“One aim is to be at the top of Europe and to be at the top of Europe means to be in the semi-finals of the Champions League. I do not know how long it will be, but the aim of the owners of the club is to win the Champions League in the future” - Carlo Ancelotti to Sky Sports One, Feb 12 2013
Having spent the small matter of £212 million on new players in the 18 months since they bought Paris Saint-Germain, Qatar Sports Investment could be forgiven for looking forward to the club’s Champions League last-16 encounter against Valencia with a fair degree of optimism.
Especially when that financial muscle has brought to the French capital such talented players as Marco Veratti, Javier Pastore, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas Moura, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva.
Not only that, but the Qatari owners also managed to lure esteemed head coach Carlo Ancelotti to the Parc des Princes. Ancelotti possesses mountains of experience when it comes to winning the European Cup, having done so previously four times as both a player and a manager.
In the group phase last autumn, the third-most experienced coach currently left in the competition used all that nous to guide PSG to top place in Group A with a points total unmatched across the Continent, albeit in a section that the big-spending Parisians were expected to breeze through given their resources.
However, as Ancelotti alluded to in his above quote prior to the match, the ambitious owners have not sunk almost a quarter of a billion pounds into PSG simply to make up the Champions League numbers. No, they want to put a club with only two Ligue 1 titles to their name on the map, and quickly, which means not just competing in Europe’s premier club competition, but winning it.
So where better to test PSG's Champions League credentials than Mestalla, a fearsome venue for even seasoned European campaigners, let alone ones who had only appeared in the competition on six previous occasions?
Valencia had not lost a European Cup tie for nine matches at the ground, stretching back two-and-a-half years.
However, PSG passed their examination, and if not with flying colours after Adil Rami’s late goal and Ibrahimovic’s even later red card, then certainly with enough confidence to suggest their 2-1 first-leg advantage will be enough to send them through to the quarterfinals following the return leg in Paris.
What will be disappointing to Ancelotti, though, is the unmistakable feeling that PSG missed a wonderful opportunity to kill the tie off as a contest. Although in doing so, the squad also sent out a message to the rest of Europe that PSG is a team to be feared come the latter stages.
Having taken a deserved 2-0 lead through first-half strikes from the Argentinian attacking duo of Lavezzi and Pastore, the visitors then proceeded to miss a ton of presentable openings after the break. Ultimately, PSG lost both concentration and discipline at the death, and perhaps for the first time in this season’s competition, reminded everyone that this is a club making its first Champions League appearance in eight years.
On this showing then, are PSG realistic challengers to be walking out at Wembley Stadium this May? Or were the bookmakers’ pre-match odds of 25-1 on Ancelotti winning his fifth European Cup more accurate?
Well, I think the Parisians are certainly good enough to equal their best-ever Champions League performance, when they reached the semifinals in 1996. Although the team is likely not quite good enough to overcome a Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich should they meet over two legs in the later rounds.
Going forward, the front three of Lavezzi, Ibrahimovic and Lucas are skilful enough to test the best back lines in Europe. While Valencia, fifth in La Liga remember, had the ball and the possession this evening, PSG had the class and nous on the counterattack.
And just where in midfield the soon-to-be-fit David Beckham is going to play, I am not quite sure.
However, Ancelotti’s side seems capable of being exposed defensively at the highest level, with neither full-back truly convincing when attacked and Italian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, despite an impressive 21 clean sheets in 34 matches in all competitions this season, yet to be tested under pressure.
For now, though, Ancelotti has done all that has been asked of him by his employers. PSG are leading Ligue 1 by six points, won last autumn’s Champions League group and are now emerging victorious in the first leg of their round-of-16 tie on the road at the Mestalla.
Not bad for starters, not bad at all, but with much harder tests still to come, the Italian knows he must keep on winning—or else...