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.

No clean sheet, no cake for Leicester at Rainieri’s birthday party

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  Leicester City mascot Filbert Fox is seen prior to the Premier League match between Leicester City and Crystal Palace at The King Power Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
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It’s a happy birthday celebration for Claudio Ranieri, though cake will be missing for Leicester City’s players.

The manager turned 65 on Thursday, and was ready to share some of his gigantic birthday cake with his players if they fulfilled his requirements on Saturday.

[ MORE: Match recap | Fuchs’ great goal ]

The Foxes picked up a comfortable-enough 3-1 win through Ahmed Musa, Christian Fuchs, and Shinji Okazaki, but Yohan Cabaye‘s late goal means no dessert.

“I said I would share my birthday cake in the dressing room if I got a clean sheet,” Ranieri joked to the BBC. “They clearly don’t want a piece.”

Ranieri also explained Jamie Vardy‘s bench place being down to squad rotation after a busy week — Leicester beat Copenhagen in the Champions League — and said Musa is about ready to kick on after an adjustment period in England.

Birthday-boy Wenger plans to drown sorrows after Arsenal draw

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02: Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal looks on during the Premier League match between Burnley and Arsenal at Turf Moor on October 2, 2016 in Burnley, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Arsene Wenger turned 67 on Saturday.

His Arsenal side didn’t reward him with the present of three wins as the Frenchman watched them labor to a 0-0 draw against Middlesbrough.

[ MORE: Bradley’s Swans solid ]

The Gunners thought they’d snatch victory at the death but Mesut Ozil’s goal was offside and although they dominated possession, Middlesbrough looked dangerous on the break with Adam Traore, Alvaro Negredo and Gaston Ramirez all going close.

Speaking to the BBC after the game, Wenger thought his Arsenal side looked a little bit tired following their 6-0 win in the UEFA Champions League at home against Ludogorets on Wednesday.

“It is a game where you had a lot of possession but there were tired legs and you are prone to counter-attacks. You make it difficult for yourself. 75% possession but you could have lost the game, that is modern football.  When you are not sharp, you lack creativity in the final third. I must say, we gave everything but we did not have the legs today.

“The energy levels were a bit down but we were intelligent enough not to lose it. We were exposed at times. When you cannot win, you must not lose. They had chances but our goalkeeper saved us today. Petr Cech had a good performance in decisive phases. We tried. You don’t win on command though. We lacked our creative potential around the box. That is part of it.”

He was also asked if he plans to have a drink to celebrate his birthday. Wenger’s response was classic…

“At least you can have a drink on your birthday. When you win you deserve it. When you don’t you need it,” Wenger said with a smile.

Regardless of a small slip up and an end to their six-game winning streak, Arsenal sits top of the Premier League on Saturday after the 10 a.m. ET games.

Surely that’s reason enough to have a few glasses of Champagne, Arsene?

Christian Fuchs’ bullet a highlight for Leicester City (video)

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Leicester City showed the class of champions on Saturday, improving its Premier League standing with a 3-1 win over Crystal Palace.

The King Power Stadium saw some dicey late moments thanks to a Yohan Cabaye goal, but first got to celebrate an absolute stunner from an unlikely source.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

While Ahmed Musa and Shinji Okazaki goals are more encouraging signs for the Foxes’ attack, it was a scintillating bit of work from Christian Fuchs that really stoked the fire.

Fuchs came onto a ball with Leicester leading 2-0 and lashed his left football through the ball for a venomous volleyed goal.

Bob Bradley “disappointed” as solid Swansea fail to take chances

SWANSEA, WALES - OCTOBER 22:  Bob Bradley, Manager of Swansea City claps the fans prior to kick off during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Watford at the Liberty Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Bob Bradley got his first point as a Premier League manager on Saturday but the American coach knew it should’ve been more.

[ VIDEO: Pulisic’s late goal ]

Gylfi Sigurdsson hit the post and Mike Van der Hoorn produced a fine save from Hurelho Gomes as the Swans drew 0-0 with Watford at the Liberty Stadium in Bradley’s first home game in charge.

Making five changes to his Swansea City side which lost 3-2 at Arsenal last week, Bradley made the Swans much tougher to break down as Watford’s striking duo of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo barely had a sniff at goal.

Young center back Alfie Mawson impressed, as Bradley changed three of the back four who looked shaky at Arsenal last time out, and for most of the season.

Speaking to the BBC about the 0-0 draw, Bradley was happy with the second half display and Swansea’s first clean sheet in eight Premier League games.

“The second half was strong and we came out right from the beginning looking for a goal. It didn’t happen but there are a lot of positives. It was important to get a clean sheet and the play from our center halves was solid as Deeney and Ighalo are difficult to play against. This is a step we can build on,” Bradley said. “Alfie (Mawson) impressed and it is not a surprise when you see him day in, day out. He is strong, good in the air and I am very happy with him.”

“I think the team we picked today made sense, we had a solid game but we are disappointed. It is a home match so we want three points, but you see the chances we are creating and we can feel good and try to move in the right direction. There is disappointment for sure, but a shared feeling of an all-round good effort.”

If you look at the stats below, it suggests just how tight Bradley’s side was at the back, with the expected goals map showing a 0.4 rating for Watford.

We all know that Bradley will bring defensive solidity and improved organization but the fact that he has done it so quickly at Swansea will be a big bonus for the New Jersey native.

Bradley knows that the goals will come with Sigurdsson and Modou Barrow particularly dangerous, once again, but the main thing which will help the Swans climb up the table and away from the relegation zone is clean sheets and nicking wins.

With the next four games handing Bradley two tough matches and two winnable ones — they face Manchester United and Crystal Palace at home and Stoke City and Everton away — the Swans will look to keep it tight and take their chances when they come.

They didn’t do that on Saturday but the progress is clear for all to see. For a team who is without a win in eight PL games, they aren’t letting it impact their play as Bradley continues to whip them into shape.