PARIS (AP) — Paris Saint-Germain's 13-point lead midway through the season is far less comfortable than it appears.
Despite a strong summer recruitment drive, PSG has been fortunate to lose only once in the French league and relied heavily on individual talent and a strong bench to scrape late wins and draws — not to mention two of the softest penalties.
Without Kylian Mbappe's nine goals and eight assists, the table might be tighter.
PSG has fallen behind in eight of 19 games, setting the theme in the first one by trailing early to promoted minnow Troyes.
The most controversial penalty came in a 2-1 home win against Angers, which followed PSG's sloppy 2-0 defeat at Rennes where it conceded goals either side of halftime.
Angers gave away a late penalty for handball and the prolific Mbappe scored an 87th-minute winner.
Although Romain Thomas alerted referee Bastien Dechepy to verify that Mauro Icardi had fouled him leading up to the penalty being given, VAR seemingly only picked up the handball from Pierrick Capelle. Icardi's header was not even goal-bound and clipped Capelle's arm as he was turning away.
Five days later, the French league's head of referees Pascal Garibian admitted an error was made, saying the penalty should have been ruled out for Icardi's foul on Thomas.
After 10 games, PSG had scored six goals in the last 15 minutes — more than any other club — and showing a trend for needing late goals in tight games.
After 19 matches, PSG has scored 12 times after the 80th minute to further underline how individual talent — especially with such a strong bench — made the difference many times, rather than teamwork or mental strength in coach Mauricio Pochettino's side.
The fact PSG has netted four injury-time equalizers or winners illustrates a team playing in a far less dominant way than it should be, given its huge array of talent.
Against Lyon at home and lowly Metz away, PSG won with goals in the 93rd and 94th minute.
Beating Lyon proved particularly difficult, with PSG trailing to midfielder Lucas Paqueta's goal until Neymar was awarded a soft penalty midway through the second half.
It was given against 18-year-old Malo Gusto, even though Neymar clearly appeared to pull the inexperienced right back's jersey, then throw himself down to the ground.
Neymar tucked away the penalty and Icardi headed the winner with just seconds left in stoppage time.
Having failed to beat or score against defending champion Lille last season, PSG trailed 1-0 until Angel Di Maria set up a 74th-minute equalizer and scored an 88th-minute winner.
Yet another late goal, like the 86th-minute effort to make it 4-2 against Strasbourg or the 90th-minute strike for 4-2 at Brest or the two inside the last 10 minutes to beat Nantes 3-1. PSG has also conceded soft late goals, allowing Bordeaux to pull back to 3-2.
PSG won just two of its last five games heading into the winter break and played unconvincingly except for when Mbappe got both goals in a 2-0 home win against Monaco.
It was the manner of the performances, especially considering the opposition involved, that was most concerning and there was growing pressure on Pochettino.
PSG trailed 1-0 at last-place Saint-Etienne and needed two late goals — including another one in injury time — to win 3-1 against 10 players. Pochettino's side then labored to a 0-0 home draw at Nice, was outplayed for long spells in a 1-1 draw at Lens — escaping defeat thanks to Georginio Wijnaldum's injury-time goal.
The alarming signs of PSG's struggles were magnified when it drew 1-1 at 19th-place Lorient in the 19th round. Lorient mustered 11 shots in the first half as PSG's midfield was overrun.
Icardi's excellent 91st-minute header salvaged a lucky draw and Pochettino again defended his team from criticism by claiming the French media underestimated Lorient — which had just lost seven straight games.
The closest he got to criticizing his side was in acknowledging the players struggle to cope against transitional play.
“We know they have difficulty coping with counterattacks so that’s why we played deep,” Lorient's scorer Thomas Monconduit said.
That is because the team lacks cohesion and looks split in half.
It has a top-heavy attack where Neymar, Mbappe and seven-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi have yet to gel and a midfield that struggles without the craft of the injury-prone Marco Verratti. All too often, this leaves the defense exposed and PSG has again over-relied on the superb shot-stopping ability of goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
With Spanish leader Real Madrid coming to Paris on Feb. 15 in the Champions League, there is little time left for improvement.
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