What must Antoine Kombouare be thinking? The former Paris Saint-Germain coach was sacked
when PSG went into France’s winter break on top of the table in the quest for their first league title since 1994. When Carlo Ancelotti came in to replace him—and the club spent another €20m on Alex, Maxwell and Thiago Motta—it seemed to be a matter of when, and not if, the capital club would clinch the title.
With six games left to play, PSG are two points behind leaders Montpellier and have won once in their last six games. On Sunday, Ancelotti lost his temper after PSG failed to beat relegation-threatened Auxerre, who scored an 86th-minute equaliser to secure a 1-1 draw. “We won’t win the league playing like that,” he said. “I’m annoyed with the players. We had a problem with our concentration and determination.”
Before Sunday, PSG had ridden their luck: they had gone on a run of scoring late goals—after 88 minutes or later—in five straight games, which helped them get five extra points from draws with Montpellier (2-2), Lyon (4-4) and Caen (2-2) and a win over Dijon (2-1). While Javier Pastore has been blamed for not making the team tick, other players have under-performed as well: Jeremy Menez, Kevin Gameiro, even captain Mamadou Sakho, who has since been dropped, “although Ancelotti has not explained why to me”.
But this week, Ancelotti has come under fire. His results are worse than Kombouare’s; his win percentage is 46%, Kombouare’s this season was 63%, while his points-per-game average is 1.85, compared to 2.11. The Italian’s decision to replace Mathieu Bodmer with Diego Lugano after 83 minutes at Auxerre was the talking-point of last weekend. Bodmer was playing in midfield, and so right-back Christophe Jallet moved into his position, with centre-back Milan Bisevac moving across. In all, three players took new positions, and the reshuffle did not work. “That one decision disrupted the whole defence,” said former PSG forward Daniel Bravo.
Within three minutes, Auxerre’s Omar Kossoko evaded Lugano and took a shot, which was spilled by Salvatore Sirigu only into the path of Anthony Le Tallec, who scored. “It was a very strange move by Ancelotti,” ex-PSG captain Jose Pierre-Fanfan told Le Parisien. “If you make that kind of change late on in the game, you need to allow players time to find their feet, and so it’s a big risk.”
“We should have won the game by then anyway,” admitted Jeremy Menez. Fifteen minutes before the equaliser, Nene was through on goal and chose not to square it to Gameiro, who had an open net gaping. Instead, he tried to round goalkeeper Olivier Sorin, but he failed. ‘Did Nene change the course of the whole season?’ asked Le Parisien. Was the Brazilian, who was dropped against Nancy a few weeks earlier, trying to prove a point to his coach, or just playing his natural game? Either way, his individualism remains a bone of contention among his team-mates.
Last month, L’Equipe magazine published a light-hearted article looking at all the changes that PSG owners QSI were making. Under the headline ‘PSG Without Limits’, it asked if PSG might change their stadium (maybe), their training-centre (definitely), their supporters (it’s already happening), their name (no, warned ex-president Alain Cayzac) or their kit (they’d better not, said former rugby player and Eden Park owner Franck Mesnel). But it didn’t mention changing the coach. And there’s a good reason for that.
French newspaper Le 10 Sport has claimed that Ancelotti was on a English FA short-list to coach the national team at Euro 2012; this week, The Sun reported that Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy still wants him on their bench next season (just after he took the PSG job, Ancelotti had admitted he would have been happy to take a year out, “in the hope that next summer, between Tottenham and Arsenal, a bench in London would free up”). But the noises from Paris are that Ancelotti is not going anywhere, even if PSG do finish second this season.
It’s very rare that a Champions League-winning coach would even agree to take charge of a new team mid-season, even more so in a league where he has no experience. Perhaps Ancelotti thought PSG would cruise to the title and give him a six-month ‘learning on the job’ period (pundit Christophe Dugarry has said it’s obvious that he doesn’t know Ligue 1). He still doesn’t seem to know his best eleven, or his best formation, while his reluctance to pair Pastore with Gameiro has surprised pundits. “They seem a complementary pair but he ignores them as a partnership,” said ex-Marseille coach Rolland Courbis.
Ancelotti has tried four different formations in his 13 league games, and not picked the same starting eleven once. Now, though, is not the time for experimentation. “The players need to put their egos to one side, and the team needs a leader, someone to bring that fighting spirit,” said another 1994 champion Vincent Guerin.
It would still be a major shock if Montpellier do pip PSG to the title this season – as Montpellier owner Loulou Nicollin put it, “I would stab myself in the arse with a sausage!” – but it would not be the end of the world for PSG. “In my heart, I think Paris will be champion, because we have the quality, ambition, and motivation,” said Ancelotti a few weeks ago. “The players know this year is very important to us after 18 years without the title.”
At the start of the season, chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s target was just Champions League qualification; as it transpired, no-one could have predicted that Marseille and Lyon would fall behind so dramatically in Ligue 1, leaving essentially a two-horse race for the title.
But PSG’s long-term targets remain the same, and given a full pre-season to oversee, and another summer of big spending, Ancelotti will have no excuses. “The Champions League quarter-finals is a reasonable goal for next season,” he said. He may be a wanted man in England (and elsewhere) but PSG have got him, and don’t intend to let him go.