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Paris Saint-Germain

Close Call

in Futbol by

Top flight European football is back, with the French Ligue 1 kickoff a day before the Premier League gets underway. The reigning French champs PSG opened the season on the road against Bastia, playing its first league game since Zlatan Ibrahimovic left for Manchester. Here are my observations from PSG’s season opener.

  • I was underwhelmed after PSG had such a strong and goal-filled preseason, which included a convincing victory against Lyon. But Bastia presented a different challenge, combining the un-preseason like tactic of parking the bus with the un-preseason like mentality to rough up the game. The result was somewhat expected if you think about it: A Zlatan-less PSG searching for who the new reference point up top will be for them to help break down these defensive teams. The obvious answer is Cavani, and with his exclusion, it isn’t so surprising that PSG were a bit sluggish in the opener.
  • To that point, I thought Ben Arfa was quite poor in his debut league performance for PSG. Perhaps he can do a job against teams that won’t be so negative with its style of play, but I think he is better a bit off the front man, perhaps as a backup to Pastore. Like the rest of the front players, Ben Arfa seemed to get more touches in midfield and in wide areas than he did up top, and because of that PSG never really threatened to break down Bastia with link up play down the middle.
  • Playing wide isn’t necessarily a problem; I thought the width that Kurzawa and Aurier provided in this game was fantastic. But when you are starting Ben Arfa up top and the only player good in the air in the team is David Luiz, then that width is a bit wasted because crosses are taken off the menu. Cavani would have changed this, but perhaps it was a bit concerning that PSG couldn’t come up with some different ideas on the fly that would have allowed them to break down Bastia with the team they had, because with PSG’s quality you’d expect that level of ingenuity and ability.
  • I thought Di Maria was good in this game. He started off on the left but ventured all over the pitch, including switching sides with Lucas on a few occasions. There were almost no chances for PSG to counter, so Di Maria’s brilliant direct passing wasn’t involved, but he made the game’s only goal by playing Jese Rodriguez through and was probably PSG’s most dangerous playmaker for the entirety of the game.
  • Speaking of Jese, I thought Emery’s subs were fantastic in this game, even if they were obvious. Dropping Ben Arfa for Jese gave the team a bit of juice, with Jese staying higher up the pitch and getting into the area for the best chance of the game (would have been nice for him to debut with a goal, but Kurzawa took the follow up beautifully).
    Verrati’s insertion changed the game immediately; his long balls were magnificent and Bastia couldn’t press the ball off of him. He provided something different in the deep-lying role than Rabiot or Motta did and it remains clear how vital Verrati is to the squad. Motta had a fairly Motta performance, picking up a yellow with a couple of old-man fouls in midfield and recycling possession on occasion, but without many attacks to break up, Verrati and Matuidi offered more to get PSG to the winner.
  • Pastore didn’t do much for me in this game, which can be attributed to the clutter Bastia had in midfield. Pastore spent a lot of the game roaming around the pitch trying to find the space where he could most make an impact, but he wasn’t sharp and wasn’t really involved in any threatening attacks. Similar things could be said for Lucas, who lost the ball on a few occasions and didn’t show any of the potential PSG fans have been waiting on for years.
  • At the back, like I said before, I thought Kurzawa and Aurier were brilliant in this game. They were constantly bombing forward, pretty much playing winger roles as Lucas and Di Maria cut inside to help move play along. I even remember Aurier making a run in the space between Ben Arfa and Lucas at one point; the full back’s involvement was heavy and necessary in this game.
  • And then we get to my favorite (but not the best) player on the pitch from yesterday: Presnel Kimpembe. I saw him a couple of times in preseason but after watching him against Lyon and Bastia, I think this kid is going to be a great centre half one day. For a 21-year-old he is composed and comfortable on the ball and shows a willingness to drive the ball up the pitch when given space. We didn’t see him pressed much in this game, so who knows how he will react to that the rest of the season (when he plays, that is), but his potential is obvious. A few of his passes in this game were wayward or ill-advised, but he can correct those issues over time; he cannot, however, correct his natural instincts, and it looks like Kimpembe’s instincts are to be relaxed and contemplative on the ball. I’m not sure how much he will play this season with the Brazilian trio likely ahead of him on the depth chart, but he looks like he will be a starter for some club sometime soon.
  • Bastia’s right winger Saint-Maximin was impressive doing work down the right hand side. With Kurzawa vacating that space, the 19-year-old looked dangerous flying down the touchline, but Kimpembe seemed to provide good cover. Diallo also made his presence known, if only because he had about three ridiculously selfish goes. He looked capable with the ball but didn’t seem to think twice about his next movement.

Parisian Prominence

in Champions League Analysis/Futbol by

For the second straight season, Paris Saint-Germain eliminated Chelsea from the Champions League with an impressive performance at Stamford Bridge, though this time the Parisians’ triumph was less surprising and more convincing. With their 2-1 victory against the Blues last week, the Parisians booked their place in the quarterfinals with a tactical and spirited performance against a Chelsea side that has been decent under interim manager Guus Hiddink.

