Manchester City Champions League masterclass shows all not well for unsettled Mauricio Pochettino at PSG
LONDON: For all the will, and ambition, of a manager, sometimes the fit of a club is not quite right.
No matter how much Mauricio Pochettino insists he is happy at Paris Saint-Germain, the speculation of a move to Manchester United will not go away.
Not now - even with the surprise appointment on Thursday of Ralf Rangnick as the Old Trafford club’s interim manager until the end of the season - and not until someone is eventually chosen as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s permanent replacement.
Pochettino remains a leading candidate for that role.
And despite his belief that his PSG players won’t be distracted by what happens over the next six months, footballing history has often shown that commitment and quality don’t always come to the fore when there are rumours about a manager’s position, whether positive or negative.
Midfielder Ander Herrera, who ironically joined PSG from United on a free transfer in 2019 after five years at Old Trafford, said: “We are convinced…we know he is focused on the season and our club and to try to get the best from the team.
“We are not distracted at all [by the situation]. Since the first day I came here, everyone loves to talk about that, everyone loves to make rumours about that. That doesn’t affect us at all.”
That is up for debate given their insipid and disjointed display in the 2-1 loss at Manchester City in the Champions League on Wednesday.
It was a result that saw Pep Guardiola’s side top the group and the French side finish runners-up and facing a potential tougher last-16 opponent.
City had the balletic attacking brilliance and cultured ball players that Lionel Messi and Neymar once had alongside them during their heyday at Barcelona.
Now they were merely passengers, observers to a Guardiola masterclass that deserved a greater margin of victory for the English Premier League champions.
Based on his success during five years at Tottenham Hotspur, Pochettino forged a reputation of building sides with a strong work and team ethic. That is not visible in a PSG outfit that seems unbalanced, unconvincing and needs to earn their victories.
In the first half they had just three touches in the opposition's box, compared to City’s 23.
Blessed with enviable individual talent, and despite taking a fortunate lead through Kylian Mbappe, they were often unravelled by a City team missing the injured Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and £100 million signing Jack Grealish.
In Bernardo Silva, the hosts had a player described by Gabriel Jesus - who scored the winning goal after a Raheem Sterling equaliser - as “one of the best players in the world right now”. The Brazil striker also said "nobody is selfish" in the City team.
The hashtag #PochOUT! was soon trending on Twitter after the defeat, with Pochettino criticised for being too defensive, lacking creative ideas and unable to get more out of a frontline of Messi, Neymar and Mbappe that was laboured rather than lethal.
Pochettino felt PSG “suffered” against City, while Herrera said Guardiola’s side had the quality to “kill you”.
But captain Marquinhos offered an insight into his own side’s failings as he added: “The Champions League, it’s that you’ve got to know how to play against the big teams.”
Right now, PSG are unable to do that.
With the Champions League coveted by their Qatari owners, this does not bode well for the rest of the campaign, nor Pochettino’s future.
Just two seasons ago Thomas Tuchel led them to the Champions League final, where they were edged 1-0 by Bayern Munich. Four months later he was dismissed with the best win percentage in Ligue 1 history.
PSG should be ready to challenge for the trophy now, but look a level below their European rivals.
Pochettino has to address that. Results will determine whether he remains in Paris or that, when United make their decision at the end of the season, the Argentine is their first and best choice.
While PSG have decided not to let Pochettino leave mid-season, he will also be aware that Zinedine Zidane had been discussed as a replacement - and would prove popular with fans and the owners.
A decade ago, when Qatar was bidding to host the 2022 World Cup, they brought on board a raft of stellar names to raise their profile and enhance their chances.
Guardiola and Saudi Arabia’s superstar Sami Al-Jaber were among them. But it was the signing of Zidane that was seen as the pivotal moment in helping them succeed against all odds.
The Frenchman is often named the footballing hero for many of those at the forefront of sporting change in the Middle East.
As a gifted player for clubs such as Juventus and Real Madrid and his national team, Zidane was iconic and inspirational, a legend.
But he was admired in the Gulf too because of his Arab roots - a Muslim of Algerian Kabyle descent.
Zidane would be the prestige signing for the Qataris a la Messi - or Guardiola in coaching terms when he took over at City and transformed them with style and success.
With 11 trophies in his first managerial job at Real Madrid - across two spells and five years - he would also be the biggest winner since Carlo Ancelotti had a 16-month spell in 2012.
In lifting three successive Champions League titles, Zidane managed to get the best out of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale to show he could handle big names, and the challenge and expectation of managing a big club.
By adopting a more aggressive and attacking approach, imagine what he could do with Messi, Neymar and Mbappe if he was persuaded to stay?
While Madrid still seem favourites to lure French striker Mbappe when his contract runs out next summer, perhaps having Zidane in charge could sway him to remain for just a little longer.
As he admitted previously: “If you're a boy and you're French, your idol is Zidane.”
Mbappe, 22, will also have seen how Benzema flourished under Zidane’s tutelage to become one of the world’s best strikers again at 33.
Revered and respected by his peers with tough demands, Zidane could revitalise PSG - and allow Pochettino the opportunity to rebuild a United side that is under-achieving, but still has so much potential. Eventually, this would appear a perfect fit - and a fait accompli.