And to think, the grand experiment had started so very poorly last season.
Just months after Qatar Investment Authority had assumed principal ownership (70 percent) of Paris Saint-Germain, just months after perhaps the most recognizable French team ever had engaged in a breathtaking, owner-backed spending spree that graced new sporting director Leonardo with over €100 million to spend on new recruits (the jewel of which was €42-million Palermo talisman Javier Pastore), PSG laid an egg in its 2011-12 Ligue 1 opener, failing to amount any serious attacks and losing 1-0 in doleful fashion to perennial minnows FC Lorient at the Parc des Princes.
Pastore was not on the pitch that night, but he soon made his debut in navy and red, taking little time to exert a prodigious impact in the early portions of the season.
The midfielder, whose brace was the fuel that powered PSG’s remarkable 3-0 road throttling of eventual Ligue 1 champions Montpellier in September, would come crashing back to earth later in the season.
His vast array of tricks and delectable technique, once so winsome, devolved into the opulent and ineffective. When simplicity was the preferred option, Pastore went for FIFA-trick broke, and it often cost his team dearly.
It wasn’t entirely Pastore’s fault. This PSG side, rapidly infused with a boatload of talent (from July to January, a total of 20 players were helicoptered in to Paris, according to Transfermarkt) had become rather lop-sided in certain departments, whereas other positions grew glaringly meager.
PSG’s new owners had visions of Champions League qualification in their first season in charge, and they were willing to splurge to make that dream a reality.
But what emerged from last season’s transfer policy was a side overloaded in talent in certain areas (central midfield and central defense, for one—or, two if you prefer), while being dreadfully impotent in others (striker, winger).
And even the players brought in to, say, shore up the central defense—Uruguay’s Diego Lugano, for example—didn’t always pan out.
What emerged was a side that rode its talent to second-place finish in Ligue 1 last season, but lost out on the crown to a Montpellier unit with far less individual prowess but far more collective ingenuity.
For all the glittering talent spread about on the field (few French teams could hope for an attacking force of Jeremy Menez, Nene, Pastore and Kevin Gameiro), PSG often showed some of the growing pains seen in another side that had gotten rich quick.
Manchester City made good on the investment of their own oil dollars (by way of Sheikh Mansour). According to Wikipedia, since 2008 Manchester City have invested £426.3 in 24 players.
And while the FA Cup and Premier League titles of the past two seasons look good, the fact remains the Manchester City had emerged trophyless from the first two seasons under their new ownership.
Clearly, money doesn’t buy happiness—even if you spend some £18 million upon Roque Santa Cruz.
Like Santa Cruz, PSG have seen some of their transfers fall flat—namely, another forward, Gameiro.
Enticed by the allure of playing for the side he’d grown up supporting as a kid in Paris, Gameiro spurned the advances of Valencia last summer and signed for the new project in the capital.
But after enjoying a terrific start to the season, Gameiro, like Pastore, fizzled toward the end.
Still, a second-placed finish was a definite improvement over 2010-11′s fourth place ending in Ligue 1. Champions League football was assured, without the messy travail of a playoff in August. No, PSG will enter into the competition they haven’t graced for years now, directly.
How good can they be in Europe?
To attempt to deconstruct the chances of PSG in next season’s Champions League, perhaps it is most telling to diagnose their play in last season’s Europa League.
Put bluntly, it wasn’t a shining moment in club history.
While PSG blasted their way through minnows FC 03 Differdenge in the August playoff round, winning 6-0 on aggregate over the two legs, in the group stages they were transfixed by eventual finalist Athletic Bilbao (2-0 loss in Basque country), along with road trips to Slovakia (0-0 to Slovan Bratislava) and Austria (2-0 reverse to SV Salzburg).
That ineffectiveness on the road, and the 10 points taken from the group stage, saw PSG fail to emerge into the knockout rounds.
Is it possible, then, for PSG to fare better in Europe’s premier club competition this season?
They’re certainly loading up for a charge. After making a serious run at AC Milan defender Thiago Silva in June, Leonardo wrapped the signature of Napoli attack man Ezequiel Lavezzi for £22 million this past weekend.
While fans might like to see a forward brought in—Gameiro looks sure to leave this summer after seeing his playing time dry up under Carlo Ancelotti, who became manager in December—Ancelotti may opt for a lineup with the false No. 9 made so famous by Spain during these just-finished European Championships.
Ancelotti experimented with it during the run-in to the end of last season, often employing Pastore as his No.9. With Lavezzi almost assured of a starting spot at either one of the wings or in the hole behind the striker, Pastore may just continue to play as a faux-forward.
Lavezzi was one of Napoli’s most dangerous players during last season’s Champions League, giving English clubs Manchester City fits in the group stages, and Chelsea fits in the round of 16.
As transfers go, his is the perfect fit for a Champions League charge.
The knockout stages are a possibility
The defense must still be shored up—a right-back of world-class quality needs to be a priority from now until the Aug. 11 start to the new Ligue 1 season (hence, the rumors of a deal for Dani Alves), and there are still questions on how the multitude of attacking options can gel.
But if they do gel, it’s no long stretch to believe that PSG could get out of the group stages, perhaps in second place.
If they do that, they’ll have done the 2010-11 Ligue 1 winners, Lille, one better. Despite possessing a number of talented offensive options, Lille couldn’t overcome the losses of Gervinho and Yohan Cabaye the previous summer, and slumped out of the group stages.
The troubles on last season’s European road aside, there’s plenty of reasons to believe PSG will improve.
In Ancelotti, they have a manager finely tuned to the rigors of European football (he’s won the competition twice in the past decade—2003 and 2007—with AC Milan, after all), and now in Lavezzi they have a proven campaigner.
The quality, give or take a couple defensive reinforcements that will likely be made from now until August, is there.
All that remains to be seen is how it will be used. If PSG are to avoid the troubles encountered by Manchester City in their first Champions League campaign, and make it out of the group stages, they’ll need to be far more proactive on the road than were Roberto Mancini’s side.
They haven’t shown that type of vigor yet, but then, mental fortitude and a divine ability to finagle difficult, but priceless results away from home was an Ancelotti calling card during his best European campaigns in Milan.
Who’s to say he won’t be able to experience some of that same magic this time around.