As I scroll through Bechkoura’s latest email full of player reports, I almost laugh. I cast my mind back to Portugal all those years ago, when I jumped on a plane with Miguel Borba and watched excitedly from the stands as Lassina Touré sat glued to the bench for Burkina Faso for the first time, such was my pride that one of my players was in the squad for an international match. Lassina never had another contract after Angrense and retired from football aged just 27, but for me he stands out as a milestone player in my career.
But here we are some 6 years later. Just look at this list Bechkoura’s sent me:
Bloody hell, things like this really make it sink in for me sometimes. Look how far we’ve come from those days. I’m not about to go through the players and their international performances one by one, but I am happy to report that our young right back Renan Henrique made his international debut for Brazil last week, which is of course excellent. Moise Kean and Kingsley Coman also bagged goals for their countries, which I hope will mean that they’re ready to carry on with their good early season form.
There may be a bit of a storm brewing here in Paris though and it’s been brewing since the moment the transfer deadline passed. Ricardo Ibarra’s unhappiness with my neglect to strengthen out squad with a centre forward is worrying, especially as I think he’s probably our best player, or there abouts.
I haven’t exactly helped myself with the squad I’ve named for the Champions League, but I refuse to take all the blame for that. Champions League rules state that the squad needs to have a minimum of 4 players trained at PSG for 3 years between the ages of 15 and 21 and 8 players trained in France over the same period. Such is our squad, that has caused a bit of a problem. We only have 4 players who are close to the first team and who meet those criteria: Japanese goalie Yûsuke Abe, who’s been here since the age of 18, Angolan right back Eduardo Costa, who’s also been with us from the age of 18, Kingsley Coman, who came up through the ranks and left at 18 and Argentinian anti-winger Rodolfo Chao, who has also been with us from the age of 18. It speaks volumes about the transfer strategy here in Paris that apart from Kingsley, we only have 3 “home grown” players that are anywhere near the first team and they are all from different nations. Long story short, I had to leave somebody out of my Champions League squad. After inevitably ditching several young attacking midfielders I weighed up the amount of cover we have in different areas against the likelihood that certain players will actually play and Bulgarian left back Dobby was the man sacrificed. Like Ibarra, he isn’t too happy with me at the minute. Luckily unlike Ibarra, Marquinhos manages to talk him round for me.
Anyway, we have a chance today to put that headache to one side by demolishing newly promoted Stade de Reims. I’ve not met them since our Ligue 2 days when I seem to remember them being extremely unlucky to miss out on promotion themselves, but without wanting to temp fate, they’ve lost their opening 3 matches against Metz, Lyon and Lorient and we should be sweeping them aside.
There’s extra incentive for us in this one because Monaco were held to a draw yesterday by Stade Rennais. A win for us would lift us 2 points clear at the top. We go unchanged from the side that beat Marseille: Donnarumma in net, Ibarra and Triponez at the back, Bologna, Nevez and Lato behind Kovacic in midfield and Coman, Coutinho and Orlando behind Kean. Stade de Reims are actually following in Marseille’s example by absolutely flooding the centre of the park in the hopes of keeping us at bay, so we’ll exploit the flanks where they’re lighter in personnel.
If I’m honest, at the start of the match I don’t expect the first hour to be goalless or eventless, but that’s exactly what it is. Jakupovic has a potshot that flies over the bar, but other than that, Reims don’t threaten us and keep us at bay. Disappointed, I decide to mix things up with a triple substitution and a subtle formation change to a 2-3-3-2. Kovacic’s box to box position is the one to be sacrificed as Manuel Bueno comes on as a second striker in a target man role in his place. Cvitanovic comes on for Orlando on the left, while Éder replaces Neves in a supporting ball winner role to still give us energy in the middle.
