everyone is convinced by the vote of confidence, though. AS reported last week that PSG is interested in three Spain-based coaches: Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone, Spain national team coach Vicente del Bosque and Real Madrid assistant Zinedine Zidane (who is also said to be wanted by Monaco). All are under contract, unlike Arsene Wenger, who has a long-standing relationship with Al-Khelaifi and remains on the PSG wanted list.
Blanc's new contract is said to be worth €6 million per year, but the longer it goes unsigned, the more the uncertainty lingers. That will intensify if PSG fails to win on Saturday; after being touted as one of France's best club sides ever, the whole season will be a disappointment. The most likely outcome is that PSG will win the League Cup and Blanc will sign the new deal; but 58 percent of over 5,000 PSG fans polled Le Parisien now want him to leave.
There's also a scenario, outlandish as it sounds, that Blanc feels he does not have the confidence of the owner and walks away. That's essentially what Ancelotti did, after he was so shocked following the Qataris' overreaction to a defeat in March 2013 to Reims. He surprised Al-Khelaifi by deciding, after harsh words were exchanged, that he would leave after one season.
It all means that there is more riding on the result of this League Cup final than just a trophy. As L'Equipe newspaper put it: "If the message from on high is that Blanc will stay, the truth of the matter is that the coach is reflecting on his future and the club is on the lookout for alternatives."
As always, timing is everything.