Photograph courtesy of Zimbio
Sir Natty reporting from the Stade Auguste Delaune…find him on twitter at @Marc_Desailly
It’s Friday night in France, the opening weekend of the new Ligue Un season. On one side, Stade de Reims, a reconstructed 2014 version of the famous old club which competed for honours in the heady old days of the European Cup with stars such as Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa. While the history remains, the stars are long gone – today they congregate in the city of lights. As the only professional football side in France’s biggest city, PSG’s history, including the oil-rich years, has been rather unremarkable. For in a summer in which they exhausted their entire limit set out by UEFA on one player, Paris St. Germain actually looked like a side short of quality in the most relevant areas whilst at the same time showing the obvious gulf (no pun intended) in ability between they and the other sides in the Ligue.
I decided to watch the game on TV rather than rely on a stream from one of the numerous betting websites that host such games. The regional broadcaster only showed the game on one channel (TV5 Le Monde) and due to my limited (or non-existent…) knowledge of the language, I had to settle for the commentary in the most colloquial of French.
Strangely, it made me enjoy the game more, free of the usual commentator-curses and bias that wreck many an English language game. I could still pick out one or two comments about certain players (ADM for a start) but that was rather outside the immediate context of the game.
It has always been an issue when clubs kick-off their league campaigns at the tail end of the summer transfer window. Players are still getting the beach out of their heads, thus cohesion and focus are at a low ebb. Some players are playing for moves away and others still for a spot in the team hence the lack of uniform motivation.
The game begins with one of the most underwhelming kickoffs in recent memory. Or maybe that was due to some unfair expectation on my part. After all, what did I really think? That a manic PSG would set about Reims in a manner reminiscent of 2013/2014’s Bayern? It didn’t quite start like that but there was some early goalmouth action. Cavani was put clean through on goal but proceeded to finish like his namesake, Edinson Cavani. While a player of undoubted quality, his erratic finishing often leaves a lot to be desired. The man just struggles in any squad where he isn’t the main man (BigTimeCharlie Syndrome?).
Just a few minutes later, the Main Man himself was presented with a similar chance and he finished with such grace that you really began to wonder if PSG were going to walk away with. Cavani had time to prefix the most curious and puzzling 15 minutes of football ever seen with another display of finishing hardly in keeping with his bloated reputation (I exaggerate but still…).
First off, Lucas Moura, another South American seemingly lost in Paris, cuts out a wayward backpass and beats the lumbering defender who in his own interests (and probably of his team as well), backs out of a challenge, leaving Moura racing through on goal. To his left is the team’s spiritual leader who he may square the ball to for yet another plaudit-taking brace after only 15 minutes of the new season. Moura probably then has an epiphany; why pass to Him when I can show my worth and commitment to the team by scoring on the opening day? While processing these thoughts, the goalkeeper swarms him and wins the ball cleanly. In a world without rules, a furious Zlatan probably kung-fu kicks Lucas in the head for his indiscretion. However, even Zlatan respects the law and instead spends the next 30 seconds gesturing at Lucas who sheepishly seeks out the safety of the right wing, far away from Zlatan. Still livid and certainly short of concentration, Ibrahimovic gets back onside as soon as PSG win the ball with Verrati. The Italian then runs between the defensive line and Ibra doubles back and follows his run quickly. Perhaps after monitoring furious exchange in the previous passage of play, Veratti smartly rolls the ball to Zlatan in a move more in place in football simulation video games. Zlatan strikes at the empty net and as I jump in exclamation, the ball strikes the upright! The mischievous camera director zooms to Zlatan’s facial expression, before panning to a nervous looking Moura – Zlatan’s miss is probably his fault, and so on…
At this point, Reims is in sixes and sevens and PSG rampant. Another through ball sends Zlatan down the left channel of the box. He crumples under no contact…PENALTY! How Stephanne Lannoy saw that as anything but is anyone’s guess but it makes one wonder how much influence Zlatan has in french football (personality-wise). In life, there are three certainties – death, taxes and Zlatan-scores-a-penalty. Mentally, it’s 2-0 and PSG are in the middle of yet another Ligue Un stroll. The Main Man, never a purveyor of self-doubt, places the ball, steps back in trademark regal fashion and takes aim. It’s surely destined for the bottom left hand side… of the goalkeeper’s glove! I half expected the camera to zoom to Moura again – it’s his fault and Zlatan can do no wrong. I personally haven’t seen him take a worse penalty, although all credit to the goalkeeper for guessing the right way.
