Laurent Blanc's Paris Saint-Germain Are Genuine Champions League Contenders
Having played with distinction for both Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille, Gabriel Heinze’s opinion was highly sought in the week leading up to Sunday’s latest episode of Le Classique.
"The richest team has the best chance of winning the title," he told Canal Plus, as reported by Le Phoceen (in French). "But a clasico...the clasicos are played out with other things, with the heart and the head."
Heinze had plenty of both. Always a redoubtable competitor, he knew he had something to prove to the locals when he arrived at the Velodrome, an ex-PSG favourite, from Real Madrid in 2009.
He scored the winner in his first Ligue 1 match against his old club that November, something all the more remarkable bearing in mind his enduring feelings for the capital club, as he revealed in the Canal Plus interview:
I had two magnificent years at [Marseille], but the love story I had with PSG, that’s something I will never experience again.
Schmaltzy talk aside, Heinze would have been proud of the shift Laurent Blanc’s side put in to conquer the old for on Sunday.
A goal down and a man down as half-time approached following Thiago Motta’s debatable sending off, PSG showed their expensive talents have the steel to match their style.
Despite Marco Verratti and Edinson Cavani’s sporadic threats to explode at beleaguered referee Clement Turpin, the team kept their heads and their shape, and had few alarms after Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s second-half penalty winner.
This unlikely comeback was as impressive—albeit in a completely different way—as the 3-0 pummelling of Benfica in Wednesday night’s Champions League match at the Parc des Princes had been.
On that night, Ibrahimovic had been ostensibly the star of the show, scoring twice, but it had been strictly a team effort. Jorge Jesus’ side, strengthened from last year’s unlucky Europa League final losers, have ability on the ball but didn’t get a sniff.
PSG completed 521 passes more than their Portuguese visitors.
For the first time, a Europe-wide audience got to see what the Blanc vintage of PSG were all about. Carlo Ancelotti’s quarter-finalists from last year had been pleasing enough, scoring freely in the group stage before putting out Valencia and almost doing the same to Barcelona.
There was almost the sense that PSG’s squad was more suited to Europe’s top table than they were to their own domestic league, in the image of Ezequiel Lavezzi, whose five goals took him more than halfway to George Weah’s club record Champions League goals tally of eight.
Now Blanc’s adoption of 4-3-3 instead of Ancelotti’s efficient working of 4-4-2 (dating back to the win at Nantes in late August) is producing something more pleasing on the eye—and more ambitious.
Where the previous strategy was swift counter-attack, as it had often been under Ancelotti’s predecessor Antoine Kombouare, Blanc is more centred on a possession-based philosophy.
With Lavezzi comfortable and effective on the left, there is promise of the team becoming less reliant on Ibrahimovic, with the promise of Cavani adapting to a role on the right and having the freedom to drop inside when the Swede withdraws to a deeper position.
Yet as former PSG winger David Ginola told viewers on BT Sport before Sunday night’s game, it’s really all about the control provided by the midfield three of Motta, Verratti and the indefatigable Blaise Matuidi.
This allows the team to boss possession and physically best the opposition, too, in tight games.
In this context, it is little wonder that Blanc quickly withdrew Lavezzi to introduce Adrian Rabiot and maintain that central three after Motta’s red. The teenager was excellent.
So now PSG have style, durability and versatility. Their Champions League challenge is very real.
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