Paris Saint-Germain return to Stade de la Meinau on Wednesday night to open the defence of their four consecutive Coupe de la Ligue titles but they’ll want to avoid a similar outcome to their most recent visit to Grand Est. Thierry Laurey’s Racing side beat the French capital outfit 2-1 in Ligue 1 at the start of this month and Unai Emery’s men followed that up with a 3-1 defeat away at Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
PSG have since returned to winning ways, beating Lille OSC 3-1 in Le Championnat without suspended superstar Neymar, but Strasbourg on the road again will be another trap game and one that Les Parisiens need to navigate.
“There is a title on offer,” Emery told journalists at his pre-match press conference at Camp des Loges on Monday. “Strasbourg are in form. We will be playing on their turf and the stadium will be packed — it will be a good match.”
In theory, the Coupe de la Ligue (and the Coupe de France, for that matter) are not of great importance to Emery and his players this season. PSG have enjoyed enough domestic cup success since the arrival of their Qatari owners to be able to forgo victories in both trophies this campaign. In fact, you could make a case for the Coupe de France being slightly more important than the Coupe de la Ligue this term.
PSG are comfortably the most successful team in French League Cup history (seven titles) and will not be caught anytime soon, while they are tied with bitter rivals Olympique de Marseille on 10 wins in the French equivalent of the FA Cup; one more would make them the undisputed kings of both competitions. However, if you offered the ownership group the safe return of their Ligue 1 title and a Champions League semifinal berth (or better) at the expense of both the Coupe de France and the Coupe de la Ligue, they would have undoubtedly taken it.
Recent losses in both Strasbourg and Munich have changed the atmosphere surrounding PSG, though, and Emery now finds himself under unexpected pressure after his squad rotation failed for both matches. The ultimate cost of this was intense scrutiny for the Spaniard and his players, as well as a Champions League round-of-16 tie with two-time defending champions Real Madrid.
Defeat and an exit at the hands of Strasbourg in the Coupe de la Ligue, leaving just the Coupe de France to play for, would not be the end of the world but it would pile further unnecessary pressure upon Emery and the squad at this time.
Both cups were supposed to be a way for the manager to keep certain fringe stars content with regular games over the second half of the season, while also giving promising youth academy graduates some valuable involvement at senior level. A combination of the negativity created by the recent defeats against Strasbourg and Bayern, along with the need to keep a number of senior players happy with regular minutes, means that Emery can no longer afford to be that experimental unless he wants the build-up to the Real clash to be more pressurised than it already will be because of additional and wholly avoidable losses.
The only option for the former Sevilla boss is to grit his teeth and send out a starting XI that blends regular starters and fringe figures better than the last one he picked at Stade de la Meinau, and ensure that his players recall the cup tie atmosphere generated by the famous Alsatian supporters and brace themselves for an intimidating experience.
Captain Thiago Silva and Adrien Rabiot’s 2017-ending injuries, as well as Layvin Kurzawa’s fitness issues and Yuri Berchiche’s suspension, mean that there are problem areas for Emery coming into this one. Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe are the only two natural central defenders fit and available at the senior level, while there is no obvious left-back and a midfield three will be difficult to string together. Neymar has not returned from Brazil in time for the clash either, so there is some rejigging required in attack as well.
Emery has options in the youth academy, such as Yacin Adli, Alec Georgen and Stanley N’Soki, all of whom have been included in the squad, but he has been reluctant to utilise them so far this season and there is no reason to expect that any of them will be seriously involved on Wednesday night.
Strasbourg and Rennes away this week will arguably be tougher than Caen at home next so it’s important that this tricky double-header on the road gets off to a winning start.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.