Perhaps the hardest thing about following Paris Saint-Germain this season has been finding ways not to focus on Zlatan Ibrahimović. At the BayArena on Tuesday, the two-goal forward set another stiff challenge.
Ridiculously gifted, Ibrahimović is the eye of the French club's hurricane, swirling through opposition ranks and leaving destruction in his wake. Even when slightly off form – more draught than cyclone – Ibrahimović tends to finish games warming down in the headline of a match report.
That was true again at Bayer 04 Leverkusen, when little seemed to be going right for him in the early stages. One expert penalty plus an incendiary top-corner effort later, and Ibrahimović had written the story of the round of 16 first leg – if not the whole tie – with three minutes to spare in the first half.
The Sweden captain's glorious second strike rocketed him top of the UEFA Champions League scoring charts at a reported 103km/h, his ten goals coming from just six outings. As perverse as it may seem, however, what impressed me most about Paris's performance was their unremitting midfield swagger. "We'll need to keep the ball," warned coach Laurent Blanc in the build-up, and his triumvirate of Blaise Matuidi, Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta duly gave a masterclass in winning the central battle.
It was from the middle of the park that Paris took a rapid stranglehold. Matuidi bustled forward to dispossess Simon Rolfes, laid the ball off to Ibrahimović – him again – and the big No10 picked out Verratti, whose perfect threaded pass allowed Matuidi to finish the move. Less than three minutes into the game, the tone had been set, and Matuidi's constant drive proved telling again when he poked the ball out to Ibrahimović to batter in the visitors' third.
The French international was equally forceful in winning back possession, with Verratti and, in particular, Thiago Motta also quick to snuff out Leverkusen advances. The three men boast their own individual strengths, of course, but what makes them such a formidable unit is each player's impressive all-round game.
A crisp, imaginative passer, for example, Verratti carried the ball away from danger with one exquisite piece of skill in the opening period, and although Thiago Motta sits deeper than his colleagues, he is no mere midfield destroyer. The former FC Barcelona stalwart sent out more passes than anyone else on the pitch – 131 of them, making 91% of them stick.
When Blanc talks about his side's "playing philosophy", his all-singing, all-dancing midfield is the cornerstone. Laying down a band of high pressure, they create the conditions for Ibrahimović to reach tornado intensity, and with Leverkusen's equivalent trio of Rolfes, Lars Bender and Gonzalo Castro unable to compete in any department, that ultimately was where the match was decided. Tellingly, it was ended there too, Yohan Cabaye coming off the bench to cap a sparkling night. Shrewdly added to the mix in January, the former Newcastle United FC favourite is yet another player with a rounded skill-set.
How well Blanc's slick midfield might cope further down the road remains to be seen, however. Sterner tests undoubtedly lie ahead and, amid all the celebrations on Tuesday, Ibrahimović was among the first to insist on a little perspective. To him then, as so often, the final word: "You can be a good team and not win anything. What makes a great team is winning trophies."
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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