With both Paris Saint-Germain teammate Edinson Cavani and AS Monaco’s Dimitar Berbatov absent, as well as a long-term injury keeping Les Monegasques’ Radamel Falcao out, PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the only one of Ligue 1’s big three star strikers in action this week.
Despite a back problem, the talismanic Swede still started the champions’ comfortable 3-0 win over Valenciennes at the Parc des Princes on Friday, bagging himself a goal before being substituted after 65 minutes.
Ibrahimovic now has 19 goals for the season and is just 11 shy of last season’s total haul of 30. Despite being far from at his best against Ariel Jacobs’ Championnat strugglers, he still managed to make an important contribution on two fronts.
84% - 16 of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's 19 league goals this season have been scored at the Parc des Princes. Garden.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) February 14, 2014
Coach Laurent Blanc’s gamble to use the 32-year-old in the absence of Cavani, despite his injury, ultimately proved to be a wise decision. Zlatan, although below par, still had a number of chances and also created a handful of openings for his teammates.
Starting with Ezequiel Lavezzi and Jeremy Menez on either side, the towering striker provided an indirect assist for the Argentine’s first-half opener. Ibrahimovic’s powerful free-kick was deflected into the path of Lavezzi, and El Pocho managed to bring it under control before scoring with an easy finish.
The Swede’s goal, when it came early in the second half, was a well-taken effort that came from a goal-bound Yohan Cabaye effort that he simply spun on and guided past Nicolas Penneteau in the Valenciennes goal.
His goal and role in the build-up to the opening strike was about the extent of his contribution toward the victory, though.
Otherwise, Ibrahimovic was mostly frustrated and spent large parts of the evening rebuking his teammates for a disjointed performance.
Menez, in particular, bore the brunt of the former AC Milan and Barcelona man’s criticism with another insipid display, but it was far from fluent football from the team as a whole despite the comprehensive-looking final score.
On a number of occasions, the rangy frontman was available and screaming for the ball, but Lavezzi or Menez often could not provide the simplest of passes.
Prior to the match, Ibra’s involvement was a point of debate, but Blanc used him in the best way possible, bringing him off once PSG were in a comfortable enough position.
This preservation of the Parisians’ star man, as well as the heavily rotated squad, was indicative of the fear that Blanc had of being deprived of the Swede’s services in the UEFA Champions League next week.
However, once the job was done, Le President withdrew Ibrahimovic in order to ensure that he will be ready to rediscover his best form uninhibited against Bayer Leverkusen. There were still signs during the 3-0 win that the Swede was still struggling with his movement.
Had Cavani been fit, then Ibrahimovic almost certainly would not have been risked for such a low-profile encounter, but the circumstances and the pressure created by last week’s draw away to Monaco dictated that PSG could not afford to risk the result.
Blanc went with the safest option, and it paid off, with the defending champions forcing Monaco to go to Corsica and rely on a spectacular James Rodriguez double to beat SC Bastia and keep the gap between the two at just five points.
However, the expectation will now be that Zlatan delivers a big performance in Leverkusen on Tuesday.
Depending on how the Champions League encounter with Leverkusen plays out, Ibrahimovic and PSG will have two difficult matches to navigate next week.
Assuming that he comes through the clash in Germany unscathed and that no further damage is done to his back, the prolific striker will also feature against Toulouse in Ligue 1 next Sunday.
Having seen Monaco whittle down the champions’ lead at the top of Le Championnat with that victory over Bastia, Blanc will be keen to play as full strength a side as possible in Southwestern France.
However, Cavani’s return is not thought to be realistic until the home clash with bitter rivals Olympique de Marseille the week after.
Although he will be loath to ask Ibrahimovic to approach the clash with Leverkusen cautiously, Blanc has little choice with such limited options available to him in the final third while El Matador is out injured.
Taking on OM in a heated grudge match possibly with neither Cavani or Ibrahimovic could invite Monaco to close the gap further at the top of the table.