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Ligue 1 also-rans vye for Champions League as PSG target win in Barcelona

By Paul Myers - RFI
Sports News  AP - Jean-christophe Bott
MON, 15 APR 2024 LISTEN
© AP - Jean-christophe Bott

Perhaps the weekend break will help Paris Saint-Germain's players recover from their midweek travails. 1-0 down and then 2-1 up before losing 3-2 to Barcelona at the Parc des Princes, it was – to mutilate the cliché – a game of two halves within two halves.

Such are the slings and arrows of PSG's fortunes. At least they will have Tuesday's quarter-final second leg in Spain to salvage their Champions League campaign.

Barcelona boss Xavi Hernandez – who won the Champions League four times during his playing days at Barcelona – was under no illusions that PSG would pose a problem.

"It was a great victory against one of the best teams in the world," said the 44-year-old. "But we are only half way there.

"PSG still have every chance. But we have a one-goal advantage and we will be playing at home."

Barcelona have not reached the semis since 2019. For PSG, the wait has not been quite so arduous. Under Mauricio Pochettino, they were knocked out in the last four in 2021. 

PSG's bosses dispensed with Pochettino after he could only take them to the last-16 in 2022.

Sequence

His replacement,Christophe Galtier, steered them to the same stage in 2023. At least his successor, Luis Enrique, has guided them to within sight of the semis.

"We could have won the first leg," said Enrique on Wednesday night. "I am not saying the result is unfair but it came down to little details and we will work to ensure that in the return leg the little details go our way."

While the 53-year-old Spaniard and his coaching staff ponder rapid ways to improve the kicking game of goalkeeper Gigi Donnarumma, the Ligue 1 battle to join them in next season'sChampions League will continue as the Parisians gird their loins.

Brest, who lie 10 points behind PSG with six games remaining, played at Lyon on Sunday night in a game that offered an intriguing insight into how the mighty can fall and the lowly can rise.

At the start of the century, Lyon were Ligue 1's big beast. They won the title seven times on the trot between 2002 and 2008. PSG might be close to claiming their 10th top flight crown and their 32nd trophy in the 12 years since their wealthy Qatari backers took over the club, but they have never won seven successive crowns. They've never won the Champions League either.

Change

Roll back to June 2022 and the freshly anointed Lyon supremo John Textor was talking about challenging PSG for domestic primacy and competing anew in the Champions League.

Nearly two years on from the American tycoon's brash declarations, Lyon are fulfilling one of the boasts. On 25 May they play PSG in the final of the Coupe de France in Lille.

As for the rest of the crowing? Best be quiet. Lyon started the 2023/24 season disastrously under Laurent Blanc. The former France boss was dispatched as coach in September with the team showing one point from the first four games.

His replacement, Fabio Grosso, managed to garner six more points during his eight games in charge.

Pierre Sage, who was coach of the Lyon academy team, took over as interim boss in November and promptly oversaw two more defeats  – 2-0 to Lens and 3-0 at Marseille – to leave the Lyon with seven points from a possible 42.

"If we go back to the night of that loss to Marseille, the statistics were that we were almost 100 per cent certain to go down to Ligue 2," said Sage just before the side played its Coupe de France semi-final against Valenciennes.

"So the players were up against the wall at that point," Sage added. "They managed to pick themselves up, managed to win the three following games and get out of the relegation zone before the end of the year."

Five games from the end of the campaign, Sage has been confirmed as permanent coach and his side lies seventh with 41 points.

Feat

"We need just a few more points to be absolutely sure but we're likely to achieve something that we were told was impossible to do," added the 44-year-old Frenchman.

Textor will have to wait until next season for his clubs to launch a title tilt and access to the Champions League. Brest, Sunday night's visitors to the Groupama Stadium, have a better chance of performing in that competition next season as they enjoy their best top flight campaign. 

While Lyon were ruling the roost, Brest were scrabbling around the third and fourth divisions. They made it Ligue 2 in 2004 and the top flight by the end of the decade.

Since then theirs has been gallant tales of staying and failing.

Eric Roy, who was appointed in January 2023 with the goal of keeping them in Ligue 1 – a task he accomplished.

This season has been a revelation. The 56-year-old has fashioned the squad in his own image: rugged, hard-working, candid and a tad cheeky.

After the 4-3 win over Metz last Sunday, Roy said: "We recovered from conceding a goal to score four and then eased off to let them come back.

"I think we saw the best of the Brest team and the worst. I'm pleased that we got the win but it's a lesson for the players ... things can turn quickly if they don't concentrate."

Pausing, he puffed out his cheeks and surveyed the journalists in the press conference to add: "Honestly, six games from the end of the season and Brest lying second in the division, I don't think any of you would have put money on that one."

His riposte to a reporter asking him about whether he would have placed such a wager? "Me neither."

Brest have 53 points from their 29 games and are still vying for a berth in European club football's most prestigious competition for the first time and voyages to places like the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, the Allianz Arena in Munich and Anfield in Liverpool. 

Monaco though are hot on their heels with 52 points from their 28 games. Adi Hütter's men kept up the pressure on Brest with a 1-0 victory over Rennes last Saturday.

They return to Ligue 1 action on 21 April at Brest in the game of the weekend that could have some bearing on who finishes second behind PSG.

By then, the Parisians might only have the title and the Coupe de France to care about. The same old story.

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