A few minutes later with the pair of commentators still jabbering away at the incredulity of what they had just witnessed, Reims wins a freekick. Zlatan is marking the near post but with as much authority as the Queen of England has over her subjects in Scotland) – he’s there but not really. A whipped ball flies in beyond him, Marquinhos and Pastore…BANG! Prince Oniangue is away in jubilant celebration and the crowd goes wild. It’s off his shin, it’s not offside and Sirigu doesn’t look like he even feels like blaming anyone.
Play resumes and PSG is in possession. Pastore…Verrati…Cavani…Ibra…back to Thiago Silva, onto Moura, Van der wiel joins in… goalkick. They try again on the other side but Digne seems to be having some difficulty either with finding the final ball or getting past his man. A very disjointed performance all-round from the reigning champions and as a neutral I look forward to something to give the game a kick.
The football gods answer my prayers and Reims score again with a neat combination between Antoine Devaux and a chap called Charbonnier (whom by the way the commentary team kept going on and on and ON about like he was the next best thing in France, baguette notwithstanding: All I saw was a right footed version of Olivier Giroud in terms of style but I leave it to you to decide whether that’s a good thing or not). With halftime looming, and the game’s entertainment value already in steep decline, I begin composing this.
It’s hard to tell what type of season PSG will have based on their performance in the game but the most pertinent issue must be their overreliance on Ibra. While it’s not quite as bad as wee Lionel piggybacking Barcelona from two seasons ago (the irony is surely not lost on Zlatan), it is concerning enough to warrant marquee signings in the mould of Neymar and Suarez to share the load a bit. However, PSG, due to FFP, cannot go down that route but still have ambitions of reaching the higher echelons of European football.
In midweek, a former coach of Zlatan’s (I couldn’t verify who; some articles quoted it as a former Juve coach and others as a swedish coach…so probably his agent) said that Zlatan was fed up in Paris and yearned for a return to the Old Lady. While it might be true that French football might be proving too easy and repetitive for Zlatan (who by the way scored a brace last weekend vs Guingamp in the Far east super cup), a mercenary of some repute, it might also be a ploy to boost wages. Hardly unreasonable, seeing as his performances are more or less paying everyone else’s wages! Despite the rumours, it’s hard to see the Swede shunning new money for the Old Lady whose highest paid player, Buffon, earns in a year what Zlatan takes home in 4 months. His agent could do better.
Despite watching Marquinhos yesterday, it still defies logic that they spent FIFTY MILLION SOLID POUNDS (if they paid in full, Chelsea must be laughing) on a defender to partner Thiago Silva. Not that Marquinhos was poor (he wasn’t very good though) – he’s obviously a very talented defender – but that the combination of the Mineirao debacle and more pressing concerns elsewhere have left them scrabbling in the transfer window.
That money now looks like it could have been better spent on a player like Angel Di Maria who would certainly fit excellently in a PSG system that is begging for a free-playing attacking midfielder. The absence of Blaise Matuidi was also surprising, especially in light of France’s quarter final exit at the world cup. Aurier should replace Van der Wiel as a (sigh) replacement for club icon Jallet who has departed for Lyon in search of greener pastures; all that oil must rile him. If PSG cannot sign that number 10 they so desire, an alternative may be pushing Verrati further upfield where his ill-discipline is not shown up quite as much. He is also an excellent dribbler of the ball and this move might free up more playing time for Chantome or Cabaye who are sadly beginning to look like Home-grown rule squad elements.
PSG starts the second half with a high line pressing for an equaliser but that seemed to offer Reims more space to attack and they were lucky not to concede a 3rd. Zlatan came to the rescue, scoring a rather fortuitous goal as the game petered into torpor. The commentary drizzled in and out in the second half with both commentators probably digesting what they had seen and not seen and what they expected in the season. Special mention must go to Diego Rigonato who I saw a lot of, but not enough to ascertain how influential he will be in the coming season.
I wonder whether PSG can still squeeze out a little more money by selling someone (eg Cavani /Lavezzi/ Moura/Pastore) and get Di Maria as it is difficult to see them setting anywhere alight this season if such dour and ineffective performance are to be the norm. Then again, it’s the start of the season so maybe I’m a bit harsh. I fully expect them to walk Ligue Un but Qatar will be expecting more than a dash of flair this time.
Zlatan of the Match: Ibrahimovic (sigh)
Not-Zlatan Man of the Match: Prince Oniangue