The second leg of last year’s tie was full of drama almost from kickoff, with Zlatan Ibrahimović being sent off after just half an hour. Ten-man PSG rallied to level the match and the tie at 2 in the 86th minute, with David Luiz forcing extra time with a thumping header. An Eden Hazard penalty put PSG behind again before their other Brazilian centerback, Thiago Silva, beat Thibaut Courtois with a header of his own, putting PSG through on away goals.

This time around, the Parisians’ place in the next round was never in doubt, particularly after Adrien Rabiot slotted home the opening goal in London, giving PSG a matching away goal and setting them up for a thorough performance that put them through. They won their home leg 2-1 thanks to Edinson Cavani’s late goal, and the Parisians looked even more comfortable on Chelsea’s ground, securing the same result in London.

Midfield Mastery

PSG dominated Chelsea in the center of the park in both legs, which was particularly impressive during the second leg at Stamford Bridge with Marco Verrati out and Blaise Matuidi playing injured. In the deciding matchup, PSG boss Laurent Blanc deployed a sturdy midfield pair alongside Matuidi in veteran Thiago Motta and the ravishing Rabiot. Even against lesser sides, Chelsea can cede possession at home, so Blanc put his faith in a trio capable of recycling possession and doing the dirty work in midfield, necessary qualities in a game PSG merely needed to control, not dominate.

The Parisians were far from complacent, though, looking to add to the 2-1 lead they stepped onto the pitch with. At times, PSG’s passing was as slick and instinctive as you will see in football. Their movement looked choreographed and their triangles were as tight as ever, culminating in some aesthetically pleasing football and a handful of good chances.

Understandably, Matuidi was far from his lively self in this game, straying from confrontation in the midfield and rarely springing forward into the attacking third. With Matuidi slowed, Rabiot was critical for the Parisians, and he played one of the best games of the season. Rabiot was comfortable exchanging short passes with Motta in the middle of the park and he had great success drifting wide and linking up near the touchline, which spurred moves like this one.

Rabiot had 92 passes with a 90.2 percent completion rate, the game’s second highest total behind Motta, who picked 118 passes in this game and helped PSG establish control. Motta did, however, look a bit throw off when Chelsea pressed him intently and he wasn’t tremendous defensively. Without Rabiot buzzing around the field, Motta might have been at fault for a few more mistakes, but the youngster did well in this game to provide an outlet for Motta, and PSG were able to dominate the midfield.

But it wasn’t just the three midfielders Blanc picked that made the difference in this game; an attacking midfielder turned winger in Angel Di Maria had a massive impact in this game by dropping into the hole and helping usher play into the attacking third. Zlatan has played the No. 10 role extensively during the latter part of his career, but he stayed forward against Chelsea, often drifting off the centerbacks just a tad and attacking for wide positions. Di Maria’s central positioning and Ibrahimovic’s slight drift were key in PSG’s first goal, as was Rabiot’s ubiquitous nature in this game.

Di Maria has been brilliant in a lot of different facets this season, and against the Blues he showcased an element of his versatility that will give Blanc a lot of different attacking options as the Parisians progress to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.


Zlatan, whose recent comments indicate this will be his final season in France, is doing all that he can to secure his first Champions League trophy as a Parisian. The Swede was integral in PSG’s attacking play against Chelsea, scoring twice and assisting once in the tie. As someone who has been criticized for shrinking in big games, Ibra has refuted those criticisms with his typical stern tone. He was magnificent against the Blues overmatched centerback duo, drifting wide of Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic on both of PSG’s goals – once as a playmaker, once as a scorer – and Lucas worked well as his silent counterpart, making critical runs that drew defenders away from PSG’s talisman.

Ibra is in flying form having had a hand in two goals against Chelsea and scoring another four against Ligue 1 bottomfeeder Troyes. PSG have wrapped up the domestic league with eight games to play, meaning Blanc can save Ibra specifically for the Champions League. If Zlatan can maintain his fitness and form during the next month or so, PSG will have a great shot at winning the one trophy he desires the most.

Sorting out the defense

Blanc might do well to stay away from totally rotated sides in the league, because his defense can use some sharpening. Although they couldn’t get their attack going against them, PSG’s defense was more impressive in its matchups with Real Madrid during the group stage (one goal conceded in two games) than it was in either game against Chelsea. The centerback duo of Luiz and Silva is firmly the Parisians’ best, but Blanc has some options, each talented and flawed, at the fullback spots that he will have to sort through ahead of the Champions League quarterfinals.

Maxwell and Marquinhos started both legs against Chelsea at left and right back, respectively, with Gregory Van der Wiel managing a cameo in the second leg, summer signing Layvin Kurzawa never seeing the pitch and Sergio Aurier rightfully out of the team after his disparaging comments about his manager on Periscope. Maxwell, aka Zlatan’s lucky charm when it comes to trophies, probably won’t be displaced, but Marquinhos might find himself out of the squad should PSG have the misfortune of drawing Ronaldo, Douglas Costa or Neymar in the quarterfinal.

And that, really, is what is most intriguing about the next challenge for PSG. They’ve proven to be one of the five best sides in the world this season, with dominating form in their league and good showings in the Champions League. But PSG have consistently failed to live up to the standards set by the few clubs that boast more lavish teams, living proof of the difference between great and world class sides.

With the addition of Di Maria, the evolution of their midfield and Ibra’s farewell looming, this is PSG’s best chance to prove they belong with the perennial big boys.

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