With one eye on their upcoming midweek clash with Chelsea in the Champions League and a healthy 10-point gap from title rivals AS Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain can be forgiven for not being at their best on Friday night.
They played most of the game in second gear, but it was still enough to earn another three points with a 1-0 away win at OGC Nice.
Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani tried his hardest to claim the winning goal. However, the slow-motion replays clearly showed the last touch coming off Nice defender Timothee Kolodziejczak.
Cavani will have to wait to notch his 15th goal of the season, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s flick will not count as his 12th assist, but the most important outcome from Friday was to take all three points and not pick up any injuries.
Laurent Blanc made three changes with Wednesday night in mind. In came Lucas Digne for Maxwell at left-back, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti started the game on the bench, with Javier Pastore and Yohan Cabaye partnering Thiago Motta in the midfield.
There was a sign of respect towards Claude Puel’s Nice side, as Blanc started with his normal attacking trident of Ezequiel Lavezzi lining up beside Cavani and Ibrahimovic.
The match was late to get started as the vibrant and vocal Nice support coated Salvatore Sirigu’s goal with reels of toilet paper; the stewards tried in vain to remove the streams of white paper, only for the fans to continue the assault.
The royal eagle mascot was another Nice fan that wasn’t ready to cooperate on the night. As part of the pre-match entertainment, he left his handler’s glove but decided he wanted a bird’s-eye view of the match and perched himself high in the Allianz Riviera rafters, refusing to come down.
He would have been happy with what he saw, as the home side put in a spirited first 45 minutes.
Without the control and passing ability of Verratti in the middle of the park, PSG struggled to gain as much of the early play as they would have hoped, and they were nearly made to pay on the 11th minute.
Valentine Eysseric curled a beautiful in-swinging free-kick: It was aimed to the back post and found Argentine striker Dario Cvitanich unmarked. Before he could wheel away in celebration, the assistant referee had correctly put up his flag, indicating that a number of Nice players were offside when the ball was played.
Overall, it was a quiet night for Ibrahimovic and Cavani; they rarely combined to any great effect, and the Uruguayan's best chance came when the impressive Digne drilled in a dangerous cross from the left. The striker was only inches away from getting on the end of it.
Blanc will have been delighted with the performance of his defence: 19-year-old Marquinhos has looked every part a worthy starter in the last two weeks. His displays have given him a great chance to line up against Chelsea next week. Rarely did he look in any trouble, and he showed calmness and composure whenever Nice threatened to cause the back line any problems.
Alongside Marquinhos, fellow Brazilian Thiago Silva dispelled any doubts that he would miss the Chelsea clash, playing with a mask to protect his broken cheekbone; the PSG captain didn’t look in any discomfort and his leadership will be vital on Wednesday night.
Nice couldn’t find a way past the 29-year-old: Their best chance came after a mazy run from former PSG midfielder Mathieu Bodmer, but he could only shoot straight at Sirigu after a wonderful solo run.
For all of Nice’s endeavour and enthusiasm, they never looked like causing the Parisians any real threat. It may not have been PSG’s strongest defensive line-up, but impressive performances from both Digne and Christophe Jallet helped protect Silva and Marquinhos, and Sirigu never had to make a telling save.
The pace of the game slowed in the second half and PSG took full control. The midfield lacked its normal pace and drive, with the absence of Blaise Matuidi very evident.
Only seven minutes of the second half had passed when PSG got their goal. Javier Pastore played a clever pass into the box, Ibrahimovic knocked it into the air and, under pressure from Cavani, defender Kolodziejczak tried to clear but could only knock the ball into his own net.
Cabaye made only his third league start in a PSG shirt. However, the former Lille midfielder failed to put any pressure on Blanc to make a change to his normal midfield trio. His performance was adequate but without truly taking control of the game, lacking that same invention that he showed at Newcastle United and Lille.
With the game all but beyond Nice, Blanc brought on both Matuidi and Verratti in the second half, the pace slowed significantly, and PSG were able to control the midfield and take the sting out of the home side's attacks.
After the game, Blanc spoke to Ligue1.com. Although he was satisfied with the result, the performance wasn’t quite to his liking:
This is a very important victory for the championship. There were a lot of good things in this match, but we also wasted a lot of chances. The problem is we don't move fast enough in attack. We have to be a lot more ruthless in the opposition penalty box. We need to fix that before Wednesday's Champions League match against Chelsea.
We came here looking for the result, and while we didn't play well, we got the job done. The matches before a Champions League game are always difficult so it's a good thing that we got the three points tonight. I said the best way to prepare for Chelsea was to win tonight. It wasn't our best game, but you have to know how to win games like this."
The second goal never came, and Nice threatened from a couple of set pieces; however, they failed to force Sirigu into action.
PSG just about deserved all three points, and they lead Monaco by 13 points. They will now enjoy an extended rest before welcoming Chelsea to the Parc des Princes on Wednesday night.
Apart from the three points, the most important part of Friday’s game was to come out of the match with no new injuries. Matuidi and Verratti were able to enjoy a quiet night. Ibrahimovic and Cavani played another 90 minutes together without ever having to move into top gear.
Blanc will be delighted to go into Wednesday’s game without any more worries. He will be even more delighted to prepare for next week 13 points clear of Monaco. Mission accomplished.