PARIS — For different reasons, the Champions League should probably be both Paris Saint-Germain’s and Arsenal’s top priority this season. The only question about the French side’s domestic performance is likely to be how much they will win Ligue 1 by. Last season it was by 31 points, and while they’ve had a ticklish start this season, a fifth-straight title will surely arrive at some point next spring. At this point, their sights are higher than the French league.
Conversely, Arsenal’s chances of success at home are rather less certain. Despite finishing second last season, they really didn’t feel much closer to actually winning the thing than in seasons past, and in 2016-17 all of their main rivals have improved greatly. Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City all have new managers and new players, and are all ahead of Arsene Wenger’s side in the chase for the Premier League. Because of the nature of both competitions, they probably have a better chance of winning Europe’s top prize than England’s, realistically.
Yet on Tuesday night in Paris — in a 1-1 draw — neither side looked like potential European champions. Of course it is too early to draw definitive conclusions, but both sides displayed significant and familiar weaknesses that suggest things will have to turn around pretty quickly to significantly enhance either’s chances.
For Arsenal, this was another sluggish opening to a Champions League campaign, the third year in a row they have dropped points in their opening group game. Their start was dreadful, going behind inside a minute after Edinson Cavani was left free to nod home on the edge of the six-yard box, a general sluggishness ensuring it would be another tricky night for the Gunners. “They started much stronger and played at a high pace,” said Wenger after the game. “Perhaps we were a little bit nervous. We lost a lot of the ball in the first half.”
PSG’s problems were broadly located around a single man. Cavani might have opened the scoring, but on that occasion it was more difficult for him to miss, and for the rest of the game he looked a sad shadow of the player he once was. He missed three more highly presentable chances later, and looked uncertain, bereft of confidence and close to an active liability to his team.
This was a view held by most inside the Parc des Princes, aside perhaps from the two managers. It’s difficult to think of two more differing touchline styles. Wenger was flapping his arms in frustration like a flummoxed schoolteacher during the match, Unai Emery was pacing up and down in the manner of an aggressive lawyer angrily putting his case forward in court. The one thing they had in common, though, was an apparent admiration for Cavani’s performance. Wenger described it as “good,” while Emery focused on the positives of missing a selection of sitters.
“The most important thing is the opportunities themselves,” Emery said. “When you have chances, one day you might score, one day you might not. It’s all about having confidence. He wasn’t the best, but I said to the players that the first point is creating the chances, and then we have to work on confidence.”
While both managers drew positives from the result and respective performances, this was not a game to leave the rest of Europe quaking in their collective boots. Both sides will of course be aiming to win the group and avoid facing a theoretically better team in the next round (as Arsenal have done in five of the last six seasons), but on this evidence few will fear either team.
One thing worth keeping an eye on is the goalkeeping situations with both teams. Wenger seemed to admit after the game that David Ospina, surprisingly included in Paris, will play in Europe, while Petr Cech takes on domestic duties. “They know the rules,” said Wenger, before adding the caveat that “you can always change your mind, based upon performances.” PSG seem in a similar spot, while Kevin Trapp was in goal for their opening four Ligue 1 games, Alphonse Areola took his place on Tuesday.
One wonders about the wisdom of such a clear delineation: of course. It’s probably a good idea to give your second-string keeper as much time on the pitch as possible, but the potential for creating needless instability is strong. As Claudio Bravo and Joe Hart discovered at the weekend, a goalkeeper unfamiliar with his defence is a dangerous thing to any team. Whether Ospina will be able to properly step back in every two weeks is unclear, but it certainly represents a gamble.
Both Wenger and Emery seemed satisfied with their respective performances after the final whistle, but there was very little in Paris to suggest either team are serious contenders for the top prize. Given their respective priorities, they could both be in for a frustrating and slightly unfulfilling campaign.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.