Having been linked heavily to a host of Premier League clubs including Manchester United this week, superstar striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic turning up in England for a Champions League quarter-final and sauntering around as a deep-lying midfielder felt like a very Zlatan Ibrahimovic thing to do.
However, this was not so much “daring to Zlatan” as needs-must for Laurent Blanc’s Paris Saint-Germain, as they sought to prevail over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, with the tie delicately poised at 2-2.
Blanc found himself without influential midfield duo Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti through suspension and injury and responded with an unexpected set up in Manchester.
PSG deployed a back three for the first time this season and Ibrahimovic alternated between partnering Edinson Cavani up top and operating as a playmaker from much further back.
The sureness of touch and range of passing in both positions, along with a thunderbolt free-kick that forced an excellent 16th-minute stop from Joe Hart, meant an expectant crowd were treated to glimpses of a thoroughbred footballer’s full repertoire.
With four Ligue 1 titles out of four during his time at the Parc des Princes, this was the mature, focused version of Ibrahimovic doing his part in pursuit of European football’s ultimate prize before his anticipated close-season departure.
He would sting Hart’s palms with a second set-piece early in the second period – another high-class act that makes the 34-year-old’s talk of post-Euro 2016 retirement appear little more than a joke with which to entertain himself.
By that stage, Ibrahimovic was once again a conventional forward as Blanc’s experiments yielded mixed results.
After initially upsetting City’s rhythm and quietening the crowd, PSG found their unfamiliar backline exposed – much to the liking of Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, City’s scheming front trio.
The visitors’ defensive uncertainty reached breaking point when Serge Aurier coughed up possession to Aguero, who was felled by Kevin Trapp. But the Argentinian could only steer the resulting penalty past the PSG goalkeeper’s left post.
If this Champions League represented Ibrahimovic’s last stand as PSG’s totem, the same could be said for the established core of this City side.
Aguero and Silva have been weaving attacking spells in tandem since the former joined from from Atletico Madrid in 2011.
Hart, Yaya Toure and captain Vincent Kompany complete a quintet that have helped a club who won nothing between the 1976 League Cup and 2011 FA Cup go on to scoop every domestic honour in England.
It was another evening of authoritative assurance from Hart, who also saved well from Thiago Silva and Cavani after half-time, but Toure was only fit enough for bench duty and Kompany failed in his bid to return from another calf injury.
Of the outfield quartet, only Aguero is under 30 and a Pep Guardiola-led close-season overhaul is reportedly on the cards for a side who have fallen short so badly in the Premier League this term.
But the new toast of east Manchester weighed in emphatically to ensure outgoing boss Manuel Pellegrini will have an historic semi-final chance to get the gang back together.
De Bruyne’s decision-making had not been at its sharpest until he icily surveyed the options and curled an unerring 25-yard shot past Trapp with 14 minutes to play.
Blanc’s patched-up side needed two goals. Their race was run – even when Ibrahimovic converted from an offside position late on. Slamming the ball into the turf while staring incredulously the linesman need not be his final act on an English pitch.
They are fields that De Bruyne appears set to grace for a long time. Replaced by Toure as the clock ticked down, the Belgium international now appears to have taken the Ivorian’s mantle of being the man City turn to when they need game-breaking inspiration.
On Wednesday he delivered to the tune of the first Champions League semi-final in City’s history.
As Ibrahimovic prepares to depart the Paris stage, City look set to go into a new era with their very own force of nature.
- Soccer News Like
- Be the first of your friends!