Who: Paris Saint-Germain, two-time defending French league champions, Ligue 1 leaders, an team-most-likely to break through an join the current crop of European elites.
When: Tuesday, 2:45 p.m. Eastern against one of those elites, Barcelona, in Paris.
Why: Because money is the root of al evil, unless we all secretly want an excuse to go to Paris to watch top-level soccer.
Hello, Mr. Soccer Player. Would you like to live in Paris? And be on the best team in France? Perhaps you’d enjoy beating a team like Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League? Oh, and the reason this is all possible is because Qatar invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the club, so you will also be paid beyond your wildest dreams.
Perhaps the rise of Paris Saint-Germain hasn’t been that simple, but that’s the logic at the core. Before 2011, when the Qatar Sports Investments took over the club, PSG was irrelevant in European competitions, making Paris one of the largest cities in Europe without a true soccer power. But thanks to a series of high-priced buys that have created one of the most talented squads in the world, the team has started setting goals beyond France’s borders. QSI wants a Champions League breakthrough.
- Quick guide to Wednesday’s Champions League: Barcelona
So do you want to root for Qatar? Or can you possibly root against a Parisian team led by Our Lord and Savior Zlatan Ibrahimovic – the highest-profile of those high-priced buys? Because beyond all the qualms about buying titles, injecting external money and the arms race that persists at the top of European soccer, a player as talented as Zlatan can be damn irresistible.
Why PSG matters: You would think that the biggest club in Paris would always matter. It’s Paris! But that hasn’t always been the case. PSG has a history of being perennial underachievers and general afterthoughts. Then it got that oil money, and with the oil money came wins. And Zlatan.
Any team with Zlatan matters, but PSG also has Uruguayan hitman Edinson Cavani, all-world defender Thiago Silva and his Sideshow Bob partner, David Luiz. They’re a wonderful collection of talent and personalities, with world class players from every corner of the globe. They also happen to be the class of French soccer and just beat former European champion Chelsea. PSG may not be a favorite, but it’s a legitimate contender.
The cool in PSG: Have we mentioned Zlatan Ibrahimovic? Have we mentioned that he is a god? And a ninja? A part-time samurai redefining when zen means to soccer? Well, he is.
But beyond Zlatan, PSG also pulled off one of the most incredible and dramatic results in Champions League history last round. Playing the Premier League’s top team, Chelsea, PSG went down to 10 mean – as good as a kill shot. And then, already chasing Chelsea’s away goals edge, it went down a goal. So, dead. Clearly dead. But then, PSG managed to equalize, a work of magic, before conceding again. That was as good as putting them in a guillotine, surely.
No. No, no, of course not. Late, on one of the many crosses you see desperate teams incredulously launch at unbelieving targets, PSG’s target decided to believe. And after watching his mark get tangled with a teammate, Thiago Silva arced a a miracle header into the Chelsea goal, giving PSG a 2-2 draw, the away goals edge, and, despite playing with only 10 men, the first major scalp of the QSI era.
Watch this player: *clears throat* ZLAAAATAAAAAN.
Here’s the problem: Zlatan is suspended for the first leg of because he got an undeserved red card at Stamford Bridge. That’s right. That’s comeback, against all odds win over Chelsea? It happened after PSG’s best player was given an unjustified red card. It was the height of injustice, and the decision makers will feel Zlatan’s wrath in the afterlife.
So while Zlatan is the man to watch next week, this week it’s about Cavani. He’ll be replacing Zlatan up front and will do his best to out-run and bully the Barcelona defenders. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast and he somehow manages to show up everywhere on the pitch. It’s almost like he’s cheating.
What PSG has to do: Barcelona has a great midfield, but it’s not the dominant machine it has been in year’s past. The Catalans remedy that by putting together a better attack than they have ever had. That means Paris Saint-Germain actually have a chance to go toe-to-toe with Barcelona in the midfield, and it will need to win that battle if it’s going to reach Europe’s final four.
The best way to stop Barça is to cut out the service to that attack: Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez. PSG can do that with Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti, a brilliant midfield duo with incredible range.
Can Matuidi and Verratti carry the load and limit the Barcelona forwards’ touches? They’ll have to.