PARIS — While Kylian Mbappe was the talking point of the soccer world this week after his hat trick against Barcelona, the performance of his Paris Saint-Germain teammate Marco Verratti laid the foundations for his stellar performance.
Verratti’s virtuoso midfield display at Camp Nou on Tuesday was lost somewhat amid the flood of compliments for the destructive Mbappe. Yet it highlighted just how crucial the injury-prone Verratti is in making PSG truly competitive.
The 28-year-old Verratti has had four minor injuries this season and missed 14 matches. In previous campaigns, he was often sidelined by thigh, knee, calf and adductor injuries and since 2014 has had 23 separate injuries.
None of them have been career-threatening, but the constant injury doubts have posed a considerable headache to PSG’s managers over the years, who have never been able to feel certain that the Italy midfielder would be available for key games.
Add a volatile temperament — his continuing tendency to needlessly argue with referees leads to booking and suspensions — and it’s clear why PSG has not always been able to get the best out of Verratti.
But for defending champion PSG to really get its league campaign going, coach Mauricio Pochettino needs a fully-fit Verratti.
PSG is in second place heading into Sunday’s home game against fourth-place Monaco, a high-scoring team which won eight straight games before drawing against Lorient last weekend.
A win for Niko Kovac’s vastly improved Monaco side would move it two points behind PSG, which trails leader Lille by one point and is only two ahead of third-place Lyon.
There are 13 rounds left, and still enough time for PSG to go on a decisive run of wins.
But it might not be so straightforward, because Lille has only lost twice and Lyon three times.
PSG, however, has already lost five times and is only in such close contention because Lille and Lyon have both drawn seven times.
Lille does not really look like crumbling, either, since its defense is the best along with PSG’s — just 15 goals conceded each — and PSG still has to play Lyon away.
PSG usually coped without Verratti in some league games, but now he could prove a decisive factor in whether the club retains its title.
With Verratti in the side, PSG looks much more threatening going forward since the ball reaches Mbappe much more quickly. Verratti has great vision and a sense of when to slow or accelerate play. He threads quick passes from the back, launching attacks from deep in a similar way to an NFL quarterback.
Verratti also has an uncanny ability to keep the ball under pressure, weaving out of tight situations on the edge of his own penalty area, and to spray passes all over the field. With his low center of gravity, he is difficult to knock off the ball and that gives the midfield much more security.
Mbappe will doubtlessly again be in the spotlight against Monaco — the club which sold him to PSG for 160 million euros ($193 million) in 2017 — and Neymar’s return from injury next month will give PSG luxurious options in attack.
However, as Mbappe showed on Wednesday night, PSG can cope without Neymar and even perhaps plays more as a unit in his absence.
But without Verratti’s influential presence, PSG is a considerably weaker team.