Ancelotti may need more than win over Lyon to stay on at PSG

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As with all things, the French tend to be philosophical about their sport. Though it would be a mistake to paint the entire population with the same broad brush, you’re more likely to get the larger perspective out of a French soccer fan after results that might lead others to claims of “famous” wins or states of “crisis”. For some, the approach explains why draws seem to be more palatable around Ligue 1. One match’s results are too little to get excited about, especially when the score’s inconclusive.

Carlo Ancelloti, however, has begun to draw conclusions from philosophers. The Milan legend who won the Premier League at Chelsea is nearing his one year anniversary at Paris Saint-Germain. When he took over for Antoine Kombouaré on Dec. 30, 2011, PSG had just used a win over Saint-Etienne to move into first place, a spot they’ve infrequently held since. After falling at Nancy on March 31, PSG lost their lead and eventually the title to Montpellier. They have not led the league at the end of a round since.

That Ancelotti has not faced the same scrutiny that befell Kombouaré seems incongruous until you remember who hired him. Leonardo, brought in last season to serve as PSG’s director of football, chose Ancelotti, his first coaching hired in Paris. The Brazilian inherited Kombouaré, a circumstance that left the coach’s job the source of constant speculation throughout the first half of last season. Ancelotti has already gotten leeway the former PSG defender never saw.

The expectations on Ancelotti, however, are higher, part of the reason the two-time Champions League winner’s viability is starting to be questioned. Paris Saint-Germain enter Sunday’s match against league-leading Olympique Lyonnais three points back despite another huge round of summer investment from their Qatari owners. Most notably, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not only purchased but has dominated the league, scoring a league-leading 17 times in his first 14 appearances. Add in talents of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marco Veratti, Thiago Silva and Gregory Van Der Wiel – all added over the summer – and concern over Ancelotti’s results becomes understandable.

But if the coach is to be believed, the influx of new talent may actually be a hinderance. The burdens of expectation may not be something PSG’s new players feel, according to Ancelotti:

“As coach, I have to take my share of responsibility, but the players have to do the same,” Ancelotti said, per ESPNFC. “I get the impression the players feel the club’s project and the problems in the team’s play don’t concern them.

“My players don’t make a team. They’re still a group of individuals. We still don’t have any consistency in our game. It’s neither solid nor unified. The work of a coach is to find a solution very quickly.”

Hinting a solution’s been found, PSG have won three in a row, a stretch that’s included impressive wins over Porto (in Champions League) and at Valenciennes (0-4). Unfortunately a preceding stretch of only three victories in eight games has created a bottom line feel around the team. They may have won three on the trot, but these are the results the team was supposed to be producing all along. Why is PSG in second place? Why are they trailing Lyon?

Part of that is PSG’s regression (they’re on pace for fewer points than last year’s second place campaign), but it would be unfair to not give some credit to Rémi Garde. After the Lyon coach suffered through his own first year struggles (OL failing to claim a Champions League spot for the first time in 14 years), the former Gones sweeper has his team on top of the league despite the club’s continued overhaul. The only imports have been cast offs — Steed Malbranque finding a home at Stade Gerland, Milan Bisevac slotting into defense after becoming surplus at (ironically) PSG — but given the litany of names Garde has lost, Lyon was expected to be fringe contenders at best. Those are the expectations when a team that finished 18 points off the lead loses their No. 1. keeper (Hugo Lloris, to Tottenham), a midfield linchpin (Kim Kallstrom, to Spartak Moscow), their starting left back (Aly Cissokho, to Valencia), and their long-serving defensive leader (Cris, to Galatasaray).

Youth served

With the summer departures of Hugo Lloris, Cris, Kim Kallstrom and Aly Cissokho, Lyon has fully embraced their youth movement:

2012-13 Career
Player Age Pos. GP G GP G
Maxime Gonalons 23 M 16 2 89 4
Dejan Lovren 23 D 7 1 61 2
Alexandre Lacazette 21 A 15 1 54 7
Clement Grenier 21 M 11 1 42 1
Guieda Fofana 21 M 12 0 30 0
Rachid Ghezzal 20 M 4 0 4 0
Samuel Umtiti 19 D 8 0 20 0
Yassine Benzia 18 A 8 0 9 0

They were expectations Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas set when he hired the inexperienced Garde, and although missing Champions League was a huge disappointment for a club that dominated France not so long ago, Lyon is consciously and successfully undergoing a youth movement. Of Garde’s starters for Nov. 28’s 4-1 Classique victory at Marseille, five were Lyon products age 23 or younger: defender Samuel Umtiti; midfielders Clement Grenier and Maxime Gonalons; and attackers Alexandre Lacazette and Rachid Ghezzal. Add in the contributions of defender Dejan Lovren (bought from Dinamo Zagreb), midfielder Gueida Fofana (Le Havrea) and attacker Yassine Benzia and you have the largest and most deliberate youth movement among Europe’s major clubs.

It’s a point of literary irony that it’s a build from within, cut costs, shun the benefits of big buys philosophy that’s proved an obstacle Paris Saint-Germain’s ambition. While Lyon still has names Lisandro Lopez, Michel Bastos, and Bafetimbi Gomis among their ranks, this was once a team that had the likes of Karim Benzema, Michael Essien, and Florent Malouda. It’s not quite the talent currently patrolling the Parc de Princes, but there was a time that OL’s talent lapped the Ligue 1 field, one of the main reasons the club won seven straight titles through 2008. For the last two years, the talent advantage has lied with the Parisians, yet they lost last year’s race to an undermanned Montpellier and trail a reconfiguring Lyon as we approach this year’s break. (Aulus recently conceded all of Lopez, Basots, and Gomis could still go as the team looks to further reduce payroll.)

