What will happen in Paris as Zlatan Ibrahimovic seeks his full return after an on-off absence of two months? The Swedish poacher’s struggle for fitness saw the French champions having to adapt to life without their target man, but as they hit form Laure James looks at what Zlatan’s return could mean for the side.
The absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic can affect Paris Saint-Germain as wholesomely as his presence. The team has strived to maintain form and while his excellency resolves to bring himself back to his best quickly, his team-mates are showing winning craft.
Javier Pastore scored his first Ligue 1 goal of the season at the weekend, with what OptaJean kindly confirmed as his 17th shot. Dropping deep behind Edison Cavani and Lucas Moura with the voiced support of an apparently relaxed Zlatan, observing sympathetically from the stands, would bring out the best in anyone.
They have looked to Cavani, similarly, to step up while the Swede’s been unavailable, who has netted six in the league this campaign. But Zlatan is the team-mate every player wants to say they have learned from, the opponent every player wishes they could say they have riled, and the student the world’s leading coaches claim to have shaped; including Fabio Capello. I’m not convinced.
Having already secured progression to the last 16 of this season’s UEFA Champions League, PSG can occupy themselves with collectively answering other challenges, such as whether the dynamic and composition of the team – when Ibra does make a full return, which is likely to come against Ajax – can cope.
But superpowers have to manage egos, and the losses of Thiago Silva, Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti, Jean-Christophe Bahebeck, Nicolas Douchez and Yohan Cabaye, are far more pertinent concerns.
Let’s be honest though; this isn’t a vital match, changes were likely to have happened anyway, and providing manager Laurent Blanc sees a definite edge to the game, and performances from his men to show they take Ajax seriously, he’ll have little to complain over.
Once a laughing stock of the transfer market, the PSG board can now stride with a smirk. Both Pastore and David Luiz, two of their most ridiculed – and expensive – purchases, seem to be paying dividends. Luiz was yesterday hailed by Blanc as a masterful, “rare talent”, whose technical ability was never in doubt, adding that the club knew exactly the kind of quality they were signing up. Goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu spilled forth with praise for Pastore, saying he “always worked hard, even when he was criticised”, and is “a player with extraordinary qualities”.
All this dressing room backslapping is perhaps forgivable given their position in the Champions League, yet their domestic inconsistencies still need to be accounted for and tonight’s opposition are well aware of their genuine shortcomings. Ajax are discretely confident they can be the team to end the Parisians’ unbeaten run of 20 competitive games.
PSG’s only slip in Europe was a 1-1 draw to the Eredivisie side in September, and while PSG are since much-improved since and Ajax are yet to win a game in Group F, they believe they have studied enough weaknesses to expose. Their talisman, Anwar El Ghazi, has been involved in five goals in his last four league games, with three scored and two assists, and says Tuesday night will be an occasion to rise to.
In my view, they are mixing words against too strong a force, particularly at Parc des Princes. Ajax may have a prime talent in El Ghazi, but Ibrahimovic, even at his most self-rehabilitative, is a class apart.
Can Ajax come away from Paris with a result? Who will have to make way for Ibrahimovic? Can PSG retain the Ligue 1 title for a third consecutive season?
Read more from Laure James here!