PSG coach Luis Enrique faces tough challenge, with uncertainty over Mbappe and Neymar

PARIS (AP) — Luis Enrique is the eighth coach to take charge of Paris Saint-Germain in 12 years of Qatari ownership of the French club, a hire-and-fire approach which has so far failed to deliver the ultimate goal of winning the Champions League.

The former Spain and Barcelona coach signed a two-year contract in July after Christophe Galtier was fired. He faces a dual task: making the side competitive in Europe and providing a more attractive brand of soccer than his predecessors.

Club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi said Enrique’s arrival will mark the start of a new cycle and a better style of play, but such pledges at PSG are easier made than carried out.

First up is a home game against modest Lorient on Saturday night, where Enrique will look to deploy his preferred 4-3-3 formation. But even before he has taken charge of his first game, reports in Spanish media last weekend said he already wants to quit PSG out of frustration at the handling of the Kylian Mbappe transfer situation.

At this stage, Enrique doesn’t even know if Mbappe will be included in his team at all as his standoff with the club continues, and leading sports daily L’Equipe reported Monday that fellow superstar Neymar wants to leave this summer. PSG did not comment, but the Brazil forward has been linked with a move back to Barcelona, all of which makes things harder for Enrique even before his first game.

Mbappe has been at odds with PSG since telling the club last month that he would not take up the option of a 12-month extension on his contract, meaning he could leave for free next year unless he is sold before this transfer window ends.

If Mbappe does stay this season, then Enrique will be his fifth coach since joining in 2017. The previous incumbents could not win the Champions League, with only Thomas Tuchel reaching the final in the pandemic-shortened 2020 edition.

Enrique had been without a job since Spain’s elimination from the World Cup last year. He pledged to keep the same attacking philosophy that made his reputation at Barca, where he won the treble in 2015.

That attack featured Luis Suarez, Neymar and Messi, who won’t be reunited with Enrique after joining Inter Miami in the MLS.

He comes at a time when PSG is very much in transition. But he has revamped teams before, doing so with Spain after its elimination in the round of 16 of the World Cup in Russia.

If Mbappe is sold, then Enrique will rely heavily on Neymar — providing he stays — and whoever comes in to strengthen the attack. France winger Ousmane Dembele has been widely reported to be an imminent signing for PSG.

The skilful Dembele’s speed is even a match for Mbappe, but he does not have nearly the same ability in front of goal — scoring a modest 40 goals in 185 games for Barcelona and only four in 37 for France.

Enrique would need a top-class striker to replace Mbappe, but they are in short supply. England striker Harry Kane is in talks to join German powerhouse Bayern Munich, while Barca striker Robert Lewandowski turns 35 on Aug. 21 and is too advanced in age for a long-term contract.

PSG has been linked with Eintracht Frankfurt forward Randal Kolo Muani, who is a very quick and highly skilled player but is still developing as a finisher with a career-best 15 league goals last season.

His options without Mbappe or a reputed finisher to replace him are limited. Hugo Ekitike scored only three league goals in a disappointing first campaign with PSG last season and the club may look to sell the 21-year-old.

Enrique has tinkered with formations during the preseason tour to Japan and South Korea, where PSG won only one game, even trying Marco Asensio at center forward.

But while Asensio clearly demonstrated he has an eye for goal at his previous club Real Madrid, many of his best efforts where when he unleashed powerful shots from outside of the penalty area, and he does not have the instincts of a penalty-box poacher.

PSG has signed France’s World Cup-winning left back Lucas Hernandez to bolster the defense and 22-year-old Portugal forward Goncalo Ramos on a season-long loan. But while Ramos scored 27 goals in 47 games overall for Benfica last season he is not experienced at the highest level.

Clinching another league title should be within Enrique’s reach, with only Marseille as a realistic contender.

But challenging for the elusive Champions League trophy could again be a step too far in Enrique’s first season, and that’s with or without Mbappe.

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