As Paris Saint-Germain’s poster boy, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be in the spotlight against Marseille

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as usual, is sure to dominate the spotlight when Paris Saint-Germain take on Marseille in a potential title-decider, writes Ian Hawkey.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has an impressive record against Marseille and will look to add to that tally on Sunday night. Christophe Karaba / EPA
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There have been times in 2015 when Zlatan Ibrahimovic looked like an accident waiting to happen.

There was that challenge with Chelsea’s Oscar at Stamford Bridge, and a first-half red card, with heavy consequences.

And the outburst against referees and the whole of French football, where he is lucratively employed, at Bordeaux a few days later.

Then, last week, there was an accident that caused great mirth to people around the world who would otherwise have shown no interest in Moldova versus Sweden in Euro 2016 qualifying.

Ibrahimovic, the Sweden captain, scored both goals in a 2-0 win, one of them now an online must-see, for the misfortune of Moldova goalkeeper Ilie Cebanu. His routine clearance struck Ibrahimovic on the head and rebounded into the Moldova goal.

Let us call the goal 90 per cent goalkeeping accident and 10 per cent Ibrahimovic’s alert genius. As the ball unexpectedly came at him, the Swede did instinctively move his neck to steer the header in the direction of the goal.

Ibrahimovic scored again against Iran a few days later, bringing his tally of goals to six in his past three games, promising form for the Paris Saint-Germain star to take into the Ligue 1 “classique” this evening at Marseille.

PSG and Marseille is never an inconsequential fixture, not for the supporters or the security personnel. This one is especially resonant. Champions PSG sit just two points above Marseille in what has become a tight, three-club jostle for the title.

To be the figurehead for PSG is to define yourself as the enemy of Marseille. To be the incorrigibly provocative poster boy of Paris is to intensify that status.

The Marseille defender Rod Fanni lit a long fuse ahead of today’s fireworks when he said, in February, “they should give Zlatan an award – he plays his arrogant role so well”.Fanni is assigned to mark the Swede on Sunday night. Amateur lip-readers will be monitoring that duel.

“We have said some things to each other in English that I couldn’t repeat off the field,” Fanni said of past encounters.

Off the field, Ibrahimovic has been quite the chatterbox lately. His outburst after PSG’s 3-2 defeat at Bordeaux two weeks ago made him enemies beyond Marseille. Angered by the officiating, he was caught on camera, soon after the final whistle using foul language to describe France, which, he said, did “not deserve PSG.” Ibrahimovic later apologised.

But the widespread impression that he, Ligue 1’s highest-profile individual and the symbol of a PSG, whose budget dwarfs all compatriot clubs thanks to their Qatari backers, look down on their compatriots was hardly diminished.

There are plenty in the 20-team Ligue 1 who would be pleased to see Marseille or Lyon depose the billionaires from the capital as champions. And there are those who wonder if Ibrahimovic is quite the leader of Project PSG that he has been over the past two years.

“He is a match-winner who can turn a game with one moment,” Fanni said.

In his five PSG-Marseille matches, Ibrahimovic has not lost once, and scored four goals. He was Ligue 1’s leading scorer for the past two campaigns, 10 and 11 goals ahead of the next-best marksmen in both cases.

This season, he may fall short of that honour. He has 17 goals. He finished with 26 in 2013/14 and 30 in 2012/13. His hat-trick in his past Ligue 1 outing, against Lorient, took him to nine goals from his past eight matches, but the idea PSG are dependent on him has less currency than it once did.

“PSG are not just about Ibrahimovic,” Marseille coach Marcelo Bielsa said.

In the periods this term he has spent injured or suspended, the team have more than coped. When PSG beat Barcelona in the group phase of the Uefa Champions League, Ibrahimovic was out injured.

When they beat Marseille, then the Ligue 1 leaders, 2-0 in November, he was coming back from injury and used only as a second-half substitute.

PSG’s greatest triumph so far in 2014/15 was achieved without him, on the night he was dismissed – a poor refereeing decision – after 31 minutes of the second leg of the club’s Champions League knockout tie against Chelsea.

His 10 remaining teammates went on to achieve in the next 90 minutes the result they needed to progress on away goals. PSG play Barcelona in 10 days in a European Cup quarter-final without Ibrahimovic, because of his suspension.

Succeed in that game, in his absence, and the club can begin to think they are outgrowing their larger-than-life figurehead.

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