BRUGES — Paris Saint-Germain’s UEFA Champions League campaign got underway on Wednesday with a 1-1 draw away at Club Brugge in Group A with Kylian Mbappe going off injured as Lionel Messi made his full debut for the French champions.
Ander Herrera’s opener for Mauricio Pochettino’s men was canceled out by Hans Vanaken’s deflected equalizer and although Messi hit the woodwork, the hosts were good value for their draw and might feel that they could have nicked the win with some of their second-half chances.
Obviously, the main pregame talking point was the inclusion of Messi, Neymar and Mbappe from the start but that debate quickly switched to Marco Verratti and Idrissa Gueye’s absence in the midfield and Pochettino’s difficulty in finding a preferred starting XI and workable system.
“We need time to work together, to strike up an understanding and for all three to thrive,” said the Argentine tactician after the final whistle. We need to form a team. We made far too many errors. Although I am happy with the effort, we did not have a great evening.”
It is still early days for the terrific trio up top with this their first opportunity to play together and Mbappe’s ankle injury now threatening to delay their next playdate, but the lack of creativity in the final third also owed to Angel Di Maria’s suspension which will remain the case against Manchester City and RB Leipzig.
Focusing too heavily on PSG also takes away from what was a superb performance from Philippe Clement’s Brugge roared on by a passionate full house and Vanaken’s strike was no less than merited with Charles De Ketelaer and Noa Lang also both impressive.
However, it is natural to feel some deflation after such anticipation of the big Messi-Neymar-Mbappe debut, despite some fleeting moments of magic from the Argentine and hints at the understanding he could strike up with the Frenchman given time.
A draw is not disastrous for PSG given that they have City and Leipzig coming to Parc des Princes next, but it does also mean that the pressure on Pochettino and his players has just turned up a notch ahead of schedule and now there is little margin for error in either of those encounters.
Much will now depend on Mbappe’s ankles and whether this latest issue keeps him out for a matter of days, week, or possibly worse, given that he is the most consistent supplier of goals at present — along with the surprisingly prolific Herrera — and Di Maria’s European ban means he is not the solution either.
Perhaps Mauro Icardi, introduced for Mbappe in the second half and rediscovering his scoring touch before a collarbone injury, can come in and provide a focal point for Messi and Neymar to work around, but the Brazilian’s anonymity will have also bothered Pochettino.
The former Barcelona tandem have looked majorly off the pace so far, particularly Neymar, and he is in real need of form and fitness between now and the visit of City in a fortnight after Pep Guardiola’s men played out a goal fest with Leipzig.
Olympique Lyonnais at home in Ligue 1 this weekend will help, but significant strides need to be made at pace if this PSG is to be in optimum condition for their next UCL test which they cannot afford to not win.
Now it is over to Pochettino to work on the “foundations” he was talking about before the match at double speed so that he can finally settle on a preferred XI and system which starts tapping into the team’s awesome attacking potential.