By Robin Bairner
Edinson Cavani’s arrival at Paris Saint-Germain from Napoli in the summer coincided with Zlatan Ibrahimovic exit rumours reaching fever pitch. Logic dictated that it should be impossible for the duo to feature together in the same side, while using them in a rotation system was a non-starter given the ego of the Swede and money invested in the Uruguayan.
But Ibra would not be budged from Paris and in late September it was announced that he had signed a new contract carrying him through to 2016 with the capital club.
It was a remarkable turn of events given the vivacity whispers of his departure had taken on but, perhaps even more, the struggle head coach Laurent Blanc has had of shoehorning the two forwards into an effectively functioning unit.
Initially the coach tried a 4-4-2 system, yet Ibra and his new strike partner were ineffective together in attack. Of course the goals came, but as a partnership they looked weaker than the sum of the two parts.
All strikers need goals, of course, yet finding the net is the lifeblood of a No.9 such as Cavani. The South American thrives on finding spaces in the box from which to turn the ball into the net. Ibrahimovic may have more strings to his bow, yet his personality dictates that he is the kingpin of any side he plays in, and that means being the leading goalscorer. With Cavani alongside him, he was working with a player whose natural style was conflicting with his own.
The first half of the Olympiakos fixture was a particular low for PSG. Cavani may have scored to put Blanc’s men 1-0 up, but it was virtually the only opportunity they had to find the net in a period in which they were utterly outplayed. A lack of chemistry was clear and it stemmed from the incompatible attack that put pressure on a two-man central midfield that did not have the energy and defensive nous to make the system work.
Blanc was able to steer PSG back on course with a half-time tactical switch, leading to a 4-1 win that was unimaginably comfortable given the troubles the Parisians had in the first half in Piraeus. Cavani and Ibrahimovic were still involved, yet they no longer formed a tandem in attack. Instead, Blanc deployed a forward three. While Ibra retained his position through the centre, Cavani suffered by going out to the right, where his industry meant he was more useful than the languid Swede.
Immediately there was greater balance to the side as a whole. PSG’s midfield pressed far more effectively and down the left there was potency, yet Cavani seemed isolated and rather mute on the right.
Quite simply, the 26-year-old does not have the attributes to excel to his full potential on the wing. He is a No.9, the type of whom thrives by playing through the centre. Only Ibra is barring his way.
There has been no lack of desire shown by Cavani when stuck out on the right. He has fulfilled all the tasks that Blanc would expect of him, including the dirty, defensive work, and he has even weighed in with goals from that position on the right channel, yet he is not being allowed to become the Cavani who astounded with his finishing prowess at Napoli.
When PSG spent €64 million on the Uruguayan in the summer, this surely is not what was intended and this is surely not how Cavani envisaged his adventure in France beginning.
In spite of these problems, he already has five goals in nine matches, while Ibra has struggled comparatively and has found the net only twice, looking somewhat shy of confidence in front of goal.
Nevertheless, the 31-year-old Swede sees this as a good thing for the team.
"I have scored fewer goals this season and I think it's positive," he reasoned on Tuesday. "To have more good scorers is better than having just one."
What the early weeks of the season seem to have shown is that Cavani and Ibrahimovic can work together to some extent, yet the best level of both world-class stars cannot be attained when they are fielded concurrently.
PSG have yet to lose under Blanc but face a big test on Wednesday. The weaknesses they showed in the first half against Olympiakos will be more harshly punished if they surface again. While they may be able to carry extra baggage and still progress top of Group C, to win the Champions League, as they hope to achieve, without each player in their optimal role is a far harder challenge.
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