PSG, Lyon show new face of Ligue 1
Javier Pastore's quick adaptation to French football has ushered in a new era of Ligue 1 entertainers. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
When Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) became majority shareholder of Paris Saint-Germain this summer, it was surely dreamed of nights like Sunday’s clash with Olympique Lyonnais. The glamor tie of the weekend was the one everybody wanted to see; a sold-out Parc des Princes crackled with noise, with a who’s-who of French soccer’s good and great in the crowd. Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram were there along with current stars, including Samir Nasri, Nicolas Anelka and Hatem Ben Arfa. Even French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s two eldest sons, Pierre and Jean, were in the stands. Such an occasion is good news for French soccer in general, not just in the capital.
Above and beyond the 2-0 win that took PSG three points clear of OL at Ligue 1’s summit, QSI’s figurehead and principle presence in Paris, Nasser al-Khelaifi, will have delighted in the style with which his side handled the big stage. In an absorbing match, PSG showed its poise and genuine title credentials against a serious – and much improved – rival.
Central to that swagger was the club’s €42 million ($56 million) signing, Javier Pastore. Since day one, El Flaco has pulverized any doubts that he would cope under the Parisian pressure and again delivered a moment of wonder, speeding down the left and smashing a shot in from an angle to break OL’s resistance in the 64th minute.
Among a dream front four – Pastore, Jeremy Menez and Nene playing behind Kevin Gameiro – the 22-year-old Argentinian was the one who came to the party at the moment it mattered. It is something he has done since his arrival in the capital, scoring five times and laying on two assists already. The latter figure would be higher today if Menez and Gameiro had shared the same sang froid as their colleague when Pastore expertly set them up. If Pastore himself is modest – “I didn’t think I’d adapt this quickly” – others are rather less circumspect in describing his impact. No less a judge than Zidane told Canal+ after the final whistle: “Perhaps he’s the player that PSG really needed.”
While PSG has spent heavily in attack, the purchase of Salvatore Sirigu has masked over problems at the back. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
The arrival of the talismanic Diego Lugano from Fenerbahce hasn’t erased all the gremlins in the PSG defense, a fact never more apparent than when league top scorer Bafetimbi Gomis headed wide a glorious opportunity to equalize for OL when completely unmarked. Yet if one former Palermo star is capturing the imagination of the fans, another is calming frayed nerves at the back. Goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu was again faultless, pulling off a superb save from Jimmy Briand and exuding authority throughout. It is a long time since the Parc crowd sung the name of a goalkeeper.
If expectation is omnipresent in Paris, patience is the name of the game in Lyon, as coach Remi Garde rebuilds his team with a liberal sprinkling of youth products he knows so well from his time as academy director. His young side did an admirable job despite the defeat, with OL still lacking star forward Lisandro Lopez, record signing Yoann Gourcuff and experienced captain Cris, though the first two are set to return immediately after the international break. “We mustn’t forget that we’ve had two exceptional months,” Garde stressed afterwards. The prevailing good vibes at the Stade Gerland were confirmed on Monday, with the announcement that France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has followed fellow mainstay Michel Bastos in extending his contract to 2015.
The intensity of Sunday’s clash (there were just nine seconds of added time at the end of a breathless first half) suggested that these two teams should be the major title contenders. If that is to be the case, it will be a fascinating battle between two entertaining sides with wholly different approaches, with PSG’s money against OL’s retrenchment.
Nowhere is the contrast more apparent than in the two coaches, with the demonstrative and combustible Antoine Kombouare shouldering the measured and largely inscrutable Garde. Kombouare’s lusty touchline demeanor stokes memories of a popular PSG coach of the past, the livewire Luis Fernandez, who was also in attendance on Sunday night. Despite being under considerable pressure, Kombouare is getting far greater productivity from Pastore than Fernandez managed to coax from the vedette of his day, Ronaldinho. Pastore talked post-match of continuing to work and be “humble," words one finds hard to imagine passing the lips of his Brazilian predecessor.
Kombouare’s success so far has been his adaptability. That quality has persuaded this avowed disciple of 4-4-2 to switch to 4-2-3-1 in order to get the best from Pastore, Menez and Nene. It is an attribute which perhaps gives the PSG boss the edge over the more celebrated Didier Deschamps, with 2010 champion Marseille all but out of the race already, languishing nine and 12 points behind OL and PSG respectively after a nightmare opening of just one win in nine matches.
Current title holder Lille has the best chance of challenging the current top two, despite a slow start of its own as the northern club adjusted to life without Gervinho, Yohan Cabaye and Adil Rami. Rudi Garcia’s side is now fourth after an excellent 2-0 win over Rennes and the potential is there to grow. The burgeoning partnership between Eden Hazard and the newly-arrived Joe Cole promises to be a formidable weapon in the months to come; last season’s Ligue 1 Player of the Year, Hazard is reveling in linking up with a player of Cole’s flair and experience. In the recent draw at Bordeaux, the pair combined for a stellar equalizer, Hazard playing a one-two with Cole before dribbling past two defenders and smashing the ball into the far corner. In that match, Cole gave Hazard 14 passes and received 10 from the Belgian.
Quite simply, the era of Ligue 1 as the land of the goalless draw is over. This is the age of the entertainers, and a season to remember is well underway.