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The Ligue 1 Review – Week 31

Whistles rang round the Parc des Princes. As Angel Di Maria’s shot ricocheted down from the bar, with Metz keeper Thomas Didillon stranded, Edinson Cavani conspired to embarrassingly scuff his rebound effort wide, the goal at his mercy, much to the Parisian crowd’s increasing frustration. This was not an isolated incident. Although PSG eased to a 3-0 victory over Metz back in August, Cavani, thrust into the spotlight of the centre-forward role vacated by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, cut a disillusioned and embittered figure. He choked.

31 points clear and 35 goals better off than anyone else at the end of the previous campaign, scoring Ligue 1 goals for the Paris club is far from a challenge, and this Cavani did. Nevertheless, the Uruguayan’s performances as a whole were still surprisingly wayward as a series of bewildering misses accompanied the goals. Displays in the 3-1 loss at Monaco and the home draw with Saint-Étienne were so erratic and lacking in composure that after PSG number 9’s dismal finishing during the visit of Arsenal in September, spurning a clear chance was referred to by a Canal + commentator the following day as ‘doing a Cavani’.

He has taken his time but as Marco Verratti’s exquisite outside of the boot cross dropped out of the air for the PSG centre forward to gracefully and emphatically volley home, putting Saturday’s Coupe de la Ligue final beyond challengers Monaco, it was clear, as it has been for some weeks, that El Matador’s restoration is now complete. A brace in the 4-1 thumping of a flagging Monaco side, sorely missing their own revitalised top scorer Falcao and midfield general Fabinho, took Cavani to 40 goals in 40 games across the campaign and nine in eight finals for PSG. A record that hints at a stunning season, but his road to recovery has been far more pot-holed than the statistics would suggest.

Infamously moved out to the left-wing upon his signing in 2013 to accommodate Laurent Blanc’s ubiquitous 4-3-3, the €55m fee and, crucially, Ibrahimovic as the only striker, Cavani’s frustrations rapidly intensified as opportunities to play in his much preferred central role grew increasingly limited and he became a toxic influence on the camp. Ibrahimovic and a small group of senior players bemoaned a perceived poor attitude on the part of their colleague in a meeting with Blanc during last season’s winter break. Open about their meeting Blanc described the issue as a “behavioural problem” but the player himself was not the issue despite stating that “there is a situation that has had to be discussed.”

During Ibrahimovic’s reign, the PSG squad became notoriously cliquey with a tight nit group of players exerting a significant influence on the camp, led of course by the Swede. Zlatan’s overt reluctance to pass to his strike partner on occasion over the last few seasons was a clear sign that Cavani was very much on the outside of that group. But with Ibrahimovic moving to Manchester this summer and new managerial arrival Unai Emery stating that Cavani would be his number one forward, a chance for El Matador to reclaim his lethal reputation established Napoli and, perhaps more importantly, centre stage, presented itself. Despite his erroneous displays in front of goal, his manager remained confident: “If Cavani has as many chances as that in the future, I am relaxed because I know he will score.” His faith was well placed.

Throughout the autumn and into the winter four goal hauls and back-heeled strikes were countered by some anonymous outings and further abject finishing. Perhaps best summed up by the fact that in early January he had scored (17) and missed (18) the most clear-cut chances in Europe’s top five leagues according to WhoScored.com, form L’Équipe wonderfully referred to as ‘chronic clumsiness’. Despite now being installed as PSG’s focal point, Cavani was struggling to step out of Ibrahimovic’s shadow, the Swede’s legacy and overbearing presence seemed to dog the Uruguayan from afar and he still routinely appeared to be devoid of confidence, most notably in bigger games when pressure intensified. But as this season has worn on, the devastating finishing and flashing headers that Napoli fans will remember so fondly have become the overwhelming characteristic of the forward’s play.

El Matador’s resurgence was gradual, even glacial at times but Cavani is a player that needs rhythm. Marginalised and played out of position for two full seasons, reasserting himself in a role he had barely played for so long was going to take time, as the player himself elaborates: “When an attacker loses the habit of playing at his post, he tends to lose the timing. Then, a pure attacker, the one who has this in his blood, can gradually regain his best level with time and work to settle the small details. That’s what happens.” An astute assessment. As his ruthlessness returned, the memory of Ibrahimovic began to fade, Cavani’s confidence blossomed.

PSG fans have realised the importance of confidence for El Matador, something now recognized by the player: “There are a lot of people who love this team, who love Cavani and wish him the best. That also gives me strength to continue my way.” Now when he fails to take a clear chance, the whistles of the Paris faithful have been replaced by the chanting of his name, a reminder that he is their talisman. Cavani is now PSG’s premier forward not only in name but he feels as though he is too, a pivotal change, he has the support’s affections. He has gone from rounding off moves and taking simple chances in routine Ligue 1 outings to being the match winner in big games and conjuring something from nothing on a regular basis.

