Coupe de France: The Ibra factor

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HE’S ARROGANT, he’s controversial, but he is an exceptional talent. And today, Zlatan Ibrahimovic plays his last game for Paris St. Germain, the Coupe de France final against Olympique Marseille.

The pre-match talk has been as much about Zlatan’s fitness as the next stop on his incredibly glittering career. Whether you like him or not – and you’ll always want a player like him on your side rather than in opposition – you cannot deny the phenomenal statistics that back up his claim to be one of the all-time modern greats.

While there have been reports of a troublesome calf, the cynics might argue that Zlatan is keeping his audience waiting, teasing them ahead of the final. Even just a few hours before the game, there are news stories that claim “Zlatan is fit”, “Zlatan if struggling”, “Zlatan ruled out”. He’s a showman, one of the few left in the game. How much publicity is, in fact, part of the very mystique of Sweden’s talismanic striker?

And what a finale to his PSG career – Le Classique. PSG will go into the game as red hot favourites after their runaway campaign that saw them win 30 of their 38 Ligue 1 games, score 102 goals, concede 19 and notch up 96 points. Marseille finished 13th with half as many points and goals, and just a third of PSG’s wins. PSG won both meetings in Ligue 1 by 2-1.

Zlatan’s season was his best in PSG’s colours – 48 goals in all competitions, including 38 in Ligue 1. His arrival in Paris became a symbol of the PSG monopoly, the question is not just where he will go next, but who will PSG sign to become the figurehead of their relentless pursuit of silverware?

What will he settle for? This is a player who does not know how to end a season without a league title. In 15 campaigns, he has won 13 championships – four with PSG, one with Milan, one with Barca, three with Inter, two with Juve and two with Ajax.

It is likely that PSG will win Ligue 1 again even without their prized asset and if they beat Marseille in the Coupe de France final, it will be a second successive clean sweep of French football.

Can Marseille pull off a shock result? There can be no greater motivation for them given that this is France’s big derby – the cultural hub of French café society against the working class port of Marseille. North v South.

Marseille may have a matchwinner in Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi, who scored 17 goals in Ligue 1 this season. It will also be his last game for his club as OM coach Franck Passi announced that Batshuayi is on the move in the summer, with English Premier clubs West Ham and Tottenham interested in the youngster.

Marseille have had an easier passage to the final than PSG. They beat Sochaux, Granville, Trelissac, Montpellier and Caen on the route to the Stade de France, and they have yet to concede a goal. PSG have disposed of Lorient, St. Etienne, Lyon, Toulouse and Wasquehal.

This is the Coupe de France’s 99th year. An astonishing 8,500 teams enter the competition. Marseille are the most successful club in its history, winning 10 and losing in the final on a further eight occasions. PSG have won nine and finished runners-up four times. So we have two teams with a strong pedigree in this year’s final. PSG are the holders and they are also holding the trump card. Don’t bet against Zlatan bowing out like all true actors – dramatically.

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Calling in on….Paris St Germain, in the court of King Zlatan

Moody, black and white...well it is Paris
Moody, black and white…well it is Paris

Zlatan…..Zzzzlatan….ZZZZLATAAAN. The great man had just netted Paris St.Germain’s second goal of the game against no-hopers Valenciennes and the matchday announcer wanted everyone to know just who had scored. He didn’t have to try too hard, adding fuel to the argument that Ibrahimovic makes Ligue 1 look easy. He does…because if your budget is the equivalent of the rest of the league (bar Monaco, of course) put together, it SHOULD be easy for PSG.

As it turned out, this game was fairly routine for the French reigning champions, who were always going to be too good for a Valenciennes side who may yet be relegated to Ligue 2. Nevertheless, it was a joy to see one of the best players in the world and other luminaries such as Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi and new signing Yohan Cabaye in action.

That’s when I finally got there. Initially, this game was scheduled for February 15 and my travel plans were arranged accordingly, but then a couple of weeks ago, I received an email informing me my e-ticket was ready for downloading – for Friday February 14. Plus ca change, as they say.

But it was in preparation for PSG’s UEFA Champions League tie with Bayer Leverkusen on February 18. The importance of this doesn’t need too much explaining. PSG’s massive outlay of cash, courtesy of the Middle East, is not merely to dispose of the likes of Valenciennes, Ajaccio and Sochaux, but to become a European super club and look Barca, Real and Bayern in the eye.

Getting to know Port St. Cloud

If prizes were given out for over-reactive security, the French police would be world champions. Perhaps it is because the area around the Parc des Princes is a relatively well-to-do neighbourhood, or maybe last season’s over-zealous celebrations by PSG fans had left their mark. Whatever the reason, security guards came out of every dimly-lit corner and the militaristic police were there in force – mostly talking among themselves, I would add.

This formidable combination sent fans on a route march that saw the Parc des Princes come into view, then disappear, then teasingly appear through the foliage before finally revealing itself, which was irritatingly just a few yards from where I set off. Still, I had time to kill and it’s always handy to see where local amenities were such as schools, churches, sports facilities and shops in case I fancied relocating to the area. Merci, Monsieur gendarme.

