The most exhilarating club competition is back on this week with the first leg of the last 16. Normally, a duel between the leader of the Ligue 1 and the best of the rest in La Liga should be a tight one. But that was before the Qataris invaded Paris and before the financial crisis hit the southern Spanish hard. If you were to look at the progression curve of both clubs during the past two years and the clubs are a mirror image of each other with their ups and downs
First, let’s introduce the hosts for first leg, Valencia CF.
Back in summer 2010, Valencia finished the Spanish league in third position in the knowledge that two of their best players (David Silva and David Villa), are about to depart following sparkling performances in that year’s World Cup in South Africa. 12 months later, Valencia finish third in the league again and one more star, Juan Mata, leaves for Chelsea. A year further, summer 2012, Valencia finish in third place once more and sell Jordi Alba to Barcelona, as well half a dozen of their regular starters. More than a £150million has been earned for Valencia thanks for these player sales. Unfortunately, none of that cash has been reinvested as the club faces a serious financial meltdown. A new coach Mauricio Pellegrino is hired in order to maintain a Champions League status desperately needed by the club’s accountant. Obviously, with a squad mainly composed of youngsters, the plan did not go as well as expected.
Domestically, they could not repeat their previous season’s achievement as they do not seem to be a threat to the two Spanish giants. Even worse, they seem to be out of the Champions League race, being so far outclassed by Atletico Madrid and Malaga on top of the regular front runners. This even led to the Argentinean coach’s dismissal over the Christmas break.
Fortunately, things went better in the most prestigious competition as they came out second in their group thanks to the obvious weakness of the bottom two teams (Bate Borissov and Lille). Despite this downhill curve, the team can still count on a few magicians to turn things their way. Spanish striker Soldado or Algerian midfielder Sofiane Feghouli are the biggest threats but won’t hide the fact that they are considered by many bookies as the weakest team in the competition alongside Celtic Glasgow.
Second, the visitors from Paris.
Two years ago, Paris narrowly missed on a Champions League place, finishing fourth in the league. That’s when the new Qatari owners came into the game. Leonardo joined the club as a sporting director and brought with him Salvatore Sirigu, Jeremy Menez, Blaise Matuidi, Javier Pastore and more. Six months later, Thiago Motta Maxwell and Alex were embarking the ship now captained by silverware magnet Carlo Ancelotti. The club narrowly missed the league title, prolonging the 19 year dry spell however, when Montpellier finished three points clear of the Parisian club last season. Another summer saw more footballing stars joining the Qatari toy: Marco Verratti, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are adding to the most talented bunch of football players ever gathered in France.
Following a hesitant start of the season, the team finally got into gear after a Champions League game brilliantly won against the solid Porto team. Since then, they won eleven out the twelve games played, drawing the last one, scoring above 2.5 goals per game and keeping 8 clean sheets. To multiply the offensive threats, Lucas Moura joined the team in January and will be ready to slalom between the Valencian defenders. The last jewel in the crown came as a surprise on the last day of the winter market. Sir David Beckham is joining the Parisian ranks, and despite being unfit for the first leg of this tie, he probably already had a positive effect for team morale.
A secure defensive line (even if Tiago Silva is sidelined for the first tie), a conquering midfielder and a spectacular front line are the ingredients composing the current squad. Now enjoying a six point gap at the top of the league, their confidence will be sky high for the restart of the European competition.
In a nutshell, if Paris St. Germain maintain their recent form and if it don’t succumb to the heat imposed by Valencian fans at the Mestalla, it should be an easy one for them. After all, if the club plays as he pays, they should surely be in the European top 8. Right?