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Nov 15, 2011

PSG's pragmatism proving problematic

In a city world-famous for its culinary savoir faire, it is remarkable how Paris' sole top-flight football club can make a dog's dinner from seemingly the most appetising feast. Not that the summer's big spenders have foregone Michelin stars to dine at the footballing equivalent of a truckers' greasy-spoon café; far from it. But they are still not able to settle down and quietly digest the excellent fare served up already this season.

The raw stats speak for themselves. Top of the table, three points clear of second-placed Montpellier and a further three ahead of third-placed champions Lille, PSG have dropped just nine points all season in 13 games and have been beaten only once. Antoine Kombouare's men currently have nine, five and six points more than the last three Ligue 1 champions had at the same stage of their respective title-winning campaigns, while only three Lyon vintages - who already had four successive French titles behind them - have amassed more points so early in the season in the last decade. Add to that that sales of replica shirts are up 180% and life could not be better even if you were an oil-rich, cash-flush sheikh. Except the oil-rich, cash-flush sheik who now owns a controlling stake in PSG has decided that la vie could well be more belle without Kombouare.

How much Sheikh Al-Thani actually concerns himself with Kombouare's fragile tenure is a matter of debate, but there is no doubt that his man in Paris, Nasser Al-Khelaïfi, and his sporting director, Leonardo, have their current coach in the firing line. With the team at cruising altitude, it seems incredible that Kombouare's days of prowling the technical area with intent are numbered, but for the PSG powers-that-be it is an open-and-shut case of coach Kombouare, with leaden-footed millionaires, winning games without panache on the pitch.

They do have a point to an extent. With hefty sums splurged over the summer on the likes of Kevin Gameiro, Jeremy Menez and €42 million-worth of Javier Pastore, perhaps the owners do have a right to expect entertainment. PSG have done that at times particularly in their 3-0 triumph at Montpellier in late September, but have rather ground out other results against the league's lesser lights. They mustered just seven shots in their 1-1 draw at Bordeaux last time out - Kombouare's players choosing just the wrong moment, or perhaps for some of them the right moment given their coach's habitually tempestuous relations with his squad - to put in one of their most insipid displays of the season, when Al-Khelaïfi, Leonardo and freshly-installed director general Jean-Claude Blanc, formerly of Juventus, watched on, grinding their teeth in the stands.

The Stade Chaban-Delmas stalemate also raises another question about the squad - and Kombouare. They knew full well come kick-off late on Sunday evening that they would go five points clear with victory against a Bordeaux side that is a pale imitation of the 2009 championship-winning team. Yet, the players were unable to stir themselves to any great efforts while their coach brought on two defenders in three substitutions, leaving Turkish international forward Mevlut Erding on the bench as the team missed out on a club record seventh straight league win. 'Paris Sans Genie' - 'Paris Without Inspiration' - was L'Equipe's word-play verdict on the Bordeaux bore-draw. 'Pas Sûr de Gagner' - 'Not Certain to Win', the more common amusing turn of phrase based on the club's initials - was clearly what Leonardo et al left the wine-producing belt thinking.

The phenomenon has been still more flagrant in the Europa League where, most recently, PSG could only muster a single goal (though none were conceded) in 180 minutes of play against Slovakian minnows Slovan Bratislava while a shock League Cup defeat to Dijon strengthened the impression that sometimes the squad simply cannot be bothered. They are well-placed to continue their European involvement into 2012, but 'Pragmatic Solid Gains' are not the return expected on the summer investment.

The case for Kombouare's defence is based on his defence, which has conceded 11 times so far. The tally means PSG boast the best back four in Ligue 1, despite an injury-hampered start to the season for Milan Bisevac - the sole Kombouare-instigated summer target - and Diego Lugano, Mamadou Sakho and a rejuvenated Zoumana Camara all regularly switching in and out of the centre-back positions. Italian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, ostensibly purchased as back-up to Nicolas Douchez, has earned himself the No. 1 spot with a series of sure-handed displays, which have made PSG hard to beat. While winning ugly may not be what the bosses want, it is - as the cliché goes - the form on which title wins are built.

Given that nine new faces arrived over the summer - the majority of which Kombouare simply had foisted upon him - he has done well to foster any sort of unity at all in his squad. "We've been together for three months, which means we're still getting to know one another," pleaded Kombouare. "The hardest thing in football is to build a team, find cohesion. That takes time. We've got a certain base to start from, but we still have work to do."

All this, though, it seems is not good enough. One reason is that Kombouare simply isn't sexy enough for the new-look PSG. Though a member of the last PSG side to win the Ligue 1 title in 1994, the former Aberdeen defender does not have the 'profile' the new owners and Leonardo seek. His managerial CV highlight is getting Valenciennes promoted and then keeping them in the top flight which, while a Herculean task, clearly does not get Qatari or Brazilian juices flowing.

While his side surely cannot slip up at home to Nancy next weekend, anything but a resounding win in the 'clasico' with arch-rivals Marseille later this month will surely provide the PSG king-makers with the justification to cry, 'Off with his head'. Kombouare appears resigned to his fate, if not resigning. "I don't expect any guarantees," he stated on TV before the Bordeaux match. "We're all just passing through. Only the walls don't move."

That philosophical view of life will serve him well when he finds himself out of job in the near future with only the €3m required to pay up his contract to keep him in designer threads. Carlo Ancelotti, a former boss of Leonardo's at AC Milan and the man the cosmopolitan Brazilian succeeded in the dug-out at the San Siro, was already unsuccessfully wooed in the summer, and was in Paris again last week to meet 'Leo' for reasons as yet unknown.

While stating "there was never a direct offer" made to Ancelotti, who appears to prefer a return to England, Leonardo is aware an appointment manufactured by him would help cement his own position at the club, one that would be distinctly more precarious or even obsolete should the Qatari owners go over his head and appoint someone like Jose Mourinho, whom they met in Doha in June.

Whoever does come in will need to not only keep the team winning, but also get them putting on a show as the owners want a flagship Barcelona-esque team for fans to follow when they take over the worldwide TV rights - through Al Jazeera - to the French top flight next season.

Fully aware of the marketing aspect of modern-day football, Al-Khelaïfi is giving designer shop owners in Paris palpitations as he flirts with the soon out-of-contract David Beckham, for whom a Parisian apartment and a suburban villa have reportedly already been picked out by the club. Not that Kombouare is likely to get the chance to be invited chez Becks to hear the former England captain ask: 'Does my bum look big in this sarong?'

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