Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paris Saint-Germain put one foot in the quarter-finals of the Champions League—and perhaps sent something of a message to the rest of the competition—as they beat Bayer Leverkusen 4-0 in Germany on Tuesday evening.
Blaise Matuidi’s strike after just three minutes gave Laurent Blanc’s side an early advantage, one they built upon as Ibrahimovic struck twice in three minutes shortly before half-time.
The first was from the penalty spot but the second has a typical piece of genius from the Swede—a 25-yard rocket of a strike that left Leverkusen’s hopes in tatters.
Then, in the closing minutes, substitute Yohan Cabaye finished off a sweeping team move to grab his first goal for his new club and effectively book their place in the next round.
With PSG at home for the second leg in three weeks’ time, it would take a turnaround of historic proportions for Leverkusen to turn things around.
Speaking afterward to Sky Sports, Cabaye said:
The first half was great, we were winning 3-0, so I was happy to see that kind of performance from the team and I was looking forward to coming on.
I think it is a step forward for me. I have a lot of respect for my old team-mates at Newcastle, but now I am playing for the title in France and in the Champions League.
There is a long way to go. We have a great team and all the players want to win every competition and we are just working for that.
If the German side, currently second in the Bundesliga, was up against it beforehand, then its task increased in difficulty after barely three minutes. Some slack defending allowed Matuidi to break from midfield beyond the back line, and the France international made no mistake as he opened his body up and passed his shot inside the far post.
Bernd Leno got a fingertip on it, but was unable to prevent it slipping in.
From that point onward, it became the Zlatan Ibrahimovic show. Initially the mercurial Swede appeared to be off his game, as he rocketed a free-kick into the wall and saw his team-mates, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Matuidi, beat him into key positions in the box to have further attempts at goal.
Yet the Leverkusen defence looked tentative and disorganised most of the time, and ultimately it was its shortcomings that would allow Ibrahimovic to get his name on the scoresheet.
The home side was struggling to keep with runners into the box and eventually that pressure proved too much for the experienced Emir Spahic, as he seemed to pull Lavezzi down as the Argentine nipped in front of him at the near post—a mild infraction that the referee had no hesitation in penalising.
Given the chance to give his side a vice-like grip on the tie the unflappable Ibrahimovic made no mistake, beating Leno low to the goalkeeper’s right.
If that was a straightforward finish by his own high standards, then three minutes later Ibrahimovic produced a finish that, if fairly commonplace for him, would be one of the career highlights of any other player.
Again Matuidi was at the centre of the goal, laying the ball back for Ibrahimovic to unleash a hammer drive from 25 yards that never appeared to be going anywhere but the top corner.
Three goals ahead at half-time, the tie already appeared to be effectively over—with Leverkusen manager Sami Hyypia perhaps forgiven for switching to a “damage limitation” approach. The Finn instead opted for a different tack, bringing on Julian Brandt and Stefan Reinartz to change his side’s dynamic in midfield.
There were some signs of a reaction to that move—Matuidi forced into one crucial challenge to deny Sidney Sam a great opening—but any hope of a remarkable comeback was effectively extinguished shortly before the hour mark, as Spahic received his marching orders.
The central defender had been booked for his role in the first-half penalty and picked up a second caution after appearing to push Lucas Moura in the face as the two chased the ball down the right. He also bitterly protested the award of a free-kick, a show of dissent that did not help any claim he might have had to stay on the pitch.
That numerical disadvantage did not curb Leverkusen’s desire to push forward, but in the end they needed some good fortune to avoid an even more embarrassing scoreline. With 20 minutes remaining Matuidi thought he had his second via the end of a comical deflection off a defender, but the linesman adjudged Lavezzi to be in an offside position and interfering with play, sparing Leverkusen a four-goal deficit.
Leno was then forced into a fine save to prevent Pastore converting Ibrahimovic’s brilliant low cross, as Leverkusen appeared to be holding on in the closing stages.
They could not go the distance, however, and the final goal surely ended their chances of reaching the last eight. It was Cabaye—making his Champions League debut for the club—that got the goal but it was a true team effort, with clever passing from Ibrahimovic, Maxwell and Lucas eventually setting up the midfielder to side-foot a pinpoint effort into the top corner.
"We had a good start and when you are one goal up, it's easier, it gives you space," Ibrahimovic said afterward, per AFP. "We had a good first half and continued to play our game after the break, when they played with one less, so it was a good day."
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The second leg takes place in Paris on March 12.
Before that, PSG can focus on Ligue action—with games against Toulouse (a), Marseille (h) and Bastia (a) all set to be key in their title push.
Leverkusen, meanwhile, face games with Wolfsburg (a), Mainz (h) and Hannover (a), as they bid to keep hold of second place in the Bundesliga.
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