Paris Saint-Germain go to Barcelona on Wednesday suddenly cast as one of the favourites to win the Champions League – quite a turnaround in their fortunes.
When they allowed Zlatan Ibrahimovic to depart for Manchester United last summer, questions were asked of the Parisians’ capabilities of realising their ambition to win the European Cup. These only grew louder after an uncertain start to the season left them off the pace in Ligue 1 and second to a mediocre Arsenal side in the group phase.
A stunning 4-0 win three weeks ago at Parc des Princes against Barca, among a string of fine results, has rather changed that rhetoric, however.
Even with such a healthy cushion – one that has never previously been overturned at this level of competition – PSG will take nothing for granted at Camp Nou. Head coach Unai Emery rested a raft of players for the weekend’s 1-0 win over Nancy and will utilise his full strength team in this outing. It is a chance to show any remaining doubters that PSG are stronger candidates for the Champions League than ever before.
Indeed, it may be that losing Ibrahimovic was the best thing that could have happened to the Parc des Princes side.
There is no doubting the outstanding qualities of the Swedish striker, who was comprehensively PSG’s best forward during his stint in Paris from 2012 to 2016, but that in itself posed a problem. Zlatan carried an egotism with him that demanded he was the centre of his team’s footballing universe. Now, Emery’s side are more multi-dimensional, more unpredictable and more of a threat.
Barca certainly seemed to underestimate them in the first leg, perhaps drawn into a lacklustre approach due to their opponents’ lack of an absolute world star. Instead, it was PSG’s team ethic, the very attribute the Catalans have built their dynasty around, that saw them come out so easily on top.
This is perhaps most evident in the players leading the line between this year and last.
Ibrahimovic was perfectly willing to be part of a team - but only if he was the star in it.
Edinson Cavani, on the other hand, may not have been happy spending his time in the shadows on the wing, but he was prepared to do it for the good of his comrades. Now the Uruguayan is playing through the middle, as he has always wished, and after an erratic start to the season in front of goal, has found his form in recent weeks.
His very presence at the vanguard has changed the nature of PSG’s attacking play, too. Of course, they are still primarily a possession-based side, but as Barcelona found out in the French capital, they are explosive on the break.
Even if Cavani has his faults in front of goal, most notably when he is forced to think and not simply react, his movement off the ball is arguably the best in the game. Not only can he find space in the box to receive crosses, his ability to time runs in behind defences and then speed away from his markers is something that Ibrahimovic simply could not match.
It is a weapon that PSG did not boast previously.
The 30-year-old was a problem that previous boss Laurent Blanc never solved. He was deemed too precious to leave on the bench, but not good enough to displace Ibrahimovic. Emery had this issue resolved for him with the Swede’s departure, and that has allowed Lucas Moura to develop thanks to more regular game time.
With Angel Di Maria hitting form after a poor start to the campaign and Julian Draxler having rapidly adjusted to life in Paris following a big-money January move from Wolfsburg, PSG suddenly appear replete with options in their offensive midfield sector, even if they are light of genuine replacement for Cavani.
Indeed, so long as Di Maria, Lucas and Draxler remain at their present level, the lack of cover for the Uruguayan is the French champions’ greatest Achilles heel offensively.
What PSG lost in terms of the sheer individual talent of Ibrahimovic has been made up for – and even eclipsed – by what the team as a whole has gained. The transition was painful, but in allowing the Swede to depart, Cavani has emerged from the shadows while others on the periphery have also stepped up.
Barcelona have already once found out how potent this side can be, and with the element of surprise now lost, PSG can really show themselves as the contenders that they are by doing the double over the Catalans.