VALENCIA C.F VS PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN
UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE (LAST-16 1ST-LEG)
DATE: 12th FEBRUARY 2013
KICK-OFF: 19:45 (GMT)
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Carlo Ancelotti and his Paris Saint-Germain players can head to Valencia today in buoyant mood after a perfect weekend in which we keep our six point lead at the top of Ligue 1 intact.
Olympique Lyonnais were humbled 3-1 by Lille at the Stade de Gerland last night giving us our biggest lead at the top so far this season. On top of that, Marseille could only manage a 1-1 draw at Evian and they now trail us by eight points. To have some daylight at this stage of the season is massive. With the form we are in at the moment, you can only see us going from strength to strength. However, after two months without European football to contend with, our character will be well and truly tested as we recommence our participation in the UEFA Champions League.
This is what QSI envisaged when they took over in the summer of 2011. Nights like tomorrow, trips to the Mestalla, the knockout stage of the biggest club competition in the world. What has been a dream of theirs is nothing in comparison to that of the Parisien faithful. It has been nearly 20 years since nights like this for the club. Eight years was a long enough absence of not being involved in the Champions League at all but in terms of having real aspirations of getting into the latter stages, now is our time. We have signed players who are used to this kind of environment but as a club, our recent history is somewhat alien to it. The likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Alex, Maxwell, and Ezequiel Lavezzi have all had the privilege of partaking in this grand stage. But other key members of the team have not such as Mamadou Sakho, Salvatore Sirigu, Blaise Matuidi, Marco Verratti and even Javier Pastore. Yes, they have played in big games, but nothing in comparison to a knockout tie against one of Europe’s most prestigious entities.
We are coming up against a club who are enriched in history – particularly in this competition. A decade ago they played some of the most attractive football in Europe and their reward was two back to back finals, just falling short against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Recent history suggests they are capable of getting to the latter stages of this competition, but anything beyond a quarter-final has been a step too far. Nevertheless, they have the upper hand as a football club with this kind of pedigree but a lot of their players are also in the same boat as ours.
Their coach Ernesto Valverde has steadied the ship since taking over last December. He took over from Mauricio Pellegrino who was in charge for just 21 games. But, with the club languishing in 12th, seven points off fourth place, the president felt a change was needed. Was he right? Well, they currently sit in fifth, just two points behind Malaga in fourth and bar a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Real Madrid last month, they look far more assured. They were particularly impressive against Barcelona a couple of weeks ago, earning a well fought 1-1 draw thanks to a goal from Ever Banega who had been lambasted beforehand for turning up at training drunk days before. He has put that behind him now, and the club is going from strength to strength. They have just come off the back of a 1-0 win at Celta Vigo thanks to a stoppage time winner from Nelson Valdez.
The key for them tomorrow will be the man leading the attack, Roberto Soldado. He has netted 11 goals this season and is head and shoulders above his teammates in that respect. He will be the focal point of the team with Banega perhaps playing just behind him as Jonas and Pablo Piatti provide the width. I am just speculating and it is difficult to second guess how they will line up. Against Real Madrid when they were hammered they had a three man midfield with Fernando Gago anchoring just in front of the back four. They may opt to do that tomorrow but the onus is on them to get a result to take back to Paris. It will be interesting to see what Valverde does.
They coasted to this stage, only losing to Bayern Munich in the group phase and not losing a single match at home. Thankfully for us, despite the absence of Thiago Silva and Thiago Motta, we have a fully fit squad to utilise. I expect Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti to anchor the midfield. It will be interesting to see if Ancelotti entrusts the pair of them or opts to put Clement Chantome in their too just to stifle the Los Che attack. I do not expect Lucas Moura, Jeremy Menez, Javier Pastore and Ezequiel Lavezzi all to start. Carlo will go with Lavezzi and Menez to support Ibra I presume as the outlets on the counter-attack. Lucas is still inexperienced and to throw him into a Champions League knockout tie may put ‘Carletto’ off. Saying that, he will be a fantastic asset to bring off the bench if we need an injection of pace or creativity.
It is a tough one for Ancelotti on how he approaches this. He has been round the block, winning this trophy on multiple occasions so he knows better than anyone what it takes and it will be intriguing to see which PSG turns up. We will go for the jugular or play it safe? Relying purely on the counter attack?
We are more than capable of getting a result, an away goal or two most definitely. It is absolutely vital that we take something back to Paris for the return-leg to give us a real good chance of making the last-eight.