PSG Grits Out a Needed Champions League Win as the Storm Swirls Around Tuchel

The goodwill from reaching the Champions League final seems to have worn off for PSG and its manager, and now it's all about survival in the group stage.
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In the end, one goal was enough for Paris Saint-Germain. It hung on to beat RB Leipzig 1-0 and so pulled level with Julian Nagelsmann’s side in their Champions League group on six points. With the away goal edge in the head-to-head meetings between the two, it must now simply match Leipzig’s results in the final two games in the group to make it through to the last 16. Thomas Tuchel remains as coach for now, but next week’s clash with Manchester United will still be vital. The storm may not have broken, but neither has it passed. 

It has been no secret that Tuchel is on thin ice. Few doubt that if PSG fails to make it through the group stage for the first time since the Qatari takeover that he will be dismissed. He might not make it into the new year anyway. PSG may have been in its first Champions League final just three months ago, but this season has lurched from crisis to crisis. 

Tuchel and sporting director Leonardo clashed over the departure of Thiago Silva to Chelsea, with the coach wanting to keep the Brazilian at the club the most obvious sign of the tension between the two. PSG (with a depleted squad) then lost its first two league games of the season and, although it won its next eight, a 3-2 defeat to Monaco on Friday, having been 2-0 up, demonstrated the problems that remain–even if it sits in its customary position at the top of the table. Those problems have been most obvious in Europe, where PSG has lost at home to Manchester United and then in Leipzig in its previous match, when it collapsed after having started the game very well. 

A loss Tuesday would have put PSG six points from survival with two games to play, making the match at the Parc des Princes a huge test. It was compounded by Juan Bernat and Thilo Kehrer both missing from the back four with injury and Presnel Kimpembe and Idrissa Gana Gueye being out suspended. Neither Neymar nor Kylian Mbappe was fully fit, and it was evidence of how critical this game was for the club that both started. By the end, Neymar was clearly struggling, having apparently tweaked his ankle as he slipped under a challenge from Nordi Mukiele. Neither had scored in the Champions League yet this season, but Neymar got off the mark after 11 minutes, converting from the spot after a clumsy challenge by Marcel Sabitzer on Angel Di Maria.

PSG edges RB Leipzig in Champions League

But the nerves were clear. Tuchel had spoken about not compromising his principles, about staying on the front foot, but there was little sign of that, as the majority of an increasingly tetchy game was played in the PSG half. With its midfield three sitting very deep, PSG had less than 40% possession. Mbappe and Neymar were a persistent threat on the break and, for the most part, Leipzig mustered little more than long-range efforts. There was a sense of the game following a similar pattern to the game in Leipzig three weeks ago, when PSG, having taken the lead, lost shape and discipline, a constant feeling that if Leipzig got one, it might easily have gotten two. Discipline was a problem here, with Ander Herrera and Marco Verratti both committing dreadful fouls late on that probably should have drawn red cards rather than the yellows they did, taking PSGs tally for the game to five. 

But that first goal didn’t come for Leipzig and for that, PSG must take credit for its discipline out of possession, which hasn’t been a quality often associated with the club. Marquinhos, pushed back to center back from central midfield, excelled. In retrospect, perhaps, Leipzig erred in bringing on in Alexander Sorloth. It was far less effective playing long to the giant Norwegian than it had been with a more mannered approach before. 

It’s hard to believe, though, that this sort of performance can be sustained in the long term by PSG. Doughtiness is not why emirates buy football clubs, nor is it the football the likes of Neymar and Mbappe want to play–nor is there any sense the team is comfortable playing this way. Neymar’s theatrics are a constant, but they were especially pronounced late on. Verratti’s foul on Christopher Nkunku was not the act of a player confident in the game plan. For now, though, the immediate danger has passed. Tuchel survives and PSG survives. But with Man United still needing a result next week after its convincing win over Istanbul Basaksehir, Old Trafford will be the stage for yet another battle.