Sochaux a perfect audition for Lassana Diarra with Real Madrid on the horizon
PARIS -- Paris Saint-Germain are back in action on Tuesday away at Ligue 2 side Sochaux in the Coupe de France round of 16.
With the trip to Stade Auguste Bonal, and then one away at Toulouse in Ligue 1 on Saturday, the only games ahead of PSG's Champions League knockout-stage showdown with Real Madrid, coach Unai Emery needs to get a few things right in the Doubs.
Most important of all this midweek is what the manager does with Lassana Diarra, as the deepest-lying of the three midfield roles will be absolutely key at Santiago Bernabeu.
Thiago Motta is now back in the squad and could feature in Sochaux but he is unlikely to start, and with Giovani Lo Celso suspended and Adrien Rabiot out injured again, Emery has little choice but to hand Diarra his full PSG debut after an impressive substitute outing away at Lille last weekend.
"Giovani is suspended against Sochaux and Thiago only returned to full training last Sunday, so Lassana is an option to start the match," Emery admitted during his pre-match news conference on Monday.
"We will see how training goes later.
"Lass is not 100 percent yet and he needs to train and play. However, he did put in 30 good minutes against Lille."
Against Sochaux and Toulouse, Emery needs to identify who out of Motta, Diarra, Lo Celso and Rabiot he wants to play in defensive midfield and then give them the maximum amount of game time.
Motta, if he can prove his fitness, will start. However, that is a big if, considering his injury problems this season.
Diarra is most natural alternative to the veteran Italian but the new signing is lacking match fitness himself, even if the former Al Jazira man has looked surprisingly in shape since joining PSG on Jan. 23.
Lo Celso has played plenty of late and impressed in that role but the major concern with the Argentina international is that although he has done admirably in that position, it is not natural to him and he still lacks the experience to start in a match the size of Real away -- something ex-Madrid man Diarra will not find difficult.
Assuming he is fit, Rabiot is almost certain not to start as the No. 6. Although the France international can play there, it is not his favoured role, something that Emery knows, and he is better off in one of the two more advanced central midfield berths anyway.
Time, though, is running out for Emery to make his decision on the position -- especially if he wants to play his preferred starting XI against Toulouse just days before Real away.
"We have two more matches before the first leg against Real," said the Basque to journalists at Camp des Loges. "A lot can still happen.
"We need to win in Sochaux and then again in Toulouse come Saturday. We are thinking about [Real], but not yet 100 percent.
"I am calm, I believe in my players. They all want to be ready for Real, but they also know that we have to play Sochaux and Toulouse first. These two games are the best way to prepare for the Madrid match. I am confident because I know my team is ready for the big games."
On paper, PSG should not struggle to dispose of second-tier Sochaux. However, taking into account the inclement weather, the nature of a big cup tie at home and the fact that Les Lionceaux are now staring administrative relegation to French football's fifth tier in the face, this one could be tricky for Emery and his players.
The former Sevilla boss knows all about Sochaux's former Ligue 1 pedigree, but he still opted to do without birthday boy Neymar, who he no doubt wants to keep as fresh as possible for Real.
"Sochaux are in Ligue 2, but they are a famous club in France," Emery said. "They have already won Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France, most recently in 2007.
"They will be highly motivated and will give it absolutely everything against us -- this is the most important match for them. Sochaux beat Amiens 6-0 and only lost on penalties to Monaco last season. We know how important this game is.
"We are keeping an eye on things weather-wise. It will be cold there, but there should not be any snow. Every little detail is important.
"We have every respect for our opponent, who will be playing in front of their supporters. We need to prepare well to put in a good performance over 90 minutes. We know how important the Coupe de France is."
Like Amiens in the Coupe de la Ligue earlier this year, PSG will need to either motivate themselves or battle through a tricky cup tie.
Back then, though, they had Neymar to bail them out and that will not be the case here, so the likes of Diarra will need to step up and prove their worth with potential starting roles against Real at stake.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.