With no semi-final hero Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Paris Saint-Germain against Olympique Lyonnais in the Coupe de la Ligue final on Saturday, Edinson Cavani was saddled with the burden of firing the French champions to their first domestic cup success of the Qatar Sports Investments era.
The Uruguayan did not disappoint.
Cavani struck twice in the first-half as PSG ran out 2-1 winners at the Stade de France to secure the capital club’s fourth success in the trophy’s 20-year history, making the Parisians the most decorated side in French League Cup history. The 27-year-old also became only the third player to score a double in the final, following in the footsteps of club legend Pauleta.
Injured star Ibrahimovic was not far from the players' thoughts on Saturday. Blaise Matuidi immediately dedicated the win to the super Swede, whose brilliant double against FC Nantes in the semi-final ensured PSG’s place in the final.
Captain Thiago Silva then paid tribute to his longtime teammate by posing for a picture with the 32-year-old’s shirt and the Coupe de la Ligue trophy on the club's official website.
But make no mistake; it was Cavani’s night.
El Matador finally emerged from the shadow of his illustrious strike partner after a difficult start to 2014. The South American was in superlative form up until the Christmas break but since then has struggled to hit the same heights and has come in for criticism recently.
Cavani finally showed the hunger, passion and confidence that were missing as PSG crashed out of the UEFA Champions League to Chelsea at the quarter-final stage last week, putting in a superb first-half performance.
In fact, the opening 45 minutes will rank as some of the best collective football that PSG have played all season.
The former Napoli man needed just four minutes to open the scoring, prodding home after an excellent dinked ball from Maxwell after a clever exchange with Ezequiel Lavezzi on the left. It was not the most outrageous of strikes, but it finally saw Cavani embracing his role as the focal point of the team.
Although he still drifted wide on occasion at the Stade de France, the Uruguayan international was in the right place at the right time when it really mattered. Although there was a hint of an Arnold Mvuemba deflection in the finish, the confidence boost that the goal gave the PSG No. 9 was clear for all to see.
Reinvigorated by the goal, Cavani was all of a sudden back to being the player that the Ligue 1 leaders splashed €64 million on last summer. He looked alive; full of fight and his body language was unrecognisable compared to the shell of a player that he had become in recent weeks.
That confidence was no more evident than when el Matador sweetly caught a sumptuous volley from outside the area, only for the 'keeper to save well.
Twelve minutes before half-time, Cavani had his second of the night.
Lucas Moura was brought down on the edge of the area by a clumsy challenge, but referee Stephane Lannoy controversially awarded Laurent Blanc’s side the penalty. Cavani stepped up to take it and dispatched it emphatically, doubling his and PSG’s tally with a rout looking on the cards.
That wasn’t to be, although it could and perhaps should have been. The South American missed a gilt-edged chance to seal his treble moments after scoring the second, but he instead skied the ball after an excellent run and pass from Lucas.
Alexandre Lacazette would go on to halve the deficit for Lyon in the second half—scoring a superb solo goal—while Cavani was quiet as PSG took their foot off the gas. However, the damage was already done and Remi Garde’s side were unable to haul themselves back on level terms.
Cavani was voted man of the match, as per the French club's official website, as the Parisians offered a glimpse of the future without Ibrahimovic. Although the team were not as fluid without him, they proved that—with the Uruguayan leading the line—they can still win the biggest of games without the Swede.
Saturday’s double takes Cavani to 24 goals from 40 appearances across all competitions for PSG this season, despite this being widely considered as one of his worst campaigns to date. At €64 million, he still has some way to go to fully pay off that price tag but scoring cup and league-winning goals is the best way to do that.
The 27-year-old is not yet ready to fully become the team’s focal point in place of Ibrahimovic, but he has now proved that he is capable of it. The Swede is going nowhere, but the Uruguayan is now also likely to stay put.
A late burst of goals to seal the club’s first-ever back-to-back Ligue titles would put Cavani in strong position when the debate over the pair’s compatibility inevitably resurfaces this summer.