Paris Saint-Germain return to UEFA Champions League duty next week when they take on German side Bayer Leverkusen in their last-16 clash at the BayArena.
The French champions will be confident that they can at least repeat last season’s quarterfinal appearance, but standing in their way are the Bundesliga’s second-placed side.
PSG will be boosted by the news that coach Laurent Blanc has avoided a one-match ban after UEFA partially overturned their decision to punish Le President for three delayed kick-offs during the capital club’s group-stage campaign.
With both expected to miss out against Valenciennes in Friday’s Ligue 1 clash, there is a chance that the Parisians will be under strength when they face Leverkusen.
But the calendar has not been kind to their first leg hosts. Leverkusen were knocked out of the DFB Pokal on Wednesday, after being taken to extra time at home by second-tier side Kaiserslautern, and they face fourth-placed Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga on Saturday.
If the Ligue 1 leaders can avoid defeat away from home against Sami Hyypia’s tired side next week, they will be confident of finishing the job at home with a full complement of stars to choose from.
Should they successfully navigate Leverkusen, PSG have as good a chance as any of going all the way depending on the draw.
But how far can they realistically expect to go?
Make no mistake; this season’s team is stronger than last year’s squad under Carlo Ancelotti, that crashed out on away goals following a 3-3 aggregate draw with Barcelona. Many of last term’s weaknesses have been addressed and the players’ familiarity has developed stronger team chemistry.
PSG could have even gone further last campaign and were unlucky to be eliminated by the Spanish giants over the course of the two legs, although they were ultimately made to pay for their profligate finishing.
That is the key difference between this season’s side and last, hence the emphasis on the importance of the presence of Ibrahimovic and Cavani. The team are more clinical.
In the Swede and the Urguayan, PSG now have two of the best strikers in world football and arguably the best strike pairing in Europe. The challenge for Blanc is to settle on his preferred third player to play alongside the duo in his favoured three-pronged attack.
Domestically, he can get away with rotating Lucas Moura, Javier Pastore, Ezequiel Lavezzi and to a lesser extent Jeremy Menez, but in Europe the Frenchman needs to decide on what he considers to be his strongest front three.
One of the other main reasons for confidence ahead of a possible deep run in this year’s edition of the Champions League is the change in formation that he has overseen.
The three-man midfield that he has introduced at PSG has made the French champions’ midfield one of the most productive and feared units on the continent right now. It also requires Blanc to have a third player alongside Ibrahimovic and Cavani.
Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti’s ability to dictate the pace of games, such as the 3-0 victory over SL Benfica mentioned by Opta Jean, puts them on a par with Barcelona and Bayern Munich’s men in the middle.
Few sides in Europe will be able to cope with that level of ball retention.
Although PSG have conceded five goals already, compared to last season’s three in the group stages, the defence remains relatively unchanged.
However, the permanent introduction of Gregory van der Wiel at right-back has made the team more prolific going forward and is another key feature of the 4-3-3 system.
Those two goals more that the team have conceded in this campaign so far are negated by the fact that two more have been scored this year. Last season’s end-of-group-stage total was 14, but this time it is 16 and that owes largely to van der Wiel, who has weighed in with four assists.
Considering how the group stages ended, with a narrow home victory over Olympiakos and a defeat with an under-strength team to Benfica in Portugal, PSG arguably needed to challenge themselves against a higher calibre of opposition after losing their focus somewhat.
In Bayer Leverkusen, they will find this greater level of quality.
The true test will then come if they can dispose of the Germans and then land one of the bigger sides left in the Champions League.
With Barcelona facing Manchester City and Arsenal taking on Bayern Munich, two ties featuring teams that boast similarly dominant midfields to PSG, some European giants will be eliminated at this stage.
Considering the teams comprising the last 16 of this season’s competition though, PSG have no reason to fear anybody in particular after last term’s showing. In Blanc, they also have an experienced coach with an excellent record at this level.
With all due respect to Leverkusen, the route to the quarterfinals is relatively favourable for Blanc and his players. Going one better than last year and reaching the semi-finals is not too ambitious a target at this point and it must be considered a realistic aim.
However, the 1-1 group stage draw with RSC Anderlecht back in November should serve as a reminder to PSG that every opponent must be respected at this level.
If the Parisians want the chance to rub shoulders with the likes of the other European giants in the next round, then they must first dispose of a Leverkusen side who should not be underestimated, despite being a seemingly straightforward task.
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