This has been something of a red-letter season so far for PSG fans. Tucked in behind the leaders and well placed for a title push, the side from the City of Light have secured a spot in the French Cup semi-finals and are through to the Round of 16 of the UEFA Europa League. Closing in on silverware on several fronts, Paris players and fans are dreaming of crowning their season with at least one trophy.
You would need to go back to the 2003/04 season, when the uncompromising Vahid Halilhodzic was at the helm, to find a PSG squad that was challenging so strongly. That side finished runners-up in the league and lifted the French Cup, and this year’s crop of players are also hoping to end the season with at least one honour to their name. As Claude Makelele told FIFA.com, “The guys deserve a trophy but they need to ensure they do what it takes. We need to work hard, keep our focus and hope we get the rub of the green."
The Red and Blues were unlucky in last weekend’s 1-0 defeat at Auxerre, and the loss enabled Lille and Rennes to pull five points clear at the top, but Makelele says such setbacks no longer undermine confidence in the ranks. “We're mature enough and intelligent enough not to let that get us down. The atmosphere in the squad, our good run of results and our experience mean we can bounce back from situations that would have bothered us in the past."
Learning from defeat
Coach Antoine Kombouare says this new, more resilient spirit was forged out of an honest exchange of views after a 3-1 defeat at Sochaux early in the season. "That defeat turned out to be a blessing in disguise," said the Paris coach. Makelele agrees: "We got a few things off our chest that night and that was a catalyst for change.”
PSG have suffered just five defeats in 37 matches since, and Kombouare told FIFA.com it is all down to high morale in the camp. “You only have to look at the way the guys work in training every single day. They arrive early and leave late, and that speaks volumes about how well they get along. This squad is united.”
While Paris’s revival can certainly be attributed in part to the players enjoying each other’s company, Antoine Kombouare’s more relaxed management style this season may be another reason. The former PSG defender cut a more authoritarian figure in his first season in charge, but ever since the club returned from a post-season tour to the United States in May 2010, the coach has employed more of a collective approach. “You change as you gain in experience,” he says. “A coach is a leader, and he can’t achieve anything by himself."
Collective experience, individual talent
Kombouare is happier now to let his senior players pass his message on. "I’m incredibly fortunate to have guys like Makelele, Ludovic Giuly, Gregory Coupet and Sylvain Armand in my squad. The younger guys can call on their experience and objectivity to help them when times are tough. Because they’ve been there, done it, and won’t let things get to them," he says.
Of course, team spirit and bonhomie only carry you so far. Paris Saint-Germain can also call on some seriously talented individuals to help them in their push for titles. Brazilian playmaker Nene joined the squad at the start of the season from Monaco, and was instrumental in the club’s excellent first half of the campaign. Although he struggled for two months after the winter break, he is now looking sharp again, just as things go to the wire. Kombouare is clearly a fan: "His first half-season was exceptional. He's a born competitor, just never gives up and is the leader this side needed."
The next six weeks should determine whether Paris’s challenge for trophies is a credible one. Highlights over this period include Benfica home and away in the Europa League Round of 16. Critical matches are coming up in the league too, away to Marseille in the French clasico, and at home to Lyon. Then comes the small matter of a French Cup semi-final at Angers on 20 April. Should PSG come through those games unscathed, their fans really will be dreaming of a glorious 40th.