Potential injuries to Marco Verratti and Angel Di Maria will overshadow what was ultimately a solid 4-1 result for a semi-rotated Paris Saint-Germain side against Stade de Reims.
The first headline will of course be a potential injury to PSG’s talismanic Argentine playmaker, Di Maria. Fans of visionary South Americans will be bitterly disappointed, as not only did Javier Pastore pick up yet another small knock before the game, but within the first half Paris’ No.11 was retracted for Lucas Moura. Despite the fact that El Fideo limped straight into the dressing room, manager Laurent Blanc has assured fans that his injury (and Verratti’s, who was pulled off for Blaise Matuidi at halftime) is no big concern.
Before Di Maria’s substitution, the biggest talking point was surely the return of what was to be Europe’s next deadly trio: CIA. Edinson Cavani, having netted a late winner against Chelsea midweek, rejoined the starting lineup at last in place of Lucas. Blanc’s intention here was surely to give the Uruguayan a real chance to fight for his spot, and he did precisely that, scoring from a delicious layoff from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and nearly netting a second before Johann Carrasso intervened. El Matador has not reinvented his game: 38 touches in 90 minutes, which Di Maria was able to reach in the half an hour before his departure. He will never be part of the fluid system that Blanc desires up front.
On the other hand, anyone can see Cavani’s qualities even without the same technical ability. His finishing is seemingly either immaculate or incredibly poor, but the amount of chances he receives are a direct consequence of his incessant off-the-ball movement. Watch Ibrahimovic’s layoff in the above goal; as the Reims defender leaves a little bit of space in behind in order to try and close down Ibrahimovic, Cavani has already started to shift his movement. Keeping in line with the defenders as Ibra redirects the ball, Cavani is already moving quickly enough to take that pass in stride. He is hungry for goals, eager to score, and if his finishing could reach a consistent level at any point in his Parisian career he would be posting numbers in line with Europe’s elite. Unfortunately, consistency is what he’s always lacked at the Parc des Princes, and let a couple of good showings not overshadow an atrocious display not long ago in a 0-0 draw with Lille. If he starts to underperform once again, it’s only a reflection of his time here in general-Lucas has more room and time to grow, and while Cavani may work as the focal point for all of the team’s buildup, more often than not he fizzles out.
Of course, the real star of the show was Zlatan Ibrahimovic. What a year it has been for the nomadic Swede! Twenty-two goals and 10 assists in the league after this fixture, where he netted a double and set up the other two. He looks set to own the title of Ligue 1 top scorer for the third time in just four seasons here. Ibrahimovic is as close to a PSG legend as anyone can be-one player who has elevated the club so much, who has personified so much change. When Paris were grinding out draws and one goal victories last season, they lacked the destructive force of a fully-fit Ibrahimovic. Make no mistake, the tempo of this match shifted greatly after Reims’ equalizer, a tame free kick that dribbled through to its target after a mix-up between Kevin Trapp and Layvin Kurzawa.
With halftime lurking, it was Ibrahimovic with his goal and an assist to Cavani that turned the tides safely back in Paris’ favor. For the first time in perhaps a year, it’s safe to say Zlatan is back to his immaculate best, not only in front of goal-where he has never disappointed-but in terms of sheer influence over all aspects of the match. Continentally, domestically, everywhere. Ibrahimovic owns the game, and even at 34-years-old, the skeptics must surely be convinced-this big Swede has more to give. With his contract situation still uncertain, Blanc has announced that Ibrahimovic will decide his future, with or without the club, very soon.
The recipient of Zlatan’s first delicious through ball (seen above), Gregory van der Wiel, was a double beneficiary this game; while it was his lackadaisical defensive work that gave up the free kick for Reims’ goal, a well-taken finish and a (dubious) assist will do wonders for the Dutchman. Bereft of confidence and gametime before the humiliating Serge Aurier controversy, the Dutchman proved he still had plenty to offer going forward. It’s not great that he continued his trend of being skinned defensively, but that likely will prove less costly in Ligue 1 than in continental football. Indeed, he proved a vital part of the attack, with 91 touches-Marquinhos managed 75 against Chelsea-and his bombastic running provides an entirely different dimension to the sometimes-static young Brazilian.
Despite his faults, Marquinhos’ playing time comes into question once again. The only possible justification for being left out of the starting lineup is that Marquinhos has moved definitively above van der Wiel in the right-back rotation. That seems a fair judgement given that he started against Chelsea, but it’s not as if Marqui is one of those in the team who need to rest. He is hungry for playing time, he deserves playing time, and it must come to pass that Blanc lets him play as much as he can in order to keep from losing him this summer. Certainly most clubs in Europe would be in for the Brazilian, who has the potential to be the next Thiago Silva or David Luiz. I’m not particularly in favor of benching the duo, even. Silva may be the world’s best center back, and Luiz has brilliant technical qualities that come to the surface in gridlocked first halves like these. They work exceptionally well together. Marqui, however, deserves time wherever he can get it-although preferably not as a bizarre 70th-minute midfield substitute.
As an aside, Blaise Matuidi’s post-game conference is as much a revelation as anything in the development of the Aurier case. It seems the young Ivorian still has support in the dressing room, with Matuidi saying that he hopes meetings with the club will be positive. Blanc has admitted that his feelings towards the incident have cooled down with time, and with the right-back’s future in the club’s hands, most will be hoping that he can reconcile with the club. He and Kurzawa have all the potential in the world to be world-beaters in two years’ time if off-the-field incidents can be sorted out-it would be a tragedy to see a player so promising depart at a cut-rate fee. Discipline for now, yes, but not alienation.
Lastly, one can hardly overlook the touching display before kickoff. Ezequiel Lavezzi is one of several European players headed to China in an unprecedented transfer window rush. The move, now officially confirmed, is probably for the best in the long run. Jean-Kevin Augustin and other youngsters have a place in the rotation, and to get a handful of millions for an aging player who was certainly departing on a free in the summer is highway robbery on the club’s part. Nonetheless, Lavezzi’s dressing room antics and off-the-pitch friendliness will surely be missed, and on the pitch, his engine and pace still had-and have-plenty to offer. Adios, Pocho, and good luck in everything you do.
— Ezequiel Lavezzi (@PochoLavezzi) February 20, 2016