We go close shortly after when Kingsley Coman’s left sided corner is cleared as far as Coutinho, who hits a dipping drive at goal from 25 yards, but Cucchietti does well to push the ball over the bar. With under 20 minutes to go we threaten again from the left, this time when Coutinho lays the ball off for Cvitanovic, who whips a diagonal cross into the box. Coman arrives at the far post to tap the ball over the line. It’s becoming a habit of his, which is absolutely fine with me.
With our new found dominance I’m confident of now seeing the game out, but when Manuel Bueno balloons a speculative 30 yard shot so high and wide that it could very easily wind up smashing one of the Grand Louvre Pyramids, it deflates us somewhat. Sure enough our confidence dissipates and within 5 minutes we’re pegged back when Callegari passes the ball around Ibarra and Cassetta powers an effort beyond Donnarumma from 6 yards out. The most frightening part for me though is watching helplessly as Reims win the ball back from kick off and attack again. Cassetta gives Éder the slip and lays it across for Maxime Lopez, the lad who I handed a debut for the National side while he was in Ligue 2 and who really impressed, but failed to ever get back into my squad. Max passes to Vale, who holds off Triponez as he turns and then drives a low shot from the edge of the box. The ball squeezes out of Donnarumma’s grasp at the near post and after leading in the 78th minute, we’re behind in the 80th. To newly promoted Stade de Reims.
We go on the attack for the last 10 minutes, but fail to find an equaliser. We do get one last chance deep into injury time though when Éder wins the ball from Vale and plays it forward. Cardoso fluffs his attempted clearance, allowing Coutinho to take possession on the left and the Brazilian swings the ball into the centre for Bueno, who volleys deftly past Cucchietti to get us a point. In another situation, this would be a cause for joyous celebration; A draw snatched from the jaws of defeat would’ve shook the foundations of the Stade l’Abbé-Deschamps. Here and now though, I’ve just dodged a bullet. Here in Paris, a defeat at the hands of Stade de Reims would have been unacceptable. A draw is probably unacceptable but given the context, I’ll take it. Improvement is needed though, that’s for sure.
So call me crazy, as Bechkoura does on our flight over to København, but I reckon that my biggest problem here at the minute is that I don’t know my squad. I’m rapidly getting to know my “First choice XI”, but outside them I don’t know where everyone else stands in the pecking order. Maybe if I’d known my fringe players better by now, I would’ve made better decisions and better substitutes and would not have dropped points against Reims. I feel a little dirty for suggesting this, but I think my Champions League debut is as good a time as any to experiment. I’d rather it wasn’t, but consider my reasoning: The first Champions League match of the season is a big deal, so it’s not as if I’ll be looking over the lesser known players in a meaningless friendly match, but as the weakest side in our group, København should be beatable no matter which players I start, within reason. It’ll also do the lads who played against Reims good to have a midweek break, so everybody wins. Except for København. Hopefully.
As I mentioned when the draw was made, Anders Lindegaard’s men will not be looking forward to another Group Stage with PSG. Their apparent danger man is 34 year old Paris old boy and København captain Grzegorz Krychowiak, so with that in mind, nothing but a win will do. I’m suddenly second guessing my decision to experiment.
But experimenting is exactly what we’re doing today at the Telia Parken. Against a full strength, in-form side of Danish Champions, our starting line up is: In-demand Japanese giant Yûsuke Abe in net, Boris Triponez and Lucas in defence with Rúben Neves sitting in front of them, Renan Henrique and Toni Lato as the wing backs, Éder playing the box-to-box role and Rui Darcílio, Miguel Veiga and Silvio Cvitanovic behind Manuel Bueno. I should note that I’ve not rotated the squad fully as I want to give Lucas, the only other player that can play as a left wing back, a chance in defence, so Lato keeps his spot on the left. Also Triponez and Neves both picked up bookings in the Reims match and will be suspended for our league game against Saint-Étienne, so they may as well feature now before their enforced rest.
