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PSG coach Tuchel has to re-think plans with Neymar injured

January 31, 2019
FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018 file photo, PSG coach Thomas Tuchel, left, congratulates PSG forward Neymar after he scored his side' second goal during the Champions League group C soccer match between Red Star and Paris Saint Germain, in Belgrade, Serbia. PSG travels to face Manchester United on Feb. 12, 2019 without the Brazil forward, who faces around 10 weeks out. With Neymar so influential to the way PSG plays, it means coach Thomas Tuchel must have a tactical re-think. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)

PARIS (AP) — Neymar’s latest foot injury comes at a particularly inconvenient time for Paris Saint-Germain, with its biggest game of the season fast approaching.

PSG travels to face Manchester United on Feb. 12 without the Brazil forward, who faces about 10 weeks out. With Neymar so influential to the way PSG plays, it means coach Thomas Tuchel must have a tactical re-think. He has three matches in which to do so, two in the league and another in the French Cup.

Since he joined PSG last season, Neymar’s preferred teammate on the field, in terms of understanding, has always been Kylian Mbappe. While they constantly sought each other out on the field, with sometimes intricate passing moves, this often excluded Edinson Cavani from PSG’s approach play. It also exasperated Cavani, the club’s all-time leading scorer. He let his frustration show a couple of times after being substituted.

But things have improved for him in recent weeks, and Cavani is the league’s second highest scorer with 16 goals — two behind Mbappe. There have been encouraging signs that the Cavani-Mbappe partnership, often described as non-functional by the French media, is actually working.

This is good news for Tuchel.

BLOSSOMING PARTNERSHIP?

Mbappe set up Cavani for the fourth goal in a 4-1 win over Rennes last weekend. Prior to that, Cavani set up two of Mbappe’s three goals in a 9-0 rout of Guingamp, and he also assisted on his goal in a 3-0 win at Amiens.

The body language between the two has also visibly improved.

Although they had been respectful of each other, there was nothing like the electricity between Neymar and Mbappe. But in the past three games, Cavani and Mbappe have appeared much more appreciative of each other. Mbappe has been quick to praise Cavani after scoring, and they are playing like a genuine partnership.

In the last game, they were both deployed in a 4-4-2 formation flanked by wingers Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler.

However, the fact PSG scored 16 goals in those three games only exposed poor defenses weaker than United’s will be.

Although United’s defense is far from great — only one team in the Premier League’s Top 11 this season has conceded more — getting through United’s midfield to attack the vulnerable backline may prove problematic. Especially without Neymar, who brings an air of unpredictability and occasionally genius, to PSG’s game.

MIDFIELD CONTEST

United’s key midfielders are fully fit and in good form, and Paul Pogba is scoring regularly since Jose Mourinho left.

The athletic and skillful Pogba is ably supported by the tactically astute Nemanja Matic, while tough-tackling Ander Herrera adds bite.

By comparison, Tuchel has worries in midfield, with Marco Verratti recovering from a sprained left ankle and Adrien Rabiot out of favor because of a transfer wrangle.

If Verratti does not play, and it’s very unlikely Rabiot will, then Tuchel may have to play either Draxler or center half Marquinhos out of position in midfield.

Verratti’s wide range of passing, plus his ability to drop deep and play the ball out quickly, is essential to PSG’s high-tempo attacking game. Without him, PSG tends to look a bit sluggish in midfield, as was evident in the first half against Rennes. As Tuchel doubtless knows, this could play into United’s hands.

IMPORTANT TEST

Sunday’s game against Lyon takes on another dimension for PSG, if only because it should be far more competitive than the last three.

Lyon is pushing for second place and an automatic place in next season’s Champions League; it has one of the best midfields in the league, and two of the most coveted midfielders in European soccer.

Houssem Aouar and Tanguy Ndombele — 20 and 22, respectively — left an indelible mark on Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola during the group stage of the Champions League. Lyon won in Manchester and drew at home, and the midfield pair stood out. They have been linked with a number of big clubs, including Aouar to City.

“Houssem Aouar is a very good player, he is incredible,” Guardiola said. “We talk a lot about Ndombele, but Aouar is also excellent. He’s always very calm with the ball at his feet, with an excellent technical quality.”

Considering the midfielders he has worked with — David Silva at City, previously Xavi and Andres Iniesta at Barcelona — that is high praise.

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