It was a good week for the top two, with both Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco picking up important wins to ensure that the gap at the top stays at five points and no larger.
The French champions won, 4-2, at Toulouse on Sunday, the perfect riposte to Les Monegasques’ dramatic 3-2 win over bogey side Stade de Reims in the principality on Friday night.
ASM’s victory cut the gap to just two points prior to PSG’s success, but Laurent Blanc’s men shook off any symptoms of a continental hangover to ensure that they remain in charge. Claudio Ranieri’s side were less convincing in terms of the score, but both shipped two goals.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was in an unforgiving mood, helping himself to three of the capital club’s four goals in Toulouse, while Monaco boasted three different scorers in Valere Germain, Jeremy Toulalan and Layvin Kurzawa.
Edinson Cavani was still absent for PSG, although, he is expected to return for Le Classique next week against Olympique de Marseille. However, Radamel Falcao’s replacement at Monaco, Dimitar Berbatov, did make it onto the pitch for ASM on Friday.
With two of Ligue 1’s three star strikers in action this weekend, let’s take a closer look at how they fared.
Coming off the back of a two-goal haul away at Bayer Leverkusen in the UEFA Champions League in midweek, Ibrahimovic could have been forgiven for being a little sluggish. But although he was far from his usual best in Toulouse, he still had more than enough in the tank to take that tally for the week to five in all competitions.
The Swede’s second league hat-trick of the season may not live long in the memory, seeing as it featured two penalties, but the points it garnered are absolutely vital.
Monaco’s win on Friday and their subsequent celebration of it proved that Les Monegasques still have serious designs on stealing PSG’s Ligue 1 crown, but Ibrahimovic shot those hopes down by remaining composed enough to bag a treble in a game of massive importance to Blanc’s side.
Aside from the two penalties, one a clever finish that deceived impressive TFC goalkeeper Zacharie Boucher and the other a failed Panenka that was too clever for its own good and stabbed in at the second attempt, the 32-year-old had a quiet game.
24 - Zlatan Ibrahimovic has converted each of his last 24 penalties in the league (Serie A + Ligue 1). Expert.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) February 23, 2014
In one of his two best chances of the game, both headers, the talismanic Swede nodded home a powerful effort from a perfect Yohan Cabaye free-kick in the second half. It was all he needed to do to ensure that PSG would be restoring their five-point lead at the summit.
Occasionally involved in the build-up play, he produced some useful passes and one excellent cross that really should have been buried by captain Thiago Silva from point-blank range.
Apart from that, it was a quiet day for Ibra, as it was for many of his teammates.
It was far from vintage from the towering striker, but in the form that he is in, almost everything he touches turns to goals.
Sunday’s treble moved him from 19 to 22 goals for the season, just eight away from equaling last campaign’s total haul of 30 that has not been done since 1989-1990 by Marseille’s Jean-Pierre Papin.
Incredibly, that is nine goals better off than his closest rival in the scoring charts, Alexandre Lacazette of Olympique Lyonnais, who has 13 goals. However, seven of those 22 are from the penalty spot, and the status of his third on the day against Toulouse as a goal from open play is debatable.
What is not up for debate, though, is that Ibrahimovic now has exactly the same number of goals he did at this time last year. He will never have a better chance to score more than 30 in a Ligue 1 season and possibly set a record than even he cannot beat.
Rating: 4/5. It was not his brilliant best, but he still showed the character to involve himself at the crucial moments to make the telling contributions.
While Berbatov has already scored once for Monaco in the Coupe de France, the Bulgarian is yet to make a full start for the principality outfit in Le Championnat.
Considering that he was only given 10 minutes at the end of ASM’s 3-2 win over Reims on Friday, it would be unfair to give him a rating. However, he did show plenty of commitment and a willingness to track back and defend, which is something you don’t normally associate with Berbatov.
For 80 minutes, he sulked on the bench, waiting for his chance to come on. When introduced, he worked hard and returned to his own half to retrieve the ball in the same way that Cavani often does for PSG.
It might not have been much, but it is an encouraging sign that he is prepared to put in such an effort. He was also well-placed to snap up James Rodriguez’s shot that rebounded off the post, but Kurzawa got there first.
Once fully fit, Berbatov will likely find himself starting, considering the poor form shown by Emmanuel Riviere in recent weeks. The Frenchman was particularly flagrant in front of goal against Reims.
While Ibrahimovic has the return of Cavani to look forward to, as well as a clash with PSG’s bitter rivals, Olympique de Marseille, Berbatov and Monaco will be travelling to face third-place hopefuls AS Saint-Etienne.
The Swede is sure to be in for a battle with the OM back line, while the mercurial Bulgarian could prove the difference in unlocking a tight ASSE defence.
Cavani’s return will make PSG more dangerous going forward, while Monaco are waiting for Berbatov to reach his optimum level.
Next week promises to be a big week for all three of Ligue 1’s star attackers.
*All statistics are thanks to Ligue1.com.