by Robin Bairner | French Football Editor
Sunday’s Ligue 1 fixture between Paris Saint-Germain and Lille represents the biggest domestic match of the French season, with last season’s champions meeting the side hotly tipped to steal their crown from them.
While Lille’s climb to the top has been steady and measured, PSG have simply exploded over the last six months, fuelled by Qatari investors eager to raise the profile of the Parc des Princes outfit.
In this regard, perhaps the two players who most signify the values of their clubs will line up in what promises to be a spectacular head-to-head. Eden Hazard was carefully nurtured through Lille’s youth ranks, brought into the first team as a raw 16-year-old in 2007, and has since grown into a Ligue 1 Player of the Year, while Javier Pastore was captured for a national record €40 million by les Parisiens in the summer.
Comparisons have inevitably been drawn between the pair, with team-mates and pundits offering their opinion as to who is the greater player. Many have been non-committal, with Lille defender Aurelien Chedjou explaining to Nord Eclair: "It’s not that easy [to pick], but both are big stars of the game. What is certain is that I would not trade Hazard for Pastore."
Pastore has been criticised in the press for a recent dip in form, while Hazard has accelerated, gaining strength as the season has progressed. However, he did not make the early impact of his South American rival, who was to the forefront as PSG reached the summit of the league before being caught by unlikely challengers Montpellier.
With the halfway point of the season approaching, which of these stars presently has the upper hand?
|LIGUE 1 APPEARANCES (MINUTES) 2011/12
Eden Hazard has been something of an ironman for Lille since breaking into the side on a full-time basis, although he has been aided by the canny coaching of Rudi Garcia, who has been careful not to overexert his star playmaker. The young Belgian has frequently been given a breather on the bench, despite featuring in every Ligue 1 match but one since February 2009, which has undoubtedly helped him retain a constantly high level to his play.
Pastore, on the other hand, has not been granted such a luxury by head coach Antoine Kombouare, who is utterly reliant on the Argentine to fill the No.10 spot. The ex-Palermo player has barely been given a chance of respite since being thrust into the team in mid-August, and after coming from a busy summer with Argentina, has unsurprisingly shown signs of fatigue. He may have played less than Hazard, but he has been forced into a more intense schedule due to the nature of PSG’s squad.
|LIGUE 1 GOALS 2011/12
Neither Hazard nor Pastore are players who should be judged on goals alone, yet the manner in which the Belgian has increased his scoring rate has been impressive. When he initially broke into the first team, he was not considered to be a natural in front of goal, yet this season he is Lille’s joint top scorer in the league, having mustered six goals, including a magnificent brace against Saint-Etienne.
Pastore can match Hazard’s tally, though, and the Argentine’s record could be argued to be better than Hazard’s because his goals have come against opposition of higher quality. In this regard, a double against Montpellier, including a sublime volley, is the highlight, though he also boasts a strike against Olympique Lyonnais to his name. He has not scored a league goal since October, but was back on target against Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League in midweek.
|LIGUE 1 ASSISTS 2011/12
It might come as something of a surprise, but Hazard is already a distance ahead of Pastore in the assist rankings, having notched five to the Argentine’s two. Often drifting out wide, the 20-year-old specialises in squeezing himself in behind defences, regularly getting to the byline and tugging crosses back for oncoming midfielders to deliver into the net.
Pastore’s style is different. An elegant ball-player, using clever angles, he likes to feed strikers behind the opposing defence. This has been made difficult for him in that PSG’s opponents tend to sit deep, yet he still boasts a league-high tally of through-balls completed. Sadly for the Argentine, these openings have too often been wasted, hurting his assist count.
|LIGUE 1 BALL CONTACTS 2011/12
While the differing levels of possession the two players have enjoyed might point to a differing style between their two sides, it does also highlight a weakness of Pastore imposing himself on his PSG outfit.
Hazard’s Lille play a possession-based style of game, and have three players who have over 1,000 contacts with the ball to their name this season, but PSG tend to be a little more direct in their approach. Pastore might, therefore, expect that the majority of their play is channelled through him, their chief playmaker, but this simply isn’t the case.
Left-winger Nene, their star performer from last term, remains their chief go-to player, having enjoyed the ball nearly 1,200 times. Maurizio Zamparini, president of Pastore’s former club Palermo, has argued that this is because the Argentine’s team-mates are 'jealous' of his abilities, but whatever the case, the South American has to stamp his authority on his side, as he should be their conductor.
|LIGUE 1 PASS COMPLETION % 2011/12
The pass percentages of the two players do owe to the different style of play employed by their respective teams, so not too much should be read into this figure. Lille are quite happy for Hazard to knock the ball laterally to retain possession if there is not a better option available, whereas Pastore is expected to provide incision to a PSG team that already have difficulties, because there is no room to play behind opposing outfits.
While Hazard makes many simple passes, Pastore attempts a far higher percentage of tricky through-balls; a sign of their differing roles rather than of any lack of skill.
|HAZARD vs. PASTORE|
Hazard has enjoyed the better season to date, but Pastore’s career in France is still young, and it will undoubtedly blossom further.
The Argentine has been burdened by high expectations and a work load that he simply could not have envisaged when he signed from Palermo, and while he seems to have dealt with the former issue well, the wear on his fitness levels appears to be rather chronic as he is not the bright, sharp player he was back in September.
He has by no means been a flop; his statistics are still impressive by any measure, but they are just not quite at the level of his Belgian rival, who remains the benchmark in Ligue 1.
Perhaps when PSG and Lille renew acquaintances on the last weekend of April for what could be a decisive match, the tables will have turned.
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