By Simone Rovera
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani first partnered up for Paris Saint-Germain on matchday 1 of the 2013-14 Ligue 1 campaign. The Uruguay international came off the bench in the 78th minute of the clash against Montpellier, but the duo failed to impress as the reigning champions were held to a 1-1 draw. It was meant to be the beginning of an exciting new era in the French capital, but it felt somewhat flat.
They again featured together the following week as PSG took on Ajaccio, but they hardly made a much better impression as the Ligue 1 giants had to settle for another draw. Cavani did open his PSG account, though, as he cancelled out Benoit Pedretti's opener.
Although doubts inevitably started to surface over whether the two were compatible, their initial struggles were by no means a surprise. Regardless of two players' talent, it takes time for attackers to get used to each other. The successful partnership of Diego Milito and Samuel Eto'o at Inter in 2010 was perhaps the perfect example. Only in the second half of the season did they both shine as the Nerazzurri eventually won the treble.
The start of the 2013-14 campaign was characterised by Cavani's success in Ligue 1, with the former Napoli man scoring eight goals in the opening 12 games. Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, was at his best in the Champions League with six goals after three games, before he really came to life after signing a new contract at the end of September.
The partnership between the two remained a work in progress, however, despite the two goals Ibrahimovic created for Cavani against Valenciennes and Nantes. Against Benfica, Ibrahimovic decided the game all by himself, seemingly ignoring his team-mate at times. The two only exchanged nine passes over the course of the game as the Swede helped PSG to the full three points. The Uruguay star on the other hand got just one shot all game.
Although Cavani's public stance remained that he was happy at PSG, his words after the game suggested that he started to feel frustrated on the right wing. "Over the course of the past few seasons, I have always played as centre forward and have proven my worth. I have nothing to prove any more. The most important thing for me is to win. I will continue to give my all in this position. I have no regrets."
While Ibrahimovic showed PSG the way, Cavani was struggling following his summer move. Thiago Motta compared his situation to that of Eto'o at Inter in 2010 when the Cameroon international played on the right. The former Napoli man never complained in public, but those around him did notice his frustration at being played out of position. Regardless of Paris Saint-Germain's good results, Cavani was clearly not at his best. Ibrahimovic shone and the Uruguayan played second fiddle.
The two have only featured alongside each other for the full 90 minutes on five occasions, with head coach Laurent Blanc justifying his decisions by stressing that Cavani sacrifices himself for the team. Debate about Cavani's position in the team is slowly starting to gather pace, though.
Questions about the relationship between the two are not received well by Blanc as he feels the press is creating a non-existent problem. As the situation at Barcelona with Lionel Messi and Neymar proves, however, there's always going to be debate if two stars line up alongside each other; a coach will have to make sacrifices to accomodate his biggest name, which has consequences for the other players.
Regardless of Blanc's claims, there's no denying that the Ibrahimovic-Cavani axis is not working as PSG had hoped, but things started to change come October. The Uruguayan was allowed more freedom and cuts inside more to link up with Zlatan, allowing right-back Gregory van der Wiel the space to charge forward and get involved more.
It took Cavani a while, but things were going his way at last, much to the delight of the PSG players. Ibrahimovic's applause for Cavani when he finds the net against Bastia is symbolic for the improved relationship of the pair. Ever since that particular game, the Cavani-Ibra partnership has been getting better and better. Both attackers get to understand each other movement and even provide goals for each other, the thing Blanc has been waiting for since the start of the season.
Actually, everybody has made the necessary sacrifices to make sure the team benefits from the indidual qualities of its stars. It's all positive now and this is likely to continue as long as the results are good.
Across Europe, however, Cavani's situation is being compared to that of players like Mario Balotelli, Radamel Falcao, Karim Benzema and Fernando Torres, who are all believed to be unhappy with their current situations.
There has been more talk of a Cavani transfer in recent weeks, even though a transfer this winter seems out of the question. The only thing that could really soften the blow of being played out of position for Cavani seems to be winning a major trophy.