PARIS (AP) — Another Champions League dream is over for Paris Saint-Germain and it's back to the reality of saving its French league title with only three games left.
The way PSG’s players lost their composure against Manchester City on Tuesday night shows they remain prone to self-capitulation under pressure, and coach Mauricio Pochettino even had to calm them down at the final whistle.
Now he must get their minds fully focused for Sunday’s game at Rennes as PSG tries to wrestle the championship lead back from Lille.
For while defending champion PSG has won its past three games to move one point behind Lille, those wins were hardly convincing. PSG scraped home victories thanks to a goal with just seconds left against Saint-Etienne and a glaring defensive error from Lens.
Neither of those sides really took the game to PSG, preferring to play on the counterattack, but it promises to be a different proposition against a slick Rennes side which passes well at speed.
The Rennes players have been transformed under coach Bruno Genesio — the former Lyon manager — and the Brittany club goes for a sixth win in eight games.
A lot is at stake, too, with Genesio’s side pushing for fifth place and a Europa League spot after gaining ground on its rivals.
But seventh-place Rennes still needs to make up two points on Marseille and fifth-place Lens, which could do PSG a favor by beating Lille at home on Friday.
Genesio’s side has been displaying strong teamwork, which was hardly the case for PSG against City. Rather than pulling together as a unit, players took turns to rant at the referee.
Angel Di Maria got sent off for a petulant kick while Marco Verratti, a seasoned Italy international with 40 caps, again gave in to outbursts of rage.
Neymar has berated teammates rather than leading by example, failing to become the on-field savior some observers expected him up to be.
There are also alarming questions regarding recent club decisions.
Striker Edinson Cavani, PSG's all-time leading scorer with 200 goals, and veteran defender Thiago Silva, a longstanding captain with 315 club appearances, were not given the contracts they wanted at the end of last season and left.
Both were genuine leaders in terms of attitude and work ethic, yet deemed not to merit more than a one-year offer because of their relatively advanced age.
Those decisions have backfired.
The 36-year-old Silva is through to the Champions League final with Chelsea — which is coached by Thomas Tuchel, who was fired by PSG mid-season.
“Chelsea Dreams Bigger," ran the headline on Thursday's edition of sports daily L'Equipe, an ironic reference to PSG's own club motto.
Meanwhile, the 34-year-old Cavani was well poised to reach the Europa League final with Manchester United later on Thursday.
PSG is pushing Neymar to sign a new contract even though he has not justified the elevated hopes placed in him, and could also leave for free next year having cost another fortune in wages.
He has not scored in seven straight games in the knockout phase of the Champions League, a worrying statistic for a player of spectacular ability who cost a record 222 million euros ($267 million).
His underwhelming performances against City underlined how dependent PSG is on Kylian Mbappe, who missed Tuesday’s return leg with a calf injury.
Pochettino could really use Mbappe against Rennes, too, but the France striker is suspended.
It is a crucial moment for the club, with a French Cup semifinal away to Montpellier coming up just three days after Rennes.
Verratti and fellow midfielder Ander Herrera are suspended for the holders against Montpellier, which has one of French soccer’s best midfielders in Teji Savanier and needs to win the competition to reach the Europa League.
By next week, PSG’s season could be back on track or hanging by a thread.
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