Paris Saint-Germain’s 3-1 victory against Lille OSC over the weekend looked title-defining as Les Parisiens stretched their lead at the top of Ligue 1 by eleven points. It was an impressive victory over one of the most inform teams in the league as they came from behind to dismantle their opposition, and was made more so by the fact that this was achieved with Kylian Mbappé sat watching from the bench.
It was obvious that the forward was not going to start for the reigning champions over the weekend, but it was suspected that they might still rely on his efforts late in the game. The French captain had been closely monitored in the days leading up to the Lille fixture after suffering a bruising tackle from Lillian Brassier as the club progressed past Stade Brestois in the Coupe de France.
However, what was not obvious was the amount of rotations that Luis Enrique would field, and how well the team coped with these drastic changes, as they kept one eye fixed firmly on the upcoming Champions League tie against Real Sociedad. Gianluigi Donnarumma, Marquinhos, Vitinha, Bradley Barcola, Warren Zaïre-Emery, and Achraf Hakimi were all absent as PSG made seven changes from their victory over Brest.
Lille will of course point to the absurdity of calling this a ‘weakened’ PSG side, as despite the heavy rotations, the Parisians’ frontline still cost the club over €200 million in the summer, with Luis Enrique calling upon World Cup winner Ousmane Dembélé, Randal Kolo Muani, and Gonçalo Ramos to lead his attack.
Still, winning without Mbappé has not been a given for PSG this season, and until this game, Kolo Muani and Ramos had flattered to deceive since joining and serious questions were beginning to form over their future in Paris.
The club’s ambitions have rested heavily on Mbappé who has defined their creative intentions as their top goal scorer and their leader on the pitch. The two games in which Mbappé did not start were two of the worst performances for the club this season as they were held to draws against FC Lorient and Toulouse FC.
Both games came at the start of the season in the wake of Mbappé’s contractual dispute with the club and they had left what looked like an indelible mark on Luis Enrique’s assessment of his charges. Following the Toulouse game, Luis Enrique started Mbappé in every single match for PSG. This even included games where the club were heavily favoured to win, such as in their Coupe de France ties against amateur side US Revel and third-division team US Orléans Loiret.
This is why the Lille game appeared so significant as until this point it had felt like Luis Enrique could not trust his team without their talismanic figure leading the attack. However, now the manager has a defined benchmark for the progress that has been made since the start of the season, and has proof that his squad has a depth that can allow him to turn his attention to the one thing that truly matters to Les Parisiens: the pursuit of the Champions League.
There is a now-or-never feeling to this season’s competition for PSG. It appears to be one of the worst-kept secrets in football that Mbappé will be leaving the club to join Real Madrid in the summer, and this has fuelled an unspoken anxiety surrounding the team that this could prove to be their best opportunity to secure that elusive title, while they can still rely on the best player in the world.
Luis Enrique will take no chances against Real Sociedad. Defeat to the Basque side in the Round of 16 would be catastrophic, but not unthinkable for a club that has exited this competition at this exact stage for the past two seasons running. Failure to win with Mbappé still present in the side would lead to a serious question for the future: how could they hope to win the competition without him?
GFFN | Nick Hartland