"We have a hand on the trophy,” observed Marquinhos, captain of Paris Saint-Germain, a 2-1 victory in Auxerre having steered France’s defending champions to within a point of retaining their Ligue 1 title.
Has that hand really ever been far from French football’s main domestic prize? PSG have stood in first place in the table after every match day this season.
This imminent title, all but sealed on Sunday given their goal-difference advantage along with their six-point clearance over chasing Lens with two fixtures left, will be the club’s ninth in the past 11 seasons.
Such a regular procession makes the dominance of France’s sole financial superclub over compatriots seem routine. In this odd, World Cup-interrupted season, perhaps it should not.
After all, other major leagues have seen patterns change, Napoli claiming the Italian title after 33 years without it, Real Madrid dethroned in Spain with fully four matches to spare, Bayern Munich on course to lose their Bundesliga Shield after a decade in possession.
Yet in Paris, there is genuine uncertainty, even trepidation about how exuberantly the 2023 French championship will be celebrated when Marquinhos lifts the trophy in front of a home crowd next month at the Parc des Princes.
The joy of retaining a title partly hinges on what promises it carries for the future. On the same weekend that Kylian Mbappe’s two handsome early goals at Auxerre tightened a familiar PSG grip on the Ligue 1 trophy, Manchester City were presenting their latest Premier League to supporters at the Etihad Stadium.
It is five titles in six years for City, a comparable run of domestic superiority in England to PSG’s in France, but with a very different vibe.
There was some high-spirited unruliness at City’s Etihad, fans spilling on the pitch to join in Sunday’s celebrations, but not the sort of disorder PSG players have come to watch out for from certain groups of their followers.
Two weeks ago, a band of ultras, PSG fans, gathered outside the club’s offices to chant insults targeting Lionel Messi, who had been suspended by the club for making a visit to Saudi Arabia that clashed with a rescheduled PSG training session. They moved on Neymar’s villa and demanded the Brazilian, who has been out with injury since February, leave the club he has played for over six seasons.
The disconnect between elements in the fan base and the superstars who, through 12 years of huge financial backing from their Qatar-based owners, have helped elevate PSG to domestic supremacy has become almost a constant. It is heard louder than ever in 2022-23.
Messi has been jeered at the Parc for a perceived drop in form in the period since he returned from his World Cup-winning month in Qatar in January. Yet he will end his second season with PSG as, by a distance, the leading provider of assists – 16 so far, in addition to his 15 goals – in Ligue 1.
Messi’s second season in France will be his last, his appetite for home crowd derision, albeit from a minority of PSG followers, exhausted, his opportunities for a next adventure, at 36, several – from the slender possibility of returning to Barcelona and guaranteed affection from home crowds, to a lucrative proposed deal with Al Hilal in Riyadh.
Whether Neymar, who is out for the rest of the season with an ankle injury but has two more years on his PSG contract, is still in Paris come August is less clear.
His relationship with Mbappe, the player most valued by the club’s executive hierarchy, is not one of close friendship, but their combination on the pitch has been key to establishing PSG as, at least, contenders for the trophy the club’s owners aspire to most: the Champions League.
Neymar, with Mbappe alongside him, was a principal driver in PSG reaching their only European Cup final, where they lost to Bayern three seasons ago.
They have fallen short in every season since, exiting at the last-16 stage for the past two campaigns and beaten by City in the 2021 semi-final. Failures in Europe count against PSG coaches.
This summer PSG will probably appoint the third different manager since Thomas Tuchel was sacked four months after receiving his silver medal in the Champions League. The current man in charge, Christophe Galtier, is expected to depart after the Ligue 1 celebrations.
The contrast with City here is plain. Pep Guardiola, guide to City’s last five Premier League titles, is already eyeing his sixth as their manager. And much more before that.
On the pitch at the Etihad on Sunday, some City fans held up a home-made banner: “The Treble Is On. 1 Down, 2 To Go.”
For Guardiola, Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne, there is an FA Cup and European Cup final to be won in the next three and half weeks.
For Galtier, Mbappe, Neymar and Messi, there is a single trophy lift ahead, tinged with residual disappointments.
“It’s not been our best season,” acknowledged Marquinhos, “we were knocked out of the Champions League and the French Cup – those targets passed us by. Players, and fans, need to reflect on how to do better next season.”