Tuesday’s Champions League test will represent the Moroccan’s toughest since reclaiming his spot in Mauricio Pochettino’s XI
Lionel Messi’s arrival at Paris Saint-Germain understandably grabbed the headlines in a summer where the French giants made several statement signings in multiple positions.
While there remains a lingering doubt over the age profile of their acquisitions, Messi inclusive, Achraf Hakimi’s switch to France represented something of a coup.
In a greater sense, so did the ex-Barcelona icon’s arrival, owing to how PSG may not have had this opportunity 12 months ago or so when the Argentine icon seemed keen on a switch to Manchester City.
This seemed to be an immediate sub-plot after the Champions League draw in August, an encounter that observers earmarked as the biggest of this year’s group stage.
It remains to be seen if Messi features against City, owing to a knee injury he picked up in the comeback success over Olympique Lyonnais. Mauricio Pochettino remains coy, but the likelihood of the legendary forwards participating on Tuesday grew after the 34-year-old was spotted in training.
A likely body in the XI, however, is Hakimi after what has been something of a mixed start to life in France.
To the average observer, this claim feels odd. After all, PSG lead the way in Ligue 1 after eight wins from eight, opening up a nine-point lead at the start of the season while averaging almost three goals a game.
The wide defender has contributed five goals so far — scoring three times and assisting two goals — level with Ander Herrera and only two behind Kylian Mbappe, who jointly sits atop the goals plus assists standings.
Having contributed to 15 league goals in each of the last two seasons, Hakimi is undoubtedly on pace to significantly outdo his personal best return from his second year at Borussia Dortmund and only campaign in Serie A with Inter Milan.
This run seems unsustainable, but the North African retains a fair chance of recording a new high if he avoids extended layoffs through illness or injury.
However, it has been far from smooth sailing…perhaps understandably so.
Pre-season questions were already asked about Mauricio Pochettino’s ability to find the right balance to accommodate this talented squad, admittedly a Herculean task for any individual.
The staggered arrivals following the European Championship and Copa America in the summer haven’t helped the Argentine manager’s cause, but he’s still expected to get results in the interim.
That need somewhat grew after their utterly underwhelming Champions League start at Club Brugge, a 1-1 draw that prompted widespread criticism of the Parisians. It was no surprise Pochettino made alterations to his line-up days later against Lyon and Hakimi was one of four outfield players to give way against Peter Bosz’s team.
Perhaps, this was expected following the PSG head coach’s recognition of the visitors’ strengths and constant call for utmost concentration against Les Gones.
“Lyon are a very good team, I know the coach well, who has offensive playing principles,” Pochettino told the press before playing Bosz’s team. “We have to do everything to maintain maximum concentration, to play at our best level. Concentration is one of the keys to thwarting the opponent.”
Interestingly, the more conservative Thilo Kehrer replaced the Moroccan in the backline, raising a few eyebrows.
The wide defender’s flank had seemingly been targeted by the Belgian outfit on the continent and his absence from the XI against Les Gones briefly resurrected reservations over the youngster’s defensive nous…or lack thereof.
It should be noted that Hakimi’s inclination to be derelict in the defensive third was also a major concern of Antonio Conte initially at Inter, which ultimately saw the ex-Nerazzurri boss briefly drop the wing-back in autumn 2020 after a series of costly lapses.
He ultimately recovered from that early setback to thrive in Inter’s title-winning season and will need an even greater reaction under greater scrutiny at PSG, particularly in a back four.
Many observers reckon a full-back role exposes the ex-Real Madrid man’s deficiencies and that assertion has, at times, been validated in the early weeks of the season. Despite this, time needs to be afforded to Pochettino to find a balanced approach that suits the side and his big-money arrival from Serie A.
Indeed, the subsequent matches since Lyon have seen the 22-year-old begin to influence games again after a few run-of-the-mill showings.
Netting twice in the 2-1 success at Metz was Hakimi’s first brace since December last year (he scored twice in Inter’s 3-1 win over Bologna), with the late second preserving PSG’s 100 percent start to the campaign.
Despite not scoring in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat of Montpellier, the general performance of the side must have pleased Pochettino. The visitors came into the gameweek with the league’s second-best attack, but the Parisians nullified the La Paillade’s threat and their expected goals against of 0.2 is, by far, their lowest so far this season.
Hakimi’s progressive ball-carrying was a notable highlight for the 90 minutes and he was unlucky not to register his third league assist of the season, with Mbappe failing to convert in the 67th minute.
Tuesday night represents a different test in PSG’s season so far and the rematch of last year’s semi-final will extensively test the North African’s recent upswing in more ways than one.
While nothing will be decided in matchday two, a defeat leaves the Ligue 1 outfit playing catch-up and heaps more pressure on Pochettino’s men heading into their double-header with the plucky RB Leipzig.
A result against Pep Guardiola’s troops is obviously of utmost importance, but a strong Hakimi and PSG performance will briefly silence the doubting Thomases who remain unconvinced of the Ligue 1 side’s chances this season.