PARIS — Paris Saint-Germain enter a pivotal part of their season when they take to the Parc des Princes pitch to face Marseille in Le Classique on Sunday.
The Ligue 1 leaders will meet their bitter rivals for a second time at their spiritual home in the Coupe de France quarters next Wednesday and the pair of encounters will warm Unai Emery’s men up for the challenge of overturning Real Madrid’s 3-1 first-leg lead in their Champions League round-of-16 tie.
The Spaniard has largely failed to master the big matches since taking over as PSG coach but this Marseille doubleheader and the return leg against Real are must-win fixtures if he wants to stand any chance of being in his current job past the end of the season.
“It is Le Classique!” Emery enthused when speaking at his pregame news conference on Friday. “When I lived in Spain, I already knew that this was a big match.
“It is important for PSG and Marseille supporters, but also for football fans across the world — these are two of the big teams that represent French football. We know just how important these three points are. It is also important for the standings and the players know it.
“The supporters are very important for us. We need them. We need them to encourage the team. This is a great moment in the campaign, a key moment with these two games against Marseille and then Real.”
PSG have beaten Bayern Munich and Lyon at home, as well as Monaco away, so far this term, but they have also been held to a draw away at Marseille and beaten on the road by Real and Lyon.
Emery needs to master motivating his players to deliver when the pressure is on and key to that against bitter rivals Marseille will be the likes of Presnel Kimpembe, who are Parisien born and bred.
“OM are having a good season, and we hope to stop their good run,” the youth academy graduate told PSG.fr. “We know that the fans will create a red-hot atmosphere, just how we like it!
“They are matches that the supporters look forward to all season! We will face Marseille again next Wednesday. We are thinking about the first game right now. We hope to win for our supporters and ourselves.”
The visit of Marseille coincides with the return to fitness of a number of regular starters, notably Thiago Motta in defensive midfield.
Although the Italian veteran has not played much this campaign because of injuries, his experience will be important against OM and it will be between him, Giovani Lo Celso and Lassana Diarra for the starting role.
“You always get an adrenaline rush for Le Classique!” Motta told the capital club’s official website. “This is a special match for us, the club and the fans. It is only worth three points, but it is against OM. We cannot hide what we want — we want to beat them.
“The first game this season was very difficult. Now, at home, we need to play well and win. Our good form needs to continue! We have deserved this undefeated run. We have played well and been the better side.
“I hope it will be the same story in the next two matches — that we play well, win, that we will be happy and celebrating with our supporters. We know that it will be tough because Marseille are a very good side. We have a lot of respect for them.
“The result will depend on us, how we approach the game, and how much we want it.”
Motta’s final phrase is key because all too often, PSG appear to lack the hunger to win the biggest matches.
Les Parisiens were found wanting against Bayern, Lyon and Real, and had to overcome the late sending off of star man Neymar away at Marseille to even take a point from Stade Velodrome.
Complacency is often the reason why PSG do not look as hungry as they perhaps should, but as Lo Celso points out, he and his teammates do not really have an excuse at this point in the season.
“It is a very special match — Le Classique!” the Argentine international said to PSG.fr. “These are great matches to play in. We will do everything to try and win, for our fans and for us.
“It is a very important game. We need to play well, and also enjoy these matches and give our best. Our supporters are always right behind us. For a player, that is very important.
“We really love playing at Parc des Princes. We hope to produce a great performance, to pocket all three points and to continue on our way at the top of Ligue 1. Now, more than ever, we need to stand united and make the most of these opportunities. We have to keep winning, for our fans and for the team.”
Emery will be aided by the fact that Neymar has shaken off illness to be included in the squad and Kylian Mbappe is available again after suspension.
Marco Verratti and Yuri Berchiche are missing for Marseille’s first of two quick-fire visits, but the hosts have more than enough strength in depth to cope with Rudi Garcia’s men.
The question, as is often the case, is not if PSG have the ability to win but if they have the will and plan to apply themselves to the maximum.
If they do that, a 14-point lead at the Ligue 1 summit awaits after Toulouse held Monaco to a 3-3 draw on Saturday.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.