Zlatan Ibrahimovic still the key to PSG bridging gap between Ligue 1 and Champions League success
Laurent Blanc, the Paris Saint-Germain coach who had his contract with the club extended to 2018 last week, knows that perhaps the most important 90 minutes he has overseen in terms of emboldening his ambitious bosses to prolong his stay was the one and a half hours that concluded PSG’s last meeting with Chelsea.
That was at the same stage of the Uefa Champions League 12 months ago in which Blanc’s team meet the Londoners again in France on Tuesday.
In 2014/15, the second leg at Stamford Bridge went into extra time. PSG had been reduced to 10 men after half an hour. They came back twice from a goal down to win the tie on away goals.
The circumstances of that comeback, the courage and the coolness, felt like a coming-of-age for a club who have been obliged to grow up rapidly with the sudden, vast investment of the Qatari owners who took over in 2011.
Making an impact on Europe’s principle club competition was always their priority once it became clear that PSG’s resources all but guaranteed domination of the French domestic landscape.
Getting past the would-be English champions in a tight European Cup knockout endorsed Blanc’s pedigree more than any other match he had been involved in.
There was something new present that night, a belief PSG could face up to the established European heavyweights. There was someone absent, too, at least for the most heroic 90 minutes of it.
The red-carded man was the figure who has, more than any other coach or player, defined PSG’s lofty aspirations in the last four years, their drive and their idea they should bow to nobody in the game’s upper hierarchy.
PSG overcame Chelsea without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, dismissed on 30 minutes for a rather reckless tackle — though not necessarily one worth being sent off for — on Oscar.
The notion that PSG might not suffer too much without their Swedish forward on the pitch would, in the days after that game, provoke lively discussion.
Had PSG outgrown Zlatan? Was his long shadow actually a cramp on their development? Try putting that argument now, two thirds of the way into what has been perhaps Ibrahimovic’s most productive season anywhere in his long, varied career, and the room would go silent.
He is 34 years old and may even leave Paris this summer, but seems at the peak of his powers.
First, there are the goals. He has accumulated them at more than one-per-game in Ligue 1 so far this season. Ibrahimovic has previously finished seasons in Italy, and in France, as the top scorer in his division. It looks like a certainty for 2015/16 as well.
At his current rate, he will end up with more goals than he has ever scored in a single campaign in a leading league.
There is also strong sense that, in his mid-30s, the man whose public utterances are sometimes a caricature of egomania is a more appreciated teammate, not just because he wins matches, but because he rolls up his sleeves, sets an example.
“I see Ibrahimovic now and see a more generous player, more concerned with doing defensive jobs,” said Massimiliano Allegri, his former coach at AC Milan, where Allegri and Ibrahimovic won the 2011 Italian title together.
That gold medal was one in the long string of domestic titles Ibrahimovic has acquired — with Ajax, with Juventus, with Inter Milan, with Barcelona, with AC Milan and three times so far in France with PSG.
It is quite a list, but missing one significant club title: The Champions League.
“He is the player who can bridge that gap for this club, between winning Ligue 1 and winning something in Europe,” said his PSG teammate, the energetic midfielder Blaise Matuidi. “So it’s up to all of us to make him happy here.”
Ibrahimovic, red-carpeted by PSG ever since he joined, has found many aspects of Paris to his liking, not least the podium he has been placed on, the status he enjoys.
But if and when he leaves, he wants to be remembered as having set a new landmark for the club in terms of European success.
He would like to win the Champions League for Zlatan, too. And time is running out.
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Published: February 15, 2016 04:00 AM