Can Blanc Lead PSG to European Glory?

After Carlo Ancelotti left Paris Saint-Germain for Real Madrid in the summer of 2013, many wondered who would step in and try to take Paris to the next level. Ancelotti had already won Ligue 1 and taken the team to the quarterfinals of the Champions League so no matter who his successor turned out to be, they were always going to have big shoes to fill at the Parc.

PSG hierarchy chose Laurent Blanc as the ideal replacement for Ancelotti on June 25, 2013. Blanc, a French international who won the World Cup and a European Championship during his playing days, had just completed a successful run as manager of Bordeaux from 2007 to 2010. During his time at Bordeaux he won the French league once and added a Coupe de la Ligue trophy to his resumé.

PSG hauled in the Trophée des Champions and a Coupe de la Ligue title in Blanc’s first season as manager. Paris dominated their Champions League group and advanced to the quarterfinals. The club was playing attractive soccer and fans embraced the new manager. Then came the quarterfinals of the Champions league against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2014. Chelsea were having a subpar season in the English Premiere League and after a 3-1 victory over the Blues in Paris; it seemed like PSG were all but through to the semi-finals.

Les Parisiens came into the match confident but cautious despite the 3-1 lead on aggregate. After Andre Schurrle scored to make it 3-2, PSG supporters knew the team was in danger. In the final minutes of the match, Chelsea substitute Demba Ba scored to give the English club the victory and put them through to the semis. The pain of the loss was evident as Mourinho and Chelsea players mobbed Ba at the corner flag while our players wandered around in a state of shock and disbelief. What happened? Did Blanc get his tactics wrong? Was he out schemed by Mourinho?

In an interview this year, Demba Ba said PSG might have been too confident heading back to Stamford Bridge. “When [Javier] Pastore scored his splendid goal at the Parc des Princes, all of Paris thought it was all done for the semifinals.” Blanc lamented the lost afterwards in the press conference and said Chelsea’s experience was the difference. Blanc heard loud criticism from media and fans for the first time during his tenure and was on the hot seat if he didn’t win the league.

To be fair to Blanc, star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic was injured in the first leg against Chelsea and was unable to play in the return at the Bridge; something that certainly could have changed the outcome. Blanc and Paris Saint-Germain rallied for the remainder of the season and shook off a late challenge from Monaco to win the league. He received a one-year contract extension the day after winning the league and club President Nasser Al-Khelaifi said he was happy with the way the season went and that he was “convinced we will win a lot more trophies together.”

Al-Khelaifi would be proven right this past season but not before a rocky start to the campaign. The 2014-2015 season started off cold for PSG. The champions were lackluster in their league efforts and draws were becoming the norm for Blanc’s men. By the midway point of the season they were behind their rivals Marseille and had been uninspiring in domestic competition. Criticism was getting louder as people questioned weather Blanc was good enough to lead a locker room full of internationals. The formations he used were always under scrutiny as he never seemed to get the best out of Edinson Cavani and Ibrahimovic when they were together on the pitch. For the first time in three seasons, the Parisiens did not win their Champions league group, falling to Barcelona on the final match day at the Camp Nou. The press began reporting that his job was in jeopardy entering a round of 16 rematch with eventual English champions Chelsea. He would have to defeat Mourinho to save his job.

After a 1-1 home draw in which PSG looked the far better team, optimism was high in Paris heading into the second match. Still the underdogs and returning to the scene of last season’s biggest disappointment, PSG was dealt another blow as Ibrahimovic was given a harsh red card and was sent off just as the match was beginning. Down a man, Blanc switched tactics and had Blaise Matuidi play a deeper role than usual to help fortify the defense. It worked, as PSG created chances and bossed the midfield until finally David Luiz scored a header from a corner to equalize and send the game into extra time. Play escalated in the extra period as captain Thiago Silva was called for handball in the box and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard calmly put his penalty past Salvatore Sirigu. It seemed PSG would fall just short again, despite the heroic effort. Then it happened.

One of the greatest moments in the clubs history. Silva found redemption just four minutes away from the final whistle as he scored on an incredible header from a corner to give PSG the victory on away goals. Blanc smiled from ear to ear as he took in the scenes at the Bridge, this time with his team doing the celebrating. He had beaten Mourinho and Chelsea at the Bridge down a man.

After this it seemed Blancs men found their footing in Ligue 1. A Coupe de la Ligue title was won on April 28th and then they took the league lead for good on April 28th after a 3-1 victory over Metz. Eye-pleasing football was back at the Parc and an unprecedented domestic treble was on the horizon.

PSG would suffer their last disappointment of the season against Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals losing 5-1 on aggregate. It was a painful loss and one that would indicate a total collapse by the team and its staff. But the truth is the team had to deal with a lot of injuries and suspensions heading into the first leg at the Parc. Ibrahimovic, Marco Verratti, and Lucas Moura were all either hurt or suspended for the match and captain Thiago Silva picked up an early injury that forced him off as well. Depleted, the French champions fought hard but were no match for the Spanish giants and eventual European Champions.

Despite another quarterfinal exit for PSG, the season ended on an incredibly high note. After dispatching Auxerre in the Coupe de France final 1-0, Blanc and the team laid claim to a domestic treble, something that had never been done in French football history. The historic feat secured Le President’s future at the club for another season and even the home crowd showed their appreciation for Blanc at the teams championship ceremony at the Parc. The questions as to whether he can effectively lead a dressing room full of international stars with big egos will always be there for Blanc, especially if PSG fail to achieve their Champions League dreams. But Laurent Blanc has proven to be much more than just a player manager. His tactics were a crucial part in beating Chelsea and he had the team peaking at the right time to capture the league title. Now, entering his third season as the manager, Blanc faces the challenge of taking the capital club past the quarterfinals of Europe while maintaining domestic excellence. A stiff test, but one any great managers should look forward to.

Europe is all Blanc will be judged on for the upcoming season. Failure to reach the semifinals could bring Le President’s time at Paris to an end. If last year is anything to go by, Blanc will be up for the challenge and I for one am excited to see how the manager will navigate what will no doubt be a long and difficult season with expectations at an all-time high.

Tags Champions League Laurent Blanc
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