Mauricio Pochettino already knows what he will say to Paris Saint-Germain players on Tuesday. He’s been here before.
It doesn’t just mean Eastlands and their victorious Champions League second leg at Manchester City with Tottenham Hotspur in 2018-19. Pep Guardiola will be all too aware of this, but the next round was more relevant. It was Spurs’ semi-final against Ajax, who also blocked the road to the final.
Then, as now, Pochettino’s team lost the first leg at home. In the seven decades of competitive history leading up to this game, only eight teams had overcome such a situation to make it through. Last week there was also a lot of talk about how an English team has never suffered from this. They’ve always gone through the 47 occasions they’ve won the first leg away from home. City came reinforced with this knowledge, to go with the assurance of their supreme victory in the first leg.
The upside is that Pochettino is the latest coach to reverse such a deficit. This has become even more important since Tottenham went further in that second leg against Ajax, at one point losing 3-0 on aggregate.
After the spectacular return of the Spurs players, many remembered Pochettino’s pre-game speech. This is what PSG players will hear.
Although he leaves such discussions to the captain at times, Pochettino insisted on taking this one himself. There were the usual tactical details distilled into snippets that players could easily remember at the time, but they were interspersed with what players and staff described as “inspirational” comments.
Pochettino started talking about what it meant for him and the team, while also writing some choice quotes on the whiteboard.
It might sound simplistic, but it’s what comes out of players in the decisive moments when they need to stand up.
Pochettino will naturally take a slightly different approach than he did with Spurs, as it was a first semi-final for him and this team. Much of the discussion was about how proud it was to come this far, how it was a dream to be on such a stage. It was time to grab it.
PSG were at this level a year ago, of course, but that hasn’t made the questions about their character go away. You just had to look at that second half against City, which seemed to illustrate all of the worst flaws associated with this team – right down to a loss of discipline.
The commentary and performance burned some of the players.
City meanwhile were fortified by the conviction of their display in the second half – it really seemed to show how much they have grown and learned in this competition.
There’s still a second stage to go through, however, and he’s still so nervous that he could see all the emotions about the occasion shift drastically the other way around. We have already seen it in the first leg, after all, it seemed at the start that PSG was the camp that had climbed on stage, which had grown with the competition.
They were indeed punished. This sense of pride is something Pochettino needs to harness and use as a motivator.
It’s the very human core of a game with otherwise enormous geopolitical dimensions, and that applies to City as well. The outcome of this draw will almost represent a referendum on the two teams and their managers in the Champions League. This is the price of public investment.
It also underlines one of the contrasts between the teams, which has greatly conditioned this return leg – there is no doubt that the owners of City in Abu Dhabi have been much smarter about the management of the club than the PSG hierarchy in Qatar. . Football infrastructure has been a model for every club in the game – especially if you have a £ 2 billion investment.
This Guardiola side – and possibly this season’s Champions League – represents the culmination of something 10 years in the making. Everything has been designed to get here, until effectively creating the ideal conditions for the work of the Catalans.
It shows in the team, which now looks like an almost organic machine. They are almost impossible to reach or avoid.
This cannot be seen at PSG. If City it’s all smooth surfaces invading you, the French champions have jagged edges – right down to Kylian Mbappe and Neymar stepping forward to the beat.
This team is not really the culmination of anything, in terms of the idea of football. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that Pochettino is still only four months after the start of his labor.
He always tries to make the team effective in the short term, while also infusing them with a long-term identity, while also navigating the nuances of some of the game’s greatest personalities. They are not a young team ready to be. modeled, as Pochettino’s Spurs were at the start. They are superstars.
This is why Pochettino will have to rely on their pride, and why a lot of it relies on Neymar.
After a period where he seemed to come into his own as a player and banished so many negative perceptions, City’s game instantly brought back so much criticism. The Brazilian was not the sent off player, but he was still seen as the personification of their character not to fulfill their talent when it mattered.
It even sparked yet another round of talk about why Neymar is so hated.
The irony is that anyone who has met the 29-year-old says he’s actually a “nice kid” behind it all. He will even go out of his way to try to be loved, offering to carry people’s luggage when they didn’t expect it. Pochettino has so far built a good relationship with him.
A complicating factor has been the world Neymar lives in and his entourage. This level of indulgence will start to distort perceptions, and lead to behavior where teammates privately call you “a full bite.”
Another irony, however, is that Neymar specifically pushed to go to PSG himself to “be his own man”. He wanted to get away from it all. It was not his father’s decision. It was his. And that was for games like this.
While Neymar remains friends with Lionel Messi and together cherishes their victory in the Champions League 2015, he wants to achieve his own victory; be the determining player.
He will rarely have a bigger stage to show it. This is what Pochettino will try to bring out in him. This is another contrast between the teams of course.
City do have some elite players in Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden, but they are more integrated into a squad than the squad that seems to be serving the stars.
These are the games where Neymar has to show he is worth it.
These are the challenges that the European champions show their worth and resist. Both leaders are all too aware of the real price of failure and what victory would mean.