More than 20 minutes after setting off from Port St.Cloud Metro station, I arrived. If I was a crow, I would have been seriously hacked off.

Parc life

This man is huge in Paris
This man is huge in Paris

Parc des Princes, has been usurped by the magnificent Stade de France, which was, I was informed by my cab driver who ferried me back to CDG airport on Saturday morning, “built in only two years….can you believe it?”. But the Parc is still an imposing stadium, better known as a rugby venue than football, but now very clearly the home of PSG. When you eventually get inside, you are met with bold statements like, “Ici c’est Paris” around the stadium, which was a cauldron of light against the very dark backdrop. The Eiffel Tower could just be seen in the distance. Reassuring.

One hour before kick-off, there were very few people in the ground. The noise of a busy pre-match programme echoed around the concrete stadium. There was an  interview with Alex, the former Chelsea defender, who was also referred to as TCA (that clown Alex) in my household. He was on the bench this time.

PSG’s fans come in all shapes and sizes. There’s the kids ( that’s under 25 in my book) who sing, chant, jump around and generally provide the sort of support European super clubs demand these days. Then there’s the Left Bank intellectuals (I’m making dramatic assumptions here) who rub cheeks when they arrive and theorise about Zlatan Imbrahimovic’s mood. And there’s the classic, stereotypical French, all hand gestures and shoulder shrugging when things go wrong. I was sitting among a group of PSG fans of African origin, judging by the names on the seats. The crowd was, generally more cosmopolitan than your average English Premier crowd, reminding me that France also has a very robust colonial history.

As I ascended the area I was sitting in, I came across a small hut housing banners, flags and other items for the fans. A man at a desk, sitting alongside a dummy dressed in PSG attire, seemed to be organising something. I thought a beer would be a good accompaniment to the game, but “Non!”, no alcohol allowed. Smoking was not permitted, either, but I eyed plenty of people sneaking a crafty cigarette behind various sheds, bike or otherwise.

And I don’t know if it was because it was Valentine’s Day, or whether it was due to the French penchant for passion, but the “Kiss Cam” was a popular feature on the big screen. Certainly, it was more tasteful than the last time I saw something similar at a Mötley Crüe concert, when women were invited to reveal what lay beneath their Crüe t-shirts!

And then, 40 minutes before the game got underway, the teams emerged for their pre-match warm-up. By now, the PSG Tifosi were starting to find their voice, led by a chunky, bald-headed guy who choreographed  every move. Having recently seen Portsmouth’s own curio in action, this fellow was different. Unlike Pompey’s cheerleader, it was clear that the PSG ringmaster was all about “we” and not “me”. They didn’t stop all evening.

But, But, But…

PSG 3Valenciennes came to the Parc third from bottom of Ligue 1. They are from a town notable for lace and for being the home of Isabelle Dinoire, the first person to have a partial face transplant. Didier Six, who went on to play for France over 50 times, started his career with Les Atheniens, as they are known.

Needless to say, they were under pressure from the very start, with Zlatan Ibrahimovich involved in everything. He had the air of someone in a bit of a sulk, but his repertoire of clever flicks, well-timed passes and almost casual headers caused Valenciennes problems. He almost scored early on but a defender cleared his flick off the line. Then Thiago Silva almost broke the deadlock from close range.

When PSG went ahead on 11 minutes, Ibrahimovic was the creator rather than the scorers, thanks to his free-kick being deflected in the path of the impressive Ezequiel Lavezzi, who shot home from 10 yards.

That lead should have been [at least] doubled before half-time, with Ibrahimovic, Lavezzi (twice) and Jeremy Menez all going close to scoring. At times, it looked as though Ibrahimovic was frustrated with his team-mates. Conversely, there were comments from the tribune that Zlatan was, at times, a little too greedy.

Valenciennes? Well, they were limited to some breakaways and some poor finishing.

PSG scored again in the 50th minute and it was Zlatan who did the damage. Lucas Digne’s cross evaded the Valenciennes defence and Menez volleyed the ball back in, rather awkwardly. It fell kindly for Ibrahimovic and he had the simple job of finishing inside the area.

PSG 5 (400x225) (300x169)Two minutes later, it was 3-0 as a Menez cross was rolled into the net by defender Gary Kagelmacher. The crowd, and the announcer, tried to award it to Zlatan, but that’s the disadvantage of having video screens running during the game. You can’t fool the people!

PSG had done enough, though, and Zlatan was subbed in the 64th minute, doubtless to preserve him for the Champions League. He didn’t look too pleased, but he had done his bit. Final score 3-0. The attendance was 44,000-plus.

Today France, tomorrow the continent

PSG will probably win their second successive Ligue 1 title this season. They should come through against Leverkusen in the Champions League, then the battle will really commence. They will come up against the really big boys – the games that will define the PSG project. But then, they do have ambitions loftier than that huge steel tower pictured on their badge. That’s why they signed players like ZZZZLATAAAN…..