Adrien Rabiot Must Be the Standard-Bearer of the New, New PSG

Sam Rooke@@SamRooke89Featured ColumnistNovember 18, 2016

France's midfielder Adrien Rabiot controls the ball during the friendly football match France vs Ivory Coast on November 15, 2016 at the Bollaert stadium in Lens.  / AFP / FRANCK FIFE        (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)
FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

By this point in the 2015/16 season, Paris Saint-Germain were in the midst of a nine-match winning streak and headed the table, 10 points clear of nearest challengers Olympique Lyonnais.

Twelve months later, Les Parisiens sit third behind surprise leaders Nice and early pacesetters AS Monaco. 

Mario Balotelli, the brash, flashy, physically dominant centre-forward who has inspired Lucien Favre's Aiglons to the summit, must awaken feelings of nostalgia among the PSG faithful. 

After all, he is reminiscent of their own. 

A heroic figure, an immortal in the hearts of the fans and forever enshrined in the club's record books—Zlatan Ibrahimovic is merely a memory.

The man whose cockiness and utter on-pitch dominance embodied the first phase of the new Paris Saint-Germain, Ibrahimovic is gone. 

In his absence, his former team-mates have soldiered on but lack the swagger that defined them for the past four seasons. 

Domestic rivals have strengthened while Paris have faltered. 

Leonardo Jardim's focus on youth at Monaco is bearing fruit, Favre has improved upon Claude Puel's foundations and PSG boss Unai Emery's tinkering looks positively uninspired by comparison. 

Francois Mori/Associated Press

This iteration of PSG is straddling two eras. 

The first generation of Galactiques is moving on, and the next phase is still being assembled. 

Emery has the unfortunate role of playing midwife to the new generation while trying to maintain the club's domestic fiefdom.

Key to his plans and the aspirations of the club going forward is Adrien Rabiot

A club like PSG must tread a fine line between its aspirations to join the elite and the potential reality of becoming more brand than football club. 

With that balancing act in mind, it is vitally important that the next face of PSG be a local.

French certainly. Parisian ideally. Rabiot is both.

Every nouveau-riche club faces the same criticism of buying success. PSG are no different.

There can be no denying the fact the club's budget dwarfs those of the rest of France's top flight, but the fact an academy player can break into the first team provides a link to its past.

The last graduate of the Camp des Loges to make a lasting impact at senior level was Mamadou Sakho.

His unceremonious departure, having been supplanted in the starting lineup by Brazilian duo Marquinhosand Thiago Silva, only served to strengthen the arguments of Paris' critics.

The elevation of Rabiot, at the club since age 15, draws a line under that unfortunate business. 

Francois Mori/Associated Press

While Marco Verratti assumed the position of most influential player at the Parc des Princes after Ibrahimovic's summer departure, Rabiot has a larger part to play. 

Already among PSG's best players, the midfielder stands to become the on-field face of the club in this new era.

Verratti himself believes Rabiot is destined for greatness. 

The diminutive Italian told the assembled press as much after Rabiot's excellent display against FC Basel in the Champions League, saying: "In the future, he will be one of the best midfielders in the world."

The 21-year-old is already a key part of Emery's side, as he was for Laurent Blanc before him.

80% - Paris have won 80% of their competitive games with Adrien Rabiot starting since 2013/14 (65/81), 67% without him (73/109). Injured.

— OptaJean (@OptaJean) November 17, 2016

Now a full France international, Rabiot is being recognised for the uncommon maturity and poise he brings in midfield, as well as an elegance reminiscent of Yoann Gourcuff in his all-too-brief pomp. 

Tall and graceful, he moves without great pace and utilises little flair as he emphasises economy of movement with and without the ball.

That is not to say that he doesn't run, but he does so with a disarming ease that tempts you to forget it.

This season, he is averaging four defensive interventions per game and one decisive pass, according to WhoScored.com.

Rabiot lacks the larger-than-life personality of Ibrahimovic, but he can embody the club's other qualities. Namely, footballing excellence.

The injury he suffered on his debut for Les Bleus against the Ivory Coast on Tuesday is particularly poorly timed. According to L'Equipe, Rabiot will miss the Champions League Group A decider against Arsenal, as well as the hugely significant trip to face OL at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais. 

Arsenal Boosted as PSG Midfielder Adrien Rabiot Confirms He Will Miss Champions League

https://t.co/ydPwXDPCfR pic.twitter.com/cqD2eDEiyu

— Ed Rampersaud (@eddyfrcharlstwn) November 17, 2016

He could be out until after the new year, but while he will suffer on the sidelines, his team-mates will also feel the pain.

PSG are set to confront a phenomenally busy period of 10 games in little over a month that they must navigate without Rabiot's calming influence.

The impression he has already made this season will only grow in his injury-enforced absence.

Of course, Rabiot could have emerged as the face of another of Europe's newly minted superclubs. He spent an ill-fated six months with Manchester City in 2008 before departing under a cloud. Riath Al-Samarrai of MailOnline suggested in April that homesickness was the cause of his sudden departure but, as ever in his young career, mother Veronique was at the centre of things. 

Paul Doyle of the Guardian reported earlier this year that his mother was displeased at City's handling of her son's development and acted swiftly to remedy the situation. 

Veronique recently threatened that her son would play for Algeria if he were not selected in Didier Deschamps' France squad before long. 

While one might be tempted to be critical of these repeated interventions, Rabiot's emergence as a key player for the country's biggest club and his recent international debut suggest that she knows what she is doing. 

Rabiot's medal collection, he has won 10 trophies already, eclipses that of Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, yet he is only just getting started. 

Thibault Camus/Associated Press

His omission from Les Bleus' squad for Euro 2016 was a disappointment, but having now made his way into Deschamps' plans, he is likely to be a starter by the 2018 World Cup, and that could be the competition in which he begins to weave his international legend. 

Before then, Rabiot has the time to carve out his reputation as the embodiment of the next phase of the PSG project.

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