PARIS — Paris Saint-Germain will get 2018 underway with a Coupe de France round-of-64 clash away at fellow Ligue 1 side Rennes on Sunday, and the three-time defending champions travel to Roazhon Park with avoidable problems, less than one week into the new year.
Edinson Cavani and Javier Pastore will not play in the match in Brittany and they will likely dominate much of the discussion before, during and after the game — unless PSG suffer a surprise defeat and crash out at this early stage, reigniting post-Strasbourg and Bayern Munich “crisis” talk.
Whatever the Rennes result, the Cavani and Pastore issue will not be put to bed until the leaders of Le Championnat make their stance on the matter known, and that will not be possible until both players are back in the French capital.
So far, only Cavani is back in Paris and Saturday’s training session on the eve of the Rennes encounter was the fourth that Pastore has missed since coach Unai Emery and his teammates resumed collective training on Wednesday.
What was the point of all of this? It is difficult to say. For the moment, little is known about either player’s late return.
Emery said the reasons as to why the club was only informed by the pair on Wednesday — their first training session of 2018 — are unclear for now, so there is still a large element of the unknown involved.
However, one player — Cavani — has been a regular in the starting XI this season and has no obvious reason to be displeased with his treatment (plus the fact that he did finally report for training on Friday). Pastore, on the other hand, has been linked with a January move and has not been getting regular minutes.
Whatever their reasons, they and PSG supporters should not expect either player to feature for at least the next few matches.
If 2014-15’s episode featuring Cavani and then-teammate Ezequiel Lavezzi is anything to go by, sporting and economic sanctions will be meted out.
One thing that is certain, though, is that this has created an unwanted drama that, given the nature of the January transfer window, is unlikely to die down before the end of the month.
Perhaps that is the point, especially from Pastore’s point of view. He cannot hope to be part of Argentina’s World Cup squad in Russia this summer if the second half of this campaign mirrors the first.
Emery and sporting director Antero Henrique must be firm, but fair with both players after the South American duo have explained their actions, but Pastore is seemingly going to have much more talking to do than Cavani — particularly if this is related to his playing time — as he remains “missing” as far as the capital club are concerned.
In the middle of all of this, Emery has had to prepare for a 2018 opener that would have been tricky even if both players had been available to him.
PSG have Rennes, Amiens and Nantes away across all three domestic competitions within a week of each other, and despite the fact that less importance has been placed on Coupe de France or Coupe de la Ligue success this term, defeats to either Rennes or Amiens would add unnecessary pressure in the build-up to Real Madrid in the Champions League next month.
“This month of January is the best way to prepare for the knockout tie against Real because we have a lot of matches in the league and the cups,” Emery said at his pre-match news conference at Camp des Loges on Friday. “The players will be working hard together to keep progressing.
“The club’s ambition is to win every competition it enters. We need to maintain the rhythm, so having so many matches in the coming weeks is perfect. Rennes is the perfect start to 2018.”
Emery needs his players to pick up where they left off in December, having recovered well from unexpected consecutive defeats away at Strasbourg and Bayern Munich, but the Spaniard will now have to do some tinkering in Rennes — regardless of whether or not he had planned to.
Assuming Cavani and Pastore are punished by being left out of the squad again for Amiens in the Coupe de la Ligue on Wednesday, Cavani could realistically be back in action away at Nantes, which is arguably the hardest of the three fixtures over the next seven days. That remains to be seen for Pastore, though.
Rennes and Amiens could easily become complicated if the players Emery opts for are not raring to go. Regardless of the Cavani and Pastore situation, the Spaniard needs to keep his side focused and not allow them to fall asleep, as they did in the Strasbourg and Bayern losses.
Ultimate victory in the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue might not be expected of the squad this year with so much riding on the Champions League, but early exits would not be welcomed, either.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.