Paris Saint-Germain began this season's UEFA Champions League with a nagging sense of unfinished business and quickly emerged as one of the form sides. Eliminated on away goals by FC Barcelona in the quarter-finals last term, the ambitious French contenders look even more accomplished under new coach Laurent Blanc, with eight-goal Zlatan Ibrahimović propelling them into the round of 16 with confidence aplenty.
Story so far
Paris have made no secret of their desire to win Europe's premier club competition since coming under Qatari ownership, but unease spread in the French capital as they struggled to replace Carlo Ancelotti in the summer. Blanc was not particularly high on the list of candidates, yet his team have grown in strength since kicking off with a 4-1 win at Olympiacos FC.
More composed than Ancelotti's counterattacking side, they laid down Group C markers by swatting aside SL Benfica 3-0 at home and RSC Anderlecht 5-0 away, Ibrahimović registering four goals in Brussels. A surprise 1-1 home draw with Anderlecht denied them the chance to progress with two games to spare, but Les Rouge et Bleu promptly sewed up the section by edging Olympiacos 2-1, before an experimental lineup succumbed 2-1 in Lisbon.
Although results suggest Paris hit the ground running, their campaign could have started very differently in Piraeus. Blanc's charges were quite simply outplayed during the opening 45 minutes against Olympiacos and were fortunate to reach the interval with the scoreline 1-1. The hosts had rattled the woodwork twice, yet Paris displayed fresh solidity after the break and scored from a trio of corners in a performance that, while not pretty, established important foundations.
Key player: Zlatan Ibrahimović
"It was magnificent what he achieved," admitted Anderlecht midfielder Guillaume Gillet after Ibrahimović had finished putting his team to the sword with a sensational quartet of strikes on matchday three. The Sweden forward has been inspirational, plundering eight goals in five outings and celebrating his 100th UEFA Champions League appearance, at home to Olympiacos, by becoming Paris's most prolific marksman in a single season in the competition. Leading from the front, Ibrahimović is playing like a man hungry to finally lift the trophy.
Rising star: Marquinhos
Paris felt confident they had acquired one of world football's most exciting young defenders when they paid AS Roma €32m for Marquinhos in the summer, to the extent that they allowed France centre-back Mamadou Sakho to join Liverpool FC. The 19-year-old made an inauspicious start against Olympiacos but appears increasingly at ease, challenging Alex for a place and even weighing in with two goals and an assist. "He has a big future," said central-defensive partner Thiago Silva, Marquinhos having also made his Brazil debut last month. "He's only 19, but on the pitch it's like he's 28."
The Parc des Princes has become a veritable fortress for Paris in Europe, with the capital outfit unbeaten there in their last 27 games in UEFA competition – a club record. The last team to get the better of the home side at the Parc were Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC, who prevailed 4-2 in a UEFA Cup group stage fixture on 23 November 2006.
"I don't know if we're the French Barça, but we're stronger this season and we control every game more, especially in terms of possession. The most important thing was to find a playing philosophy, and to play well and defend well. We've found a system that gives us balance on the pitch, and we'll try to get even better."
Paris defender Maxwell addresses comparisons with his old club.
Next challenge: Bayer 04 Leverkusen
(Away: 18 February, home: 12 March)
Blanc's boys have received one of the toughest round of 16 tasks of any of the group winners, with the German club, flying high domestically, sure to put up a fight in their first meeting with the Parisians. Despite two losses at the hands of Group A frontrunners Manchester United FC, Sami Hyypiä's men showed enough potential to worry Paris, most notably in the 4-0 success against FC Shakhtar Donetsk. The Bundesliga's top scorer last season, Stefan Kiessling supplies a cutting edge in attack while Simon Rolfes chips in with goals from midfield.
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