The week ahead is sure to be crucial for a Paris Saint-Germain side with lofty objectives for 2012/13, with defender Thiago Silva set to have a key role to play in the club’s UEFA Champions League quarter-final, first leg against Barcelona on 2 April. After all, the accomplished centre-back must help find a way to stop Barça’s inspirational attackers, a remit he has carried out with some aplomb in previous encounters with the Catalan giants when turning out for AC Milan.
In a full and frank interview with FIFA.com, the Brazil captain gave us his insider verdict on this mouth-watering tie, PSG’s ambitious project and the challenges facing A Seleção as the FIFA Confederations Cup and FIFA World Cup™ draw ever closer.
FIFA.com: Thiago, after the draw for the Champions League quarter-finals, even a number of PSG players were quick to tag Barcelona as favourites. Do you agree?
Thiago Silva: Barcelona are always favourites, whatever team they’re playing against. And they deserve to be too, thanks to their recent track record and the incredibly high standards they hit. But I always say that this [favourites’ status] is an off-the-pitch thing. On it, we’ve got the chance to turn that on its head. They’ll be two tough games between two great teams. They’ll be aiming for the title, just as we are, so we’ll be trying to stop them. We’ve maybe got a little less experience than they do, but we’ve got a quality squad packed with players used to decisive matches.
Barcelona went through an uncertain period recently and were subject to a lot of criticism. How do you rate today’s Barça, compared to when you met them last season with Milan?
Today’s Barcelona are a bit different to that side under [Pep] Guardiola, even though the players are the same. It’s not even anything out on the pitch, it’s perhaps more of a leadership issue, due to that change in coach. But I don’t think it’ll make much difference in the end, because Tito [Vilanova] and his coaching staff knew Guardiola well and have carried on the good work. People always talk and analyse their results, but I don’t think the change is as radical as they think – it’s only when you play them that you find out how difficult they are to face. We know where their weakness is and we’ll try and exploit it, but that’s not something I can tell you about here! (laughs)
The fact is though, Milan did well defensively against Barcelona in the 2011/12 Champions League quarters, particularly in the goalless first leg. Is that something you’ll be having a word with your coach Carlo Ancelotti about?
I think that yes, I can be useful by trying to guide and warn my team-mates about what I saw. But that’s also fairly relative, because Barça are so versatile they’re capable of doing something completely unexpected, which can end up making you look silly. They’ve got the best team in the world, the best player, and several others who help him out with their passing and movement. We need to train really hard and study videos, so we know how to stop their main attacking channels. In any case, we’re going to focus on the first leg, try and get a great result at home and then try and clinch qualification in the Camp Nou.
Putting that tie to one side for a moment, it’s fair to say that PSG are having a fruitful season, while the club’s sporting director Leonardo has stated the project is moving at a fast pace. Did you expect things to happen so quickly?
Honestly, I didn’t. But it wasn’t a real surprise either, as the project’s being done properly, it’s ambitious and it’s brought us a strong team. Doubts always surround the start of any project this size, and it’s difficult to assemble a winning team in the very first year. But we’re managing to stay out in front at France and still focus on the Champions League and the Coupe de France. Nothing’s certain yet, but I think that we can have a great season. And I hope it doesn’t take us too long to win the Champions League, like it did for Chelsea for example.
PSG went many years without winning major trophies, with Paris thus slipping down the ranking of footballing cities compared to the likes of London, Madrid or Milan. Is it now fair to say it’s back on centre stage?
I think so. Paris is a beautiful, important city with an excellent quality of life, and it’s deserved to have a strong PSG like today’s side for a long time now. This is a club that’s growing a lot, gaining a higher profile and has a squad full of international players. Today’s PSG is now very similar to the city of Paris itself. But, I repeat, we need to win titles, which is the aim of this project. We just need to keep our feet on the ground and be patient, because we’re on an upwards curve.
Coincidentally or not, PSG have a number of Brazilian players, with Lucas Moura the latest to arrive. What’s your verdict on his start to life in Europe?
I already knew Lucas from the Brazil squad and we had a chat before he signed for us. I told him about the club’s ambition and its infrastructure, which I think has played a big role in him playing so freely since he arrived. Of course he’s not totally settled yet, particularly as he arrived in the European winter and it’s his first experience playing abroad. It’s hard for a 20-year-old lad to touch down at a big club and show real character, but he’s been managing to do that. I think that he’ll be one of the team’s leading players this year, because I’ve never seen a player his age tackle this situation and come out of it so well. And I also think he’s got the potential to get a lot better.
Another of the team’s big stars is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who seems to be shouldering a weighty burden on his shoulders, with all of France seemingly hanging on his every move. Was it like that for him at Milan too?
It was a bit different. I can see that here there’s a lot of pressure on his shoulders, in terms of the project that’s being carried out. At Milan, on the other hand, the team had already been built. What’s more, because of how balanced the Italian championship is, it’s not seen as absurd when you lose to a supposedly weaker side. Here, no: when we lose a game we’re not supposed to the papers throw loads of mud at us, they start bringing up our salaries, the money that’s been spent, we get accused of lacking ambition. Ibra is the division’s leading scorer and deserves it, because he trains really hard and is very committed. The kind of stuff said about us is to be expected at a team like ours, but we need to be ready to handle it. Now, at least, our morale is better thanks to the season we’re having. In the French championship, for example, we’re getting more respect from the other teams.
Turning to A Seleção and, what's the biggest challenge for coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and his staff in the months leading up to the FIFA Confederations Cup and FIFA World Cup?
The biggest challenge is to build a team with a winning mentality. We’d already pretty much got a shape, an identity under Mano [Menezes] – who did a really great job – but unfortunately a change was made. We all know that the World Cup’s our biggest objective and the moment’s drawing closer. Even sooner still is the Confederations Cup, so we’ll have to work hard, show character and not shirk our responsibilities. The fact we’ve got a coaching staff with a winning pedigree gives us even more confidence. The players are experienced and they can sense that, so we’ve got everything it takes to forge that identity in the year and a half before the World Cup. I also believe that we’re capable of showing that [identity] in time for the Confederations Cup, while having the fans behind us will make us even stronger.
Finally, personally speaking, do you ever stop and think about the level of responsibility that comes with being Seleção captain in a period including the FIFA Confederations Cup and FIFA World Cup? Does the pressure get to you?
It’s something I think about all the time. In fact, it’s something I’ve thought about since Mano selected his very first squad, for that friendly against USA. Time passes quickly and the pressure doesn’t stop increasing. It’s totally normal to get nervous, to have butterflies in your stomach, but you relax once the game kicks off. The fear of losing is always there, but you mustn’t let that fear dull your desire to win. In my particular case, because I’m the captain, the pressure is greater but fortunately it’s something I’m able to cope with well. Wearing the armband makes me remember everything I’ve been through to get here and, for that reason, you can be sure that I’m going to do my best to do it proud, so that everyone can look to me as an example to follow.