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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 6 March 2021

New Paris Saint-Germain manager Mauricio Pochettino has eyes on Barcelona battle

Argentine coach was only unveiled at Ligue 1 club on Tuesday but thoughts are already turning to the blockbuster Champions League clash with the Spanish giants

Just days into his new job and Paris Saint-Germain manager Mauricio Pochettino's mind is already on the Champions League showdown with Barcelona.

He hopes injuries will have cleared up by then, allowing PSG to face the five-time European champions at full strength.

“It looks far away, but it’s next month. The most important thing is to build and arrive at our best to face Barcelona [in the last 16]," Pochettino said at his first news conference on Tuesday. “From the moment all the players will be available, there will be a massive competition [for places] between them. I think for sure we are going to arrive at our best to win, and to go further.”

Going further was not enough for his predecessor, Thomas Tuchel, who was sacked just four months after leading PSG to its first Champions League final in August. There would be no first title, though, as PSG lost to Bayern Munich.

Pochettino's immediate priority is getting PSG back on top of a league it usually dominates – with the defending champion third after four losses. His first game is at Saint-Etienne on Wednesday, when star forward Neymar will be among at least eight PSG players injured.

Tuchel had been under pressure after PSG lost two if its first three group games in the Champions League.

He complained about the difficulties he faced and, in a TV interview which reportedly sealed his fate, claimed that managing PSG was akin to being a politician such was the level of scrutiny.

Pochettino was not asked about Tuchel, during a news conference in which he spoke in Spanish and English, flanked by one of his loyal assistants who translated his long answers into French without taking notes. Twice, Pochettino applauded his feats of memory.

He may also have some sympathy for Tuchel, having himself been sacked despite leading Tottenham to its first Champions League final in 2019 – losing to Liverpool.

Few expected Spurs to get that far, but Pochettino is expected to win big at PSG.

The club has been lavishly bankrolled by Qatari investors QSI for nearly 10 years, and demands are huge. Tuchel was the third manager sacked in four years following Laurent Blanc and Unai Emery.

Managing PSG is a different dynamic from Pochettino's underdog roles at Southampton and Tottenham, where he was hailed as a shrewd coach who maximised limited resources.

He saved Saints from relegation, before revitalising a flagging Spurs side by reaching the 2015 League Cup final, and finishing second in the Premier League two years later.

When Spurs missed out on trophies, few blamed him since he was tackling richer clubs.

That safety net does not exist at PSG, but he relishes the added pressure.

“Paris Saint-Germain have an amazing squad and unbelievable players,” he said. “I know what PSG represents and I know what big players are. I really believe they can perform in the best way, that is our expectation and challenge.”

When he steps out at Parc des Princes for Saturday's home game against Brest, Pochettino will be on familiar turf. He played 95 games for PSG as a rugged central back from 2001-03 – a combative player instantly popular with fans.

“Father Christmas has been generous with me," Pochettino said, smiling. "To come back to the club 18 years later is a dream.”

The 48-year-old Argentine began coaching at Espanyol in 2009, but made his name with Tottenham. Under his guidance, Harry Kane blossomed into the prolific striker with more than 200 goals for the club.

Now, Pochettino, has the world's two most expensive players to work with in Neymar and Mbappe, who cost PSG €402 million ($494m). Unsurprisingly, Pochettino is also linked with a summer move for fellow Argentine Lionel Messi, the Barca star whose contract expires this season.

PSG have also been linked with a move for England midfielder Dele Alli, who has fallen out of favour under current Spurs manager Jose Mourinho but was a key player when Pochettino was in charge of the London club.

He would not be drawn on Messi but left the door open, as any manager would. “There are a lot of rumours in big clubs like PSG. It’s time to leave the rumours for later," he said. "But any big player in the world is always welcome in Paris Saint-Germain.”

Where Pochettino differs from Tuchel, however, is in not just banking on the stars to lead others. “There are different ways to express your leadership,” he said.

A lack of unity on the pitch often proved to be PSG's downfall on the biggest stage.

With Neymar and Mbappe were off form in last season's Champions League final, no other players emerged and Bayern's 1-0 became too comfortable. Three years ago, PSG made Champions League history by crumbling 6-1 in Barcelona after winning 4-0 in Paris.

At his previous clubs, Pochettino simply had to get the best out of everyone.

“The more leaders we will have in the dressing room and the pitch, the better it is for the club,” he said. "It will give us enormous strength.”

Published: January 6, 2021 07:10 AM

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