But Lyon’s reconfiguring has gone beyond mere roster turnover. On the field, Garde has settled into the 4-2-3-1 formation that never took hold last season. In the past it would have seemed a counter-intuitive approach, a setup that isolates OL’s best player (Lopez) out left, but given Lopez’s fitness concerns and the depth and variety of talent Garde has in midfielders and wider attackers, it’s been the team’s best approach. The resulting system has gotten the most out of Gomis, one of two double-digit scorers in France, while promoting a possession game that’s helped drastically reduce the team’s goals allowed (Lyon’s conceded 16 in 17 games after allowing 51 last season).

source: Getty ImagesIt’s all part of a year’s worth of hard-earned lessons for Garde (right), who has no head coaching experience before being appointed by Aulus. But seeing how Garde’s grown after one year on the job,  it’s worth asking whether Ancelotti could do the same. But the PSG boss has always enjoyed strong starts at his previous stops, something that makes his PSG experience all the more concerning. And the Parisians aren’t a side in the middle of scaling back a once dominant operation. They’re building to not only win in France but to compete at a level which will make them a global brand. Ancelotti was hired to bring immediate success, not implement a process.

This is why, as Andy Brassell points out today in The Independent, the French media has started to be brash about a post-Ancelotti future. L’Equipe, France’s sports daily, has reported PSG’s management has already sounded out Pep Guardiola, with long-time link Arsène Wenger and Real Madrid’s José Mourinho also in frame. The recent, thin support of PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi (“Today, Carlo is here” he said after the Porto win) left little doubt the Italian’s future is being evaluated.

Consider the implications if Paris Saint-Germain lose on Sunday. They’ll trail going into winter break, six points back of Lyon. There’ll be no three-match winning streak to assuage doubts. Worse for Ancelotti, there’ll be a two week break that will allow the Qataris to ask the question normally reserved for presidential elections: Are we better off than we were before?

Even if PSG draw, it’s hard to see that answer coming back as yes. Despite far more talent, the Parisians aren’t getting noticeably better results. Perhaps ownership will fall back on Ancelotti’s Champions League success as reason to retain him through the European season, but where their evaluation of his predecessor was clinical and cold, Ancelotti would be fortunate to survive the holiday season without a win over Lyon.

One game’s results might be harder to get worked up about in France than other cultures, but there’s little doubt Ancelotti needs to win on Sunday. But if we look back on the circumstances of Antoine Kombouaré’s dismissal, even that may not be enough to avoid change in Paris.

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

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Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.

Johannsson expected to leave Bremen this summer — is MLS next?

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Aron Johannsson’s time at Werder Bremen is all but finished, as the 26-year-old American-born, Icelandic-raised striker is expected to leave the club this summer after 22 months with Die Werderaner.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

Having failed to make much of an impact during his second season in the Bundesliga, following a few promising days early in the fall of 2015, the German press stated on Thursday, in no uncertain terms, “Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club” — quotes from Kicker (translation courtesy of Google Translate):

In addition, Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club. The US boy was not able to get through the hard competition in the storm, claimed more time, which can hardly be guaranteed in the next season. The fact that Baumann is already talking about finding a meaningful solution with the striker in the summer can be interpreted as follows: Johannsson will leave Werder.

Since various bits and pieces are lost in the above translation, allow us to offer a translation of the translation: the “hard competition in the storm” refers to the three or four strikers presently ahead of him in the pecking order. Johannsson fell down the depth chart due in large part to a hip injury which cost him the final seven months of last season.

Johannsson was recently quoted as saying, “It’s not my desire to leave, but at the end of the day it’s important that I play. I love football, but I need to play to be happy.”

[ MORE: John Brooks hip injury is worrying ahead of World Cup qualifiers ]

So, what’s next for Johannsson?

He can probably forget about a move to a top-division team in any of Europe’s premier leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). A move back to Holland, where he starred at AZ Alkmaar (39 goals in 81 games) before moving to Bremen, would make sense if his goal is to stay in Europe at all costs. Another strong season (just a half, even) could earn him another shot with a first-division side roughly the size of Bremen.

Then, there’s MLS, which Johannsson’s been linked with before, and has publicly expressed a desire to join one day. As a current U.S. national team player, a move to MLS would mean a trip through the league’s allocation order for Johannsson. As of this posting, the Houston Dynamo hold the no. 1 spot in the allocation order, with Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United and Orlando City SC rounding out the next five.

[ WATCH: If you haven’t Darlington Nagbe’s latest golazo ]

Any team in MLS could land Johannsson by acquiring the top spot in the allocation order, via trade, and agreeing (what would almost certainly be) a Designated Player contract with him.

At the age of 26, Johannsson will likely feel there is still something left for him to accomplish in Europe. A strong showing in this summer’s Gold Cup (he’s a perfect candidate for Bruce Arena’s “B-team”) could open plenty of eyes — and doors. Money talks, though, just as the opportunity to be the face of the franchise and score a boatload of goals in MLS might also do.