PSG title bid reflects new serene climate at club
Paris Saint-Germain is two points off the lead in the French league ahead of Saturday's home game against Caen, and the positive start to the season reflects how an air of serenity has returned to the long-troubled club.
Coach Antoine Kombouare's team is playing with a flair not seen for a long time, and Brazilian playmaker Nene believes PSG can challenge for the title.
"Champions? Why not? Anything can happen," Nene said. "I feel positive. There's an ambition to be in the top three, which is PSG's rightful place."
PSG is in fourth place with 20 points from 13 games, one point behind Montpellier and Lille. Surprise leader Brest travels to Rennes on Saturday. Rennes is fifth and behind PSG only on goal difference.
But Nene, the league's best player this season with some outstanding goals from midfield, is wary of a relapse after four years of fan violence darkened PSG's image and prompted president Robin Leproux into sweeping changes.
"I hope there is no crisis this season," Nene said.
He has 10 goals in all competitions to help PSG challenge on several fronts, having made a good start to its Europa League campaign and reaching the League Cup semifinals.
Last season ended in turmoil, with one fan dying after a fight outside Parc des Princes between two groups of its supporters divided on racial grounds, and who sit at opposite ends of their home stadium.
Four years ago, Julien Quemener was shot and killed by an off-duty policeman protecting a Jewish fan surrounded by a hate mob after PSG's UEFA Cup match against Hapoel Tel Aviv. Police said Quemener was a member of a group known as the Boulogne Boys - which no longer exists - some of whom had links to the violent far-right element.
With the club riddled by conflict, Leproux disbanded more official supporters' groups considered as too troublesome, making the stadium a more family orientated place, with no more division over race or ideology.
A new ticketing policy has so far stopped these groups reforming, and PSG's home game against bitter rival Marseille two weeks ago passed with little trouble as for once the focus was on the exciting football, not the fights breaking out.
Defending champion Marseille, which trails PSG by one point, has played a game less and would be in a stronger position had it not dropped points by drawing 1-1 at home to struggling Lens last weekend.
"I can see the potential and quality we have in this squad," Marseille coach Didier Deschamps said. "We just have trouble putting into practice out on the pitch."
Marseille, which is at 12th-placed Toulouse, still lacks a cutting edge in front of goal.
Striker Andre-Pierre Gignac has lost his place in the France team, and has scored only one league goal in nine games since joining from Toulouse this summer for a massive fee of 16.5 million euros.
Deschamps still refuses to criticize Gignac as he prepares to face his former club.
"He didn't train at all last season because he was suffering from a (groin) injury. He only played in games and went to the World Cup when he was still injured," Deschamps said. "It will take some time now to get him back into shape, it's not something that can be done in one week or 15 days."
Luckily for Deschamps, winger Mathieu Valbuena is in great form and will be high on confidence after scoring France's second goal with a clinical volley in Wednesday's 2-1 win against England at Wembley.
"I must admit, I felt very emotional. I am proud of myself," said Valbuena, who was playing semiprofessional football at Libourne four years ago. "Not everyone gets the chance to win in this temple of football and to score a goal."
In Saturday's other games, it is: Sochaux vs. Lorient, Saint-Etienne vs. Auxerre, Nancy vs. Valenciennes, and Nice vs. Montpellier.
On Sunday, Lille hosts Monaco, Bordeaux travels to Arles, and Lens hosts Lyon.