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PSG need to hit their stride versus Ajax

Laurent Blanc

Paris Saint-Germain travel to Amsterdam on Wednesday to face four-time European champions AFC Ajax in their opening UEFA Champions League Group F clash.

Les Parisiens come into the game off the back of a 1-1 draw at Stade Rennais last weekend and Laurent Blanc's men are yet to really hit their stride domestically.

The French champions will be motivated ahead of their clash with Frank de Boer's side at the Amsterdam Arena, though, as they are under no illusions that they cannot afford to make a slow start to their continental campaign.

This season, as Simon Kuper rightly points out, it is all about the Champions League for PSG. The capital club's owners desperately want the club to taste success on the European stage, and a semifinal finish -- an advance on two consecutive quarterfinal appearances -- is arguably this season's minimum aim.

In order to make sure that this happens, and that they do not come up short again, Blanc and his players are prioritising the side's continental fixtures. However, the latest example of this was detrimental to the side after they were held to a draw by Philippe Montanier's spirited Rennes side over the weekend.

PSG's players were visibly at less than 100 per cent at the Stade de la Route de Lorient last Saturday, something that has become a customary feature for the team in their pre-Champions League duty encounters. However, coach Blanc was not exactly doing his best to keep his players in optimum condition for the Ajax game, by playing the likes of Edinson Cavani -- who had featured in a Uruguay doubleheader in Asia during the international break -- and making few changes to rotate his side and keep some legs fresh.

Of greater concern that Blanc's lack of rotation in the build-up to this Ajax clash, though, is the fact that it feels as if PSG have not really changed from the side we saw in the Champions League last season.

Yes, David Luiz has now been added to the team -- although he is likely to miss Wednesday's match through injury sustained on international duty -- and the players are a little wiser after their second leg capitulation against Chelsea in last term's quarterfinals. However, the team's style remains unchanged, and there is no evidence to suggest that Blanc has developed a Plan B yet.

A backup plan was what Blanc was missing at Stamford Bridge back in April as PSG threw away a 3-1 first leg lead and exited the competition on away goals (3-3) for the second consecutive campaign.

PSG were stale and unimaginative in Rennes, but the same can also be said of the way they performed in their Ligue 1 season opener -- a 2-2 draw at Stade de Reims -- and the goalless draw away to an Evian Thonon Gaillard side rapidly heading for Ligue 2 even at this early stage. Throughout all three of those away fixtures, Blanc persevered with a 4-3-3 formation and continues to make mindless like-for-like substitutions that do little to alter the course of a game.

That ability to make changes that turn the tide in a match is what Blanc needed to master ahead of this season's Champions League campaign. But for now at least he has not done that. Granted, he has made a few changes to the PSG side. However, the style of play is exactly the same and has now become monotonous and far too predictable.

Javier Pastore has seemingly replaced the irrepressible Blaise Matuidi in midfield, a change designed to give the team greater attacking impetus, but one that leaves the formerly impressive midfield trio now lacking authority and bite. Lucas Moura has also replaced Ezequiel Lavezzi in Blanc's preferred starting XI for the moment, and while that is a good thing in theory, the talented Brazilian continues to infuriate PSG fans as he refuses to mature as a footballer and refine his raw style.

Domination of the ball is all well and good, but possession for possession's sake will only get PSG so far. In le Championnat, the defending champions will rarely be tested and are almost impossible to stop from marching to a third consecutive Ligue 1 title. But in Europe, those frustrating draws against the likes of Reims, Evian and Rennes can easily turn to defeats.

Playing against an Ajax side consisting of players who have been taught by the masters of possession-based football, PSG need to rediscover the ruthless streak that they showed last season in the earlier stages of the Champions League. They need to hand out routine thrashings to the likes of Ajax and APOEL and they must call up their big game experience to overcome Spanish giants Barcelona at least once, having gone so close two seasons ago under Carlo Ancelotti.

PSG have the talent to go far in this year's edition of the competition, but to do that, Blanc must start experimenting with new formations and styles of play to give his team so much needed variety. Without that, les Parisiens are in danger of stagnating on the European stage, the one arena in which they long to excel in.