As time goes by, the Champions League continues to be the most prestigious club competition in European football.
Fans of teams that have won the tournament regale whoever will listen with tales of their success, weaving it into their songs and their folklore: “We won it five times” can be heard from the Kop in Anfield, “A jamais les premiers” (Forever the first) is Marseille fans’ reminder to the rest of the country that they were the first, and so far only, French team to lift the trophy.
It is easy to see why it is so sought after. In its 62 year history, only 22 different teams have had their names etched onto the European Cup after beating the continent’s best.
In recent years, though, two clubs, in particular, have been hellbent on getting their hands on Big Ears.
Big fish in a small pond
Manchester City had never been European heavyweights until their investment from the United Arab Emirates was secured. Now, with Pep Guardiola at the helm, their chances of winning the Champions League seem better than ever. Domestically, they have succeeded too, dominating the Premier League to the extent that they could tie up the title in the early weeks of April.
Across the English Channel lies the other team desperate for success in Europe. Paris Saint Germain have Middle Eastern owners similar to Manchester City, but their obsession with the Champions League perhaps goes one step further.
Following Real Madrid’s first leg comeback 3-1 win at home to PSG, academy product Adrien Rabiot was quoted as saying “It’s all good and well putting eight goals past Dijon, but it’s in these matches where you have to make it count.”
Rabiot’s comments are indicative of not only the club’s ambition in Europe but also the near disregard for their own domestic league. Ultimately, PSG can be seen as a failure even if they dominate Ligue 1. The Champions League is put on a pedestal by the Parisians and their entire season revolves around it. It is their Holy Grail.
Laurent Blanc: harshly dismissed
Before Unai Emery arrived at the Parc des Princes, Laurent Blanc managed the team for three seasons between 2013 and 2016, winning the domestic treble in two of the campaigns and a league-cup double in the other.
This success was still not enough to sate the appetite of club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who sacked him in the summer of 2016 describing the season as a failure due to a quarterfinal exit from the Champions League.
It would be near impossible to find someone as dominant domestically as Blanc had been and so, in due course, Al-Khelaifi’s attention turned to a manager with success in European competition.
Emery had just won his third successive Europa League with Sevilla and, while this wasn’t success at the highest level, it seemed to be enough to convince the board.
Unai Emery: The Final Countdown
Following the now-famous comeback from Barcelona against PSG in the Round of 16 last season, Spanish manager Emery has been under enormous pressure from his club. Whilst it is true that Monaco won the league in France last year, with PSG in second place, the main concern since the Qatari takeover has not been the domestic performance of the club but its place at the top table of European football.
Last season’s catastrophe in Europe provided an early motivator this year - Neymar and Co. scored 25 goals in their first six games, setting a new record for the group stage. However, current holders Real Madrid dispatched them relatively comfortably 5-2 over the two legs in the last 16. PSG just seem unable to produce the goods against the best in Europe, and unfortunately for Emery, that’s exactly what his employers are looking for.
As a result, it looks like he could emulate Blanc’s final season at the club at the moment. PSG face Monaco in the Coupe de la Ligue final at the end of March, are already in the semifinals of the Coupe de France with only lesser quality opposition remaining in the tournament, and are 14 points clear at the top of the table.
The board at Paris Saint-Germain only have themselves to blame for Emery’s appointment. With his elimination last night, Emery has now tried and failed six times to reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Al-Khelaifi should be eyeing up a manager who has a proven track record in the competition
Blanc won the domestic treble and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2016. The best Unai Emery can now do this season is to match his predecessor’s silverware haul. The managerial guillotine will surely fall come the summer.
For now, PSG’s quest for the Holy Grail goes on. But who will be at the helm for the next attempt?
What do you think? Will Unai Emery be sacked at the end of the season? Who will replace him if so?