Paris Saint-Germain’s clash with Lille OSC at the Parc des Princes on Sunday pits Ligue 1’s current leaders; although they might not be by the time the game kicks off, against third place.
Rene Girard’s side have emerged as surprise title contenders this campaign, considering last year’s sixth place finish and the important departures that inevitably followed non-qualification for Europe.
The coach who famously led Montpellier HSC to 2011-2012’s Championnat title has turned Les Dogues into a mean unit. His side grind teams down, concede few goals and specialise in narrow and often low-scoring wins.
In 18 games so far this term, LOSC have shipped just six goals. PSG boast the joint-second best defence in France’s top-flight, along with AS Monaco, but have conceded five more.
Despite losing 1-0 away at Girondins de Bordeaux a fortnight ago, Lille remain in impressive form and are nine points clear of Francis Gillot’s side who are now fourth-placed after their recent resurgence.
However, Girard’s men are four points behind PSG and that lead can be stretched to seven points in the capital club’s favour at the Parc des Princes on Sunday.
Let’s take a look at some of the key battles that will shape this clash.
Zlatan vs. Vincent Enyeama
This genuinely is a battle between an unstoppable force and an immovable object if there ever was one in football terms.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in a rich vein of form, having scored 12 times in his last 10 league games. The Swede has 14 goals from 17 starts this season and has been in imperious form in Europe as well.
In addition to those 14 goals this campaign, the 32-year-old has also provided six assists and is very much on a roll heading into this match.
The obstacle standing in his way is Lille goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama.
LOSC’s Nigerian international has been nothing short of a revelation in Le Championnat this year and recently won his second consecutive player of the month award (November).
Had Enyeama managed to keep a clean sheet against Bordeaux two weeks ago, we may well have seen him break Gaetan Huard’s record of 1,176 minutes without conceding that has stood since 1993.
However, the 31-year-old’s incredible run of 11 consecutive clean sheets was ended.
Getting past him, Simon Kjaer and Marko Basa will be no easy task though and this battle is undoubtedly the headline clash on the pitch come Sunday.
Midfield Unit vs. Midfield Unit
Not far behind Ibrahimovic and Enyeama’s showdown, PSG and Lille’s meeting could be decided by whoever wins the midfield battle.
Under Laurent Blanc, the defending champions have adapted to a new possession-based style of play that bases its strength in a midfield trio of Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti.
Motta is very much the lynchpin of the unit, but the three players have blended to brilliant effect and are able to dictate the pace of the game, create from deep and dominate the possession for PSG.
In Les Dogues’ trio of Rio Mavuba, Florent Balmont and Idrissa Gueye, the capital club’s stars have arguably met their match though.
A lot depends on whether the three are deployed in a 4-3-3, which suits them better as they are all primarily central-based players, or a 4-2-2 with a narrow midfield (4-1-2-1-2) that keeps the two wider men closer to the middle of the park.
Playing a 4-3-3 would arguably be better for Lille in this game, as Balmont on the right and Gueye towards the left would not have same impact.
Doing so will face both sides off against each other in exactly the same formation though as PSG also take the same shape.
Lucas Digne vs. Franck Beria
Sunday’s clash will face PSG’s Lucas Digne against his former club for the first time since making the move to the French capital this summer.
Given Maxwell’s injury problems of late, the French under-20 World Cup winner is expected to start at left-back.
Considering how Blanc’s playing style requires the full-backs to bomb forward as often as possible and act almost like secondary wingers, Digne will be up against Lille right-back Franck Beria.
His crosses and support play when attacking will be vital for PSG, but their visitors will know exactly what to expect from the prodigious 20-year-old talent.
Edinson Cavani/Lucas Moura vs. Pape Souare
One of Lille’s most unsung heroes in this season’s current success is Pape Souare.
The Senegalese international spent last year on loan at Stade de Reims, but this campaign he has been almost ever-present at left-back and has missed just one game.
As well as helping contribute towards a rock solid defence, Souare is a danger going forward too and has netted three league goals so far this term.
Considering how PSG line up under Blanc, he will be faced with either Edinson Cavani or Lucas Moura on Sunday.
Despite Cavani’s main position being in the middle, in order to accommodate the Uruguayan and Ibrahimovic in the same team Blanc stations El Matador on the right of a front three and encourages him to tuck inside.
Moura will spend more time out wide and will therefore be more of a responsibility for Souare at the Parc des Princes.
However, with Gregory van der Wiel charging forward like Digne on the opposite flank, the 23-year-old Senegalese will have his hands full in this game.
Although Ibrahimovic’s duel with Enyeama is perhaps the most exciting aspect heading into the game, the battle of the two midfield units is arguably the most important battle.
The winner of this tussle will most likely decide the game and considering how strong PSG are at home it is going to be very difficult for Lille to get a foothold in the match.
PSG are likely to see the majority of their chances thwarted and will therefore have to be brutally clinical in front of goal, something Ibrahimovic has excelled in over recent weeks.
However, with Cavani back in Uruguay as reported by RMC Sport (translated from French as a bilingual), it is unclear whether or not he will be able to take part.
12 - Edinson Cavani has scored 12 goals in his last 12 competitive games for PSG. Unstoppable.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) December 18, 2013
Should the South American be back in time to play, he will boost PSG’s chances in front of goal.
If he misses out though, Ibrahimovic’s battle against Enyeama will come to the fore.