The Argentine’s tenure at the Parc des Princes could come to a premature end if his players fail to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals
There is no better illustration of the importance of Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League last-16 tie with Real Madrid to Mauricio Pochettino than the fact that he started preparing his players for the first leg nearly a month beforehand.
The Argentine even told Danilo Pereira last week that he would be starting at the Parc des Princes, charged with not only containing Vinicius Junior, but also covering in defense for PSG’s buccaneering right-back Achraf Hakimi.
Pochettino’s primary obsession, though, was ensuring that his players implemented a collective pressing game focused on recovering the ball early and high up the pitch, and designed specifically with Madrid in mind.
Marco Verratti was asked to play the key role in that regard, and the Italy international responded sensationally.
Kylian Mbappe may have decided the first leg in the hosts’ favor with a superb solo strike right at the end, but Verratti was the undoubted man of the match, having hassled, harried and outclassed Madrid’s legendary midfield trio of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.
The challenge now, of course, is for Pochettino’s PSG to repeat the feat at Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday.
After all, his job remains very much on the line.
As well as PSG performed in the first leg, it will count for nothing if the Ligue 1 leaders are eliminated in Madrid, and as GOAL revealed last month, Pochettino’s relationship with PSG sporting director Leonardo is approaching breaking point.
Indeed, unless Pochettino manages to win the Champions League this season, it is highly likely that he will leave Paris this summer, a year before the end of his contract.
Tension began to mount last summer, after the arrival of several high-profile signings, with Pochettino instead pushing for a clear-out.
However, the former Tottenham boss’ wish was not granted, and he was left with a bloated 30-strong squad full of unhappy players deemed surplus to requirements.
Pochettino was left less than impressed, then, when he requested the signing of Tanguy Ndombele in January, only to be told that Leonardo was now focused on reducing the size of the squad.
Ndombele instead joined Lyon on loan, and a bitterly frustrated Pochettino felt that a glaring opportunity to strengthen his midfield had been missed.
On the flip side, some at PSG believed that Pochettino should have been getting more out of the players already at his disposal.
The team may be running away with Ligue 1, 13 points clear of second-placed Nice, but performances have often been unconvincing, and downright atrocious in certain games.
The club were particularly concerned by the dismal display PSG produced in their Coupe de France last-16 exit at home to Nice at the end of January, with the reigning champions eliminated 6-5 on penalties after a 0-0 draw.
The pressure on Pochettino only intensified, and we are now in a situation where a club that ruled out accepting any potential offer from Manchester United for their coach in November might now sack him should they be knocked out of the Champions League on Wednesday.
But if Pochettino does part company with PSG – before or at the end of the season – where will he likely end up?
Madrid are long-time admirers, of course, having previously tried on a couple of occasions to lure him away from Tottenham.
However, Carlo Ancelotti’s job is safe now, particularly with Madrid leading La Liga, while Pochettino would face stiff competition for any possible vacancy anyway.
GOAL also understands that Pochettino favors a return to England.
Spurs chairman Daniel Levy tried to bring him back to north London in 2021 before hiring first Nuno Espirito Santo and subsequently Antonio Conte, and he could call again should the ex-Inter boss walk before his contract expires, which is obviously always a risk with such a demanding character.
However, Old Trafford remains the likelier next destination for Pochettino.
United seriously considered hiring him after Jose Mourinho’s acrimonious exit in December 2018, but eventually decided to appoint interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on a full-time basis.
As it stands, there appears little chance of them putting their faith in another caretaker coach, given Ralf Rangnick’s reign is hardly inspiring confidence. And besides, the German is scheduled to take on a consultancy role at the end of the season.
Crucially, Pochettino is not only respected by legendary United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, but several members of the current senior squad are also avid admirers.
For example, Marcus Rashford is presently considering his future at the club but it is believed that he would welcome the arrival of Pochettino, who would have tried to sign the England man last summer had Kylian Mbappe departed for Real Madrid.
Pochettino is not the only managerial candidate, of course, with Ajax coach Erik ten Hag very much in the running.
However, with United having stepped up their search for a new boss last month, after Richard Arnold replaced Ed Woodward as chief executive, it seems highly likely that Pochettino will at least be asked about his interest in taking over at Old Trafford.
And that approach would definitely come sooner rather than later if PSG bow out of the Champions League at the Bernabeu.
Additional reporting by Marc Mechenoua, Charlotte Duncker & Jorge Castro Picon