PARIS: Neymar’s arrival may have taken some of the focus away from the role played by Marco Verratti at Paris Saint-Germain, but Carlo Ancelotti is fully aware of the midfielder’s importance in the French capital.
Ancelotti takes his Bayern Munich side to the Parc des Princes for one of the heavyweight encounters of the Champions League group stage on Wednesday, and a match that could prove decisive in determining who tops Group B.
The game sees Ancelotti return to face PSG for the first time since he left the French capital in 2013 after an 18-month stint that saw him oversee their first Ligue 1 title triumph in almost 20 years.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the star of that side, but the 2012-13 campaign also saw young playmaker Verratti become a firm favourite of the Paris crowd.
And Verratti, who was just 19 when he arrived from Pescara in his native Italy, himself credited Ancelotti for helping him settle so quickly among the stars at the Qatar-owned club.
“He is like a father to me. I will be grateful for the rest of my life for the chance he has given me,” the Italian international, nicknamed the ‘Little Owl’, said at the time.
Theirs was not always an easy relationship, with Verratti’s disciplinary problems driving Ancelotti mad at times.
The former Chelsea boss reportedly called Verratti an ‘imbecile’ after he stupidly got himself sent off in a league game at Evian in April 2013, and he was booked 33 times in the league alone in his first three seasons in France.
Verratti’s influence in Paris only grew after Ancelotti left to take over at Real Madrid in 2013, but a player whose style has led to comparisons with Barcelona great Xavi Hernandez could have ended up in Spain himself.
Linked at one point with a move to Madrid to team up with Ancelotti — who left the Santiago Bernabeu in 2015 — Verratti saw a potential move to Barcelona fall through in the last close season.
“I had a discussion with the club because certain things were either not going right or I hadn’t understood them, and now I am pleased to be part of this project which is one of the most ambitious in Europe,” Verratti, now 24, said recently.
The summer saw him split from his long-standing agent and commit his future to PSG. And Verratti will have been convinced that he is in the right place after PSG’s stunning captures of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
Watching from afar, Ancelotti admits he was not impressed by his former protege’s manoeuvrings, though.
“I don’t like that kind of behaviour. During the transfer window, lots of players want to leave, but I don’t know if they really want to leave their club or just improve their contracts,” Ancelotti told Le Figaro. “He wanted to improve his contract. I know that.”
The emphasis on the attack, with Neymar and Mbappe joining Edinson Cavani to form a front line quickly dubbed the ‘MCN’, may take some of the onus off a brilliant midfield of Verratti, Thiago Motta and Adrien Rabiot.
Verratti was excellent in the 5-0 win away to Celtic that kicked off PSG’s continental challenge, completing a remarkable 149 passes.
But he might not be able to run the show to quite the same extent against Bayern, who can call on the formidable talents of Arturo Vidal, Corentin Tolisso and Thiago Alcantara, all of whom will be well briefed by Ancelotti about the brilliance of the ‘Little Owl’.