A dozen years as a manager, more than five hundred matches, many glowing references, but still Mauricio Pochettino hasn’t a trophy to his name as a manager. It has been a frustrating wait, until he landed a job that comes with almost guaranteed silverware.
Pochettino’s third match in charge of Paris Saint-Germain – his first two Ligue one games finished in a 1-1 draw with Saint-Etienne, followed by a 3-0 win over Brest – is Wednesday’s Trophee des Champions final.
It’s a grand name for French football’s equivalent of the domestic Super Cup, when the previous season’s league winners meet the Cup holders. As Tuchel led PSG to both those titles in the last abbreviated season, Marseille who finished second in Ligue 1 will be PSG’s opposition.
Pochettino’s timing is helpful. Normally this fixture precedes the main season. With the disruption of the pandemic, it found its way to mid-January, and the unlikely neutral venue of Lens, where the atmosphere will have to be generated, in the absence of spectators, by the players and staff.
Given that it’s PSG versus Marseille, that should be no problem. This is France’s ‘classique’, a rivalry Pochettino savoured in his playing days with PSG 20 years ago, and whose importance he was reminded of by a banner hung by PSG fans outside the Parc des Princes this week. “This is more than a trophy,” it instructed the new manager. “Go grab it!”
It would be more than a minor trophy to the underdogs, Marseille, and to their manager, a man whose career trajectory parallels that of Pochettino in many ways, except for the relative trophy haul.
Andre Villas-Boas, 43, is five years Pochettino’s junior. But he is seven times more decorated in terms of gold medals. They both started as managers in 2009.
By the end of his first full season, at Porto, Villa-Boas had won a Treble, a Europa League triumph adding to his Portuguese league and Cup successes. Pochettino, meanwhile, was busy meeting his requirements in his first managerial job, at Espanyol, which meant keeping the Spanish club clear of relegation.
The English Premier League came calling for both, Villas-Boas, who had no significant playing career but had been part of Jose Mourinho’s staff at several clubs, went to Chelsea in 2011 at the tender age of 33. He lasted little over half-a-season and watched his stand-in successor, Roberto di Matteo finish the campaign by winning the Champions League.
By the beginning of the next season, he was in charge of Tottenham Hotspur, where, on the way to registering what was then Spurs’ highest number of points in a season, he oversaw a 1-0 win over Southampton, who had, a few months earlier, appointed Pochettino.
The next part of the story is a Tottenham tango between the two. When Spurs, their long period without a trophy stretching through 18 months under Villas Boas, sacked the precocious Portuguese, they looked at Pochettino’s work at Southampton and made him their next choice of promising young manager.
The Tottenham trophy drought continued, all the way to second place in the 2019 Champions League final, but the popular Pochettino stayed for more than five years, credited for forming a closer, warmer bond with his players than Villas-Boas had.
They could envy each other many things. Pochettino might long for the glut of trophies collected by ‘AVB’ at Porto and later at Zenit Saint-Petersburg – a Russian Premier League, Cup and Super Cup. AVB might wish he had been allowed the long period Pochettino was given to build a dynamic Spurs.
The younger man certainly envies the huge advantages Pochettino’s new job gives a coach. “The reality is that we [PSG and Marseille] are part of the most unbalanced league in the world,” said Villas-Boas of a Ligue 1 where, backed by huge investment from the Gulf, PSG have won seven of the last eight championships.
Marseille’s nine years with a major trophy coincided with PSG’s new wealth, Villas-Boas noted. “It’s not OM’s fault that we have not won anything since PSG changed the face of French football.”
The ominous news for Marseille is that the player who most represents PSG’s financial muscle, Neymar, could return from injury tonight, an option for the first time for Pochettino, who arrived while the Brazilian was still recuperating from an ankle problem. But whoever Pochettino, who succeeded the sacked Thomas Tuchel less than two weeks ago, succeeded the sacked Thomas Tuchel less than two weeks ago lines up in attack, among his priorities will be that they all stay cool.
Back in September, when the clubs met in Paris in the league, Marseille beat PSG 1-0. There were 14 yellow cards and five men were shown reds. "It was out of control," recalled Villas-Boas, "but that was more down to them than us."