A few minutes after the opener, we double our advantage. Neves sprays a half-volleyed pass over to Darcílio on the right, who takes on Varela on the outside and whips a cross to the near post. Target man Bueno arrives to direct the ball across goal and into the far corner of the net. We’re nearly pegged back in the 18th minute as Kishna holds off Éder and dribbles down the left wing dangerously. He gets to the byline and crosses the ball into the 6 yard box for de Vrij, who forces an excellent parried save from Abe and then smashes the rebound against the far post.
As the game continues to go from end to end though, we nearly make it 3-0 a minute later when Cvitanovic threads a pass into the box for Bueno, but his shot is well blocked by Radu. In the 22nd minute, Gonçalves gets the ball on the right wing for the hosts following their corner and sends a low cross into the box. This time Baranek is the target and he shoots from 8 yards, but Lucas does well to get himself in the way of the defender’s effort and deflect the ball wide. The resulting corner is headed clear by Éder at the near post and we counter attack, with Cvitanovic taking the ball down the left and playing a long ball forwards for Bueno. Bueno turns Strand to get himself into space in the København penalty box and then fires a shot off, but Radu saves it. It’s pretty miraculous that there’s only been 2 goals in this match so far.
Obviously I spoke too soon. In the 26th minute, Cassingena plays a clever reversal through our defence for Kishna, who shoots against the near post from inside the box. With Donnarumma beaten, the ball bobbles across the mouth of the goal and Olaf de Vrij arrives to tap in the home side’s first goal. Just a few minutes later though we restore our 2 goal cushion when another København corner is cleared by Lato at the far post. This time Bueno brings the ball out of danger and into the opposition’s half before leaving Varela for dead and chipping a nice pass into the path of Veiga, who brings the ball down inside the box and slots it into the bottom corner.
On the half hour, Cassingena again causes us problems with a one-two with Gonçalves that gets him into space in our box, but the angle’s too narrow on the right hand side once he gets back on the ball and he can only shoot against the near post. The next 15 minutes are thankfully much quieter than the preceding 30 and neither side threatens again until injury time, when Bueno charges down the right, dances past Baranek’s slide tackle with surprising agility and plays the ball inside. Darcílio arrives 8 yards from goal and side-foots a shot against the near post. When the referee blows his whistle to signal the end of the first half, I almost collapse. I don’t know about the players but I already feel knackered.
I make a change at half time as Silvio Cvitanovic took a knock to the head just before the break and with our 3-1 advantage and so much quality on the bench, I see no reason to risk him. Argentinian anti-winger Rodolfo Chao replaces the German captain and moves onto the right wing, while Darcílio will swap to the left.
I brace myself for another heart-stopping 45 minutes of football and it certainly looks like it’s going that way when only 15 seconds after the restart de Vrij powers a shot at goal, but Abe manages to tip it away. The second half isn’t actually nearly as hectic as the first and the next chance comes in the 63rd minute when Kishna skips outside Henrique on the left wing and whips a cross into the box. De Vrij beats Triponez in the air and heads the ball straight into the arms of Abe, but less than a minute later he gets on the end of yet another Kishna cross, this time getting ahead of Triponez and volleying the ball in for 3-2.
Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like København have much left in the tank. In the 83rd minute, Bueno also takes a knock to the head and is replaced by Moise Kean and then with a few minutes to go Coutinho replaces Darcílio as we shuffle to a defensive 4-1-4-1. Gonçalves gets in a good position and drags a shot well wide just to jangle my nerves in the dying moments, but when the referee calls time on an extremely even but eventful match, our 3-2 lead is intact.
Could it have been more comfortable? Of course. Should it have been? Well… Yes. But let’s look at it logically: While 6 years ago I sat in the Stade du 4 Août in Ouagadougou as a Portuguese Championship manager, watching my first international player warm the bench, today in København I am off the mark in the bloody Champions League and I’ve arrived with a win. I know my new Paris Saint-Germain squad a little more than I did yesterday and early as it is, we’re at the top of 2 leagues. I’m more than happy with all that for a day’s work.