PARC DES PRINCES, PARIS — Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s injury in the 66th minute of Paris Saint-Germain’s 3-1 UEFA Champions League win over Chelsea on Wednesday signalled the end for the French champions’ hopes of beating Jose Mourinho’s men over two legs.
Or so most people thought.
However, what happened after the talismanic Swede was taken off at the Parc des Princes should actually encourage them ahead of next week’s return at Stamford Bridge. Laurent Blanc’s side actually played better without him than they had done with him for most of the game up until that point.
The hysteria that had surrounded Ibrahimovic before the match proved too much for even the majestic 32-year-old to handle, and he was inconspicuous, bordering on the invisible, for the entire time he was on the pitch.
His strike partner Edinson Cavani did not fare much better. In fact, the Uruguayan international was more effective in defence than he was going forward. Between them, the pair failed to muster a single shot on target.
A damning appraisal for two of the world’s most feted and, not to mention, expensive goal-getters. Yet Ibrahimovic’s injury is going to open up an opportunity for El Matador to once again prove himself for PSG, having lost his way in the French capital over recent weeks.
Cavani’s build-up to the game was overshadowed by the revelations published by L’Equipe, where he admitted to being unhappy at being played out of position and appeared to question the club’s hierarchy over his mistreatment.
Now, perversely, PSG need the South American more than ever despite his public criticism of the club.
Ibrahimovic’s absence will affect the Parisians in many ways, but the most significant impact it will have is that it will ensure that Cavani is moved into a more central position ahead of the second leg, assuming that the Swede does miss out.
PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi was quick to speak with the media after the match, revealing that he expects Ibrahimovic to be out for at least the next leg.
PSG’s left-back, Zlatan’s teammate and close friend Maxwell expressed after full-time that the chances of the team’s leader being fit for the return leg are slim.
Coach Blanc was also fearful with initial speculation suggesting that the towering striker will miss at least the next few weeks.
Thinking in terms of the second leg of this tie, the impact of Ibrahimovic’s potential absence could be severe.
Performance-wise at the Parc des Princes on Wednesday, the 25-goal Ligue 1 top scorer was not there, yet his influence on the team is undeniable. PSG without Ibrahimovic at Stamford Bridge will be more vulnerable than they would be with him there.
Conversely though, they might now be able to field the sort of starting XI that will get the job done in southwest London.
With no Ibrahimovic to dominate proceedings, Blanc can select Cavani in his favoured central role that he has been desperate to return to in recent weeks. Le President can also integrate the jet-heeled Lucas Moura, who added some much-needed late vibrancy to PSG’s performance on Wednesday, on the right.
Ezequiel Lavezzi, the French champions’ star man on the night with one brilliantly well-taken goal and an assist, will surely reprise his role on the left after once again underlining his importance to the team.
Those two on either side of Cavani will allow PSG to be more direct and will pose Mourinho’s side a greater threat of conceding the crucial next goal in this tie.
The side from the French capital cannot park the bus. Blanc does not have the sort of player needed for that at his disposal, so that idea is immediately out of the window.
Therefore, attack is going to be the best form of defence for PSG and that means making the attack more potent than it was for large parts of the first leg.
Chelsea might pin them back at Stamford Bridge, going for the jugular from the off in order to gain some early momentum, but Cavani, Lavezzi and Moura would make the Parisians far more dangerous on the counter-attack. The first leg already showed that the Blues cannot handle the pace of PSG’s wide players.
Although Ibrahimovic’s potential absence would be a big blow in terms of the influence that he brings, it could actually swing the tie in PSG’s favour as they will now be able to play the sort of attacking unit needed to kill off this sort of match.
Crazy as it might be to say this about a player who has scored 10 goals in the Champions League alone so far, him being unavailable for next week’s return leg is not such a bad thing.
The worst part of it is that, in all likelihood, the injury could have been avoided by resting Ibrahimovic in the build-up to this game or in the second leg of the Bayer Leverkusen clash. That puts his participation in the Coupe de la Ligue final, as well as any potential European semi-final, in jeopardy.
In the short term, PSG can deal with Ibrahimovic’s absence and arguably get past Chelsea in the next round. The big question is: Can they cope without him after that?