Column: PSG still not ready to scale Champions League peak

PARIS (AP) At Paris Saint-Germain, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has become the footballing epitome of a flat-track bully: frequently awesome when beating up smaller teams but a weak link when PSG is going toe-to-toe with other heavyweights in Europe.

The star striker’s failure to score or even pose a genuine threat against an injury-depleted Real Madrid side in a 0-0 draw in the Champions League on Wednesday night adds to the stack of evidence that PSG’s ambitions of conquering Europe will have to wait until he leaves.

It has been more than three years now since Ibrahimovic swaggered into Paris from Milan, seizing a last giant payday and the opportunity to close out his career as the biggest fish in the small pond of French football. He confessed when he arrived that he knew very little about the French league and its players, but declared: ”For sure, they know who I am.”

That arrogance and self-confidence has been good for PSG, rubbing off on the club as it learns how to turn the limitless funds of its owner, the ruling emir of Qatar, into success on the field.

More than just an expensive poster-boy, someone who sells tickets and jerseys, Ibrahimovic, now 34, has been a leader, in and out of the dressing room, bending PSG to his will and forcing those who play and work with him to raise their game and demand more of themselves, as he does with them.

With his physicality, exceptional ball skills for a player so tall and assisted by the most expensive French team ever assembled, Ibrahimovic has pounded soft defenses and opponents with fewer resources. When he leaves PSG, almost certainly at the end of this season, he will have added more goals to the club’s all-time scoring record he holds, now at 112.

That mark remains far short of scoring records at other major European clubs with more history and pedigree than PSG – such as Bobby Charlton’s 249 for Manchester United or Cristiano Ronaldo’s 324 for Real Madrid. Still, that Ibrahimovic overtook the previous record-holder, Pedro Pauleta, so quickly shows how dominant he and PSG have been in France since he joined in 2012.

But, against top European teams with spending power on a par with PSG’s, not once has Ibrahimovic illuminated and thrilled the Parc des Princes stadium with a match-winning performance.

Against the likes of Benfica, Dynamo Kiev, Anderlecht and others, he has thrown his weight around in Champions League group stages. But Paris hasn’t then advanced past the quarterfinals in part because it hasn’t been able to rely on Ibrahimovic against the really big teams. From the evidence Wednesday against Madrid, that looks like being true again this season.

Although he scored Paris’ first goal against Barcelona in the 2013 quarterfinals, it was teammate Blaise Matuidi who salvaged the first-leg 2-2 draw. Ibrahimovic then didn’t score in the return leg where Barcelona advanced to the semifinals.

Nor did he score against Chelsea in the quarterfinals the following season, limping off injured in the first leg in Paris and then missing the second leg in London where Chelsea scored twice to go through.

Last season, PSG played stirringly without Ibrahimovic when it beat Barcelona 3-2 in a memorable night at the Parc in the group stage. In the round of 16, he didn’t contribute any of the three goals that squeezed PSG past Chelsea but did pick up a red card that kept him out of the first leg of the quarterfinals, again against Barcelona. Back for the second leg, he again failed to score at the Nou Camp.

Against Madrid on Wednesday, Ibrahimovic blunted PSG’s attack by dropping too far back into the midfield, by clumsily losing balls and by generally being too slow and static to weigh on Spanish manager Rafa Benitez’s well-drilled defense.

Part of that is Laurent Blanc’s fault. Even when Ibrahimovic is playing so poorly, the PSG manager seemingly doesn’t dare risk upsetting the superstar by taking him off.

Part of that is PSG’s fault: by investing so heavily in him, it has essentially made Ibrahimovic untouchable. In his post-match news conference, when asked why he is keeping faith with Ibrahimovic, Blanc said he had ”no choice” but to use the squad he’s been given.

To replace Ibrahimovic, who turned 34 this month, PSG has its eyes on Ronaldo, among other marquee players. But bringing the three-time world player of the year from Madrid would risk repeating the mistake PSG made with Ibrahimovic: paying vast riches for a superstar heading into the twilight years of his career, someone still good enough to bully French teams at weekends and even help build PSG’s base camp for an assault on Europe but not to haul the team up that peak himself.

Of course, Ibrahimovic may be saving his best for last. Perhaps he will give PSG fans a truly memorable European performance on home turf, or even a string of them, in this season when the club is targeting the semifinals or better.

But opportunities are running out.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester