MADRID, Feb 15 — Unai Emery has been in a constant battle to win over the doubters since joining Paris Saint-Germain, but the pressure on him is now greater than ever after today’s 3-1 defeat by Real Madrid.
A year after the spectacular collapse in Barcelona and the 6-1 defeat that sent them packing from the Champions League in the last 16 despite a 4-0 win in the first leg, again PSG fell apart late on against one of Spain’s giants.
Having looked the more likely team to win the last 16, first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, and at least been on course to leave with a precious draw, Paris now face an uphill struggle to save the tie.
Emery cannot shoulder all of the blame if his players are unable to cope with the pressure at crucial moments in such games.
However, he would have had a sleepless night after returning to Paris with the big decisions he made on Wednesday backfiring.
From leaving a player of Thiago Motta’s experience out altogether, to dropping captain Thiago Silva and choosing to play 21-year-old Giovani Lo Celso in midfield, Emery gambled big before kick-off.
Then he decided to take off the clubs’s all-time record goal-scorer, Edinson Cavani, in the second half, only to replace him with a right-back in Thomas Meunier.
Angel Di Maria, a proven big-game performer and PSG’s best player in 2018, was left on the bench.
“The result will make us see things differently, but the team deserved better,” claimed Emery.
But when compared with opposite number Zinedine Zidane, for whom Marco Asensio came on and set up late goals for Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo, it does not look good for him.
“The match was just a few centimetres away from proving him right with the big decisions he made,” wrote Vincent Duluc in French sports daily L’Equipe.
“But, cruelly, the Madrid night ended up highlighting the weak points of a coach guided by his science more than his instinct.”
History not on his side
Emery was attacked by the wives of Silva and Di Maria on social media after leaving out the pair, and he faces a fight to keep the PSG dressing room together ahead of the return leg on March 6.
PSG are on course to recapture the Ligue 1 title from Monaco and remain in the domestic cup competitions, but they did not commit the two biggest transfer fees in the history of the game last year to sign Neymar and Kylian Mbappe just to continue their domination in France.
Emery’s contract is due to expire at the end of the season, although it remains to be seen if he would even last until then if PSG fail to go through to the quarter-finals.
“I think that we have a chance at home, with our supporters behind us,” insisted Emery.
“We will make Real Madrid suffer. We have the character to turn it around.”
History is not on the 46-year-old’s side, though. He has never won a knockout tie in the competition in five previous Champions League seasons with Valencia, Spartak Moscow, Sevilla and Paris.
His difficulties communicating in French have perhaps not helped his image in Paris, and his achievements in Spain, notably at Sevilla, cannot be dismissed.
But even in his home country he has his doubters, all the more so after another defeat at the Bernabeu, where he has now lost 10 times and drawn once in 11 visits as a coach.
“Players like Neymar deserve better allies on the bench,” wrote Rafa Cabeleira in El Pais. — AFP