At Paris Saint-Germain, the aura is diminished and their Ligue 1 rivals smell blood

Ian Hawkey writes Paris Saint-Germain have uncharacteristically stumbled out of the blocks this season in Ligue 1, and their rivals suddenly see them 'as vulnerable, far from invincible'.
Paris Saint-Germain's Thiago Silva reacts during the Champions League match against Ludogorets Razgrad on Wednesday night. Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP / September 28, 2016
Paris Saint-Germain's Thiago Silva reacts during the Champions League match against Ludogorets Razgrad on Wednesday night. Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP / September 28, 2016

Paris Saint-Germain are simply not used to runs of form like this.

To recap, during their last, record-breaking campaign, the serial French champions went 28 matches in Ligue 1 before suffering their first loss. They had the title wrapped up two games later, still in March, before they let their jaunt through the domestic fixture list be stained only once more with the second of just two defeats in the 38-match season.

The defence of their fourth successive championnat has already taken on a very distinct character. PSG, lords of their own league in a way not even Bayern Munich or Juventus can emulate in Germany and Italy, go into matchday eight of their major domestic competition against Bordeaux on Saturday having already lost as many games as they did in the entirety of their 2015/16 campaign.

During that cruise, PSG stood top of the French table for all but one weekend. At the moment they are outside the top three – France’s access-group for the Champions League – and joined on points by a Bordeaux motivated by having seen how AS Monaco and then Toulouse defeated the moneybags machine from the capital, and by the persistence of Saint-Etienne, who achieved a draw at the Parc des Princes earlier this month.

The aura around PSG has diminished, and the delight elsewhere in Ligue 1 is palpable.

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The simplest diagnosis for the fall in standards would be to pinpoint the absence of the walking, talking, strutting, towering aura that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ligue 1’s dominant individual for most of the five-year period in which PSG have benefited from the patronage of their Qatari majority shareholders.

Ibrahimovic’s 38 goals last season helped make a procession of retaining the title and his presence ... well his sheer presence spelled out, week in, week out to the rest of France that they were dealing with a club of superstar quality when they took on PSG.

Zlatan leaves a large hole whenever he moves on. But not too much complaint can be made against the man who has taken over from Ibrahimovic at the sharp point of the PSG attack. Edinson Cavani, who spent three years playing alongside the giant Swede – Ibrahimovic is now at Manchester United – sometimes unhappy to be cast out on the wing as a compromise, has scored eight goals across competitions already this season, and hoisted PSG to the top of their Champions League group by adding two more to his account at Ludogorets Razgrad in midweek.

Even that win, a restorative result – 3-1 away – after the defeat against Toulouse eight days ago had some worrying features. There were defensive lapses, PSG fell behind early and survived a fluffed penalty that would have made the score 2-2.

“We know we have to do better,” acknowledged captain Thiago Silva.

A new manager, the Spaniard Unai Emery, has had his problems with certain individuals, notably Hatem Ben Arfa, signed amid much fanfare in the summer after his brilliant last season with Nice. Emery has clashed with the skilful winger about Ben Arfa’s work-rate. An in-form Ben Arfa would certainly be useful to PSG, not least while Angel Di Maria, leading creator of goalscoring chances last season in France, struggles to recover his mojo.

Meanwhile, another newcomer brought to staff the striking positions, the former Real Madrid player Jese has struggled to make an impact.

Off the field, there is unwanted controversy. Serge Aurier, the full-back, was last week sentenced to two months in prison, suspended, following an altercation with police on a night out in May. He intends to appeal and Emery has continued to select him since his sentencing, although Aurier is serving a domestic ban on Saturday following his red card in the defeat at Toulouse.

“I hope the win over Ludogorets can give us some calm,” said Emery. “I had thought we were finding the right direction until the game at Toulouse. But I believe we are again now.”

Emery, who won the Europa League while at Sevilla in each of the last three seasons, was brought in to replace Laurent Blanc with a barely veiled target of taking the club further than has become their habit in the Champions League.

It was almost assumed that wrapping up the Ligue 1 title early is a given. What was not anticipated was that Emery would, after less than two months, be in charge of a PSG who the rest of a league suddenly look at as vulnerable, far from invincible.

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Published: September 30, 2016 04:00 AM


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