PARIS — Paris Saint-Germain coach Laurent Blanc has challenged his players to face up to themselves following Saturday's 4-2 defeat at Bastia, citing their lack of mental strength and criticizing their propensity to give up at "the slightest difficulty."
Despite boasting one of the best strikers in the world in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and five players costing ‚¬40 million ($47 million) or more, PSG has lost two and drawn one of its last three league matches to slip to fourth place in the French title race.
Poor defending, a lack of aggression in midfield, ill-discipline and fragile team spirit has blighted PSG this season.
Saturday's loss came after PSG led 2-0 inside 20 minutes. Prior to the winter break, PSG lost 1-0 at struggling Guingamp, a team with a minute budget compared to PSG's.
"At the slightest difficulty, we give up ... There is a mental problem," Blanc said. "When it comes to the mental aspect, it can affect everyone. It's very hard for a coach."
The pressure is on PSG and Blanc ahead of Tuesday's League Cup quarterfinal away to Saint-Etienne, which is in third place in the French league, boasts a strong home record, and knocked PSG out of the competition at the same stage two seasons ago.
"The (coaching) staff has accepted responsibility," Blanc told a news conference Monday. "The players haven't taken things on board yet. They're the ones who are playing. When they play well, they get praised, and deservedly so. When results are bad, the coach's (tactics) are questioned."
After a scrappy 3-1 win against Ajax in the Champions League in late November, Blanc gave assurances that his team would improve significantly in the ensuing weeks.
The opposite happened. A 3-1 loss at Barcelona was followed by the Guingamp defeat and a tepid 0-0 draw against Montpellier that left home fans glum-faced.
Blanc said he felt "anger" after the Bastia defeat and considers his players "lucky" to have a chance to make amends so soon after, so long as they beat Saint-Etienne.
PSG headed into the winter break in third place behind Lyon and league leader Marseille.
Despite fielding eight homegrown players in its starting lineup, cash-strapped Lyon now tops the league — four points clear of big-spending PSG after 20 games — prompting fears of another upset. In the 2011-12 campaign, PSG lost the title to unheralded Montpellier, despite leading Montpellier by three points at the winter break.
Preparations for the second half of the season started badly when Uruguay forward Edinson Cavani — the club's most expensive signing at â‚¬64 million ($75.4 million) — and Argentina winger Ezequeil Lavezzi failed to turn up for training camp.
Blanc, France's former national team coach, dropped them from the squad for the past two games and excluded them from training. They have resumed training, but Blanc again left them out for the trip to Saint-Etienne.
He has pledged to be tougher with his players in order to eradicate a culture of "special favors" reserved for certain big names at the club. Ibrahimovic, for example, was allowed to return to his native Sweden to go hunting, when he was recovering from a heel injury, and was rarely seen cheering on his teammates at Parc des Princes.
Ibrahimovic's negative body language against Bastia and the poor discipline shown by Cavani and Lavezzi, underlines a fragile team spirit and highlights increasing tensions within the star-studded squad.
Blanc has not ruled out buying or selling during January's transfer window, but says "everyone waits until the last minute" before doing business.
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