Over the past few months as his goal-scoring has intensified, glaring misses largely drying up he has looked increasingly assured, his composure has returned and the predatory instinct that brought him to PSG is evident once more. Integral strikes and assured penalties to take important points against Lille, Nancy, Monaco and Nantes and a nonchalant dink over Yohann Pelé in the 5-1 thrashing of Marseille at the Vélodrome, exemplify the recent return of his clinical edge and prove that he is now not just a goal-scorer but, with his confidence restored and ego sufficiently plumped, a leader and a man to be relied upon too. For much of the year, despite some impressive statistics, this was not the case.

Although they have a long way to go and many more changes need to be affected, the statement made by Emery’s side in taking the first piece of silverware on offer this season and dispensing with their buoyant rivals in such resounding fashion was their first real step in moving past the utter humiliation of the Nou Camp. Verratti’s passing verged on the sublime, Thiago Silva bullied the previously effervescent Kyrlian Mbappé out of the game and Angel Di Maria was at his bamboozling best. But crucially, moving past PSG legend Pauleta’s total and outscoring Ibrahimovic’s return of last season, with his chin up and fire in his eyes, swaggering around the Parc OL, Edinson Cavani is now not just PSG and Ligue 1’s premier forward but amongst the top marksmen on the continent. He may yet lead the capital club to their promised land of European glory and overshadow even Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the halls of the Parisian greats.

 

1 | This weekend represented an ideal opportunity for Marseille; their European rivals Lyon and Bordeaux faced tough matches on the road to Rennes and Nice, respectively, with additional fixtures to come midweek. L’OM, meanwhile, were playing host to a Dijon missing their most dangerous player, Loïs Diony and welcoming back Bafétimbi Gomis from injury, the league their only remaining competition. Instead of dominating the visitors, though, Marseille were forced to rely on a Dimitri Payet free-kick to scrape a point after Dijon had gone ahead through an own goal. Baptiste Reynet played a strong match in goal for the visitors, making several fine saves, but the result, a 1-1 draw, served a potent reminder of just how far Frank McCourt’s “Champions Project” has to go, with the current top four and Bordeaux all looking far more cohesive attacking units.

The performances of Marseille’s two French internationals provided a prime study in this disparity. Florian Thauvin is an improving player, but his performance (or lack thereof) for his country over the last week served to underscore his absence of quality compared to his international teammates. Against Spain, the callow Thauvin was denied a chance to play as Didier Deschamps’ diamond has no natural position for him, while he was not to be trusted against Luxembourg in a match that was not settled until very late. In this match, then, perhaps seeing how his positional limitations had limited his opportunities with Les Bleus, Thauvin continually cut inside, attempting to play as an attacking midfielder and subverting the efforts of Maxime Lopez to do the same, while failing to do much to link play with Hiroki Sakai. Dimitri Payet was far from impressive against Luxembourg, but he was superb against Dijon, doing his best to be a creative fulcrum; only the heroics of Reynet kept him from adding an assist to his goal. It was one of his better matches since coming to the Vélodrome, and was encouraging to see, but also served as a reminder that while progress has made at Marseille, this is a journey the bulk of which is yet to come.

2 | Much like Marseille, Olympique Lyonnais also laboured to a 1-1 draw. Rennes away is certainly a more difficult match than Dijon at home, but the sending off of Ramy Bensebaini before the match was five minutes old should have made the encounter more decisive in Lyon’s favour. Instead, the hosts were kept at bay courtesy of a superb performance from Benoît Costil, including stopping a penalty from Alexandre Lacazette.

The veteran goalkeeper is out of contract in the summer, and after an embarrassing set of performances in last season’s run-in saw Rennes slip from the European places, many observers would have not spared him a second thought, despite his continued presence on the periphery of the national team. Rennes have similarly tumbled down the table this season, but Costil is no longer the guilty party; only two teams have scored less than the Breton side’s 29 goals. It is true that he has sometimes been at less than his best this season, but Costil yesterday delivered a potent reminder as to why he will be sought after this summer, with Marseille strongly linked.

3 | Red cards have been something of a punchline for Bastia and, to some extent, Metz and Lille this season, failure to keep ten men on the pitch proving their undoing on several occasions. On Friday, however, it was the turn of Nancy. Pitted against a flagging Guingamp, and with Dijon, with whom they are battling to avoid the drop away to Marseille, the trip to Brittany seemed a near-perfect opportunity to put pressure on their rivals, but it was not to be. Modou Diagné was sent off on twenty minutes after a poor challenge on Jimmy Briand, and perhaps should have been joined by Faitout Maoussa after the young winger twice cleared out Jonathan Martins Pereira in the first half.

The first challenge was worse than the first, but referee Jérôme Miguelgorry displayed leniency, the match being less than five minutes old, and only gave a booking for the second. Maouassa had scored a fine goal the week prior against Lorient, and has offered a rare attacking threat, having been converted from left-back. However, the booking was the youngster’s fifth in as many matches, and offered strong evidence to why he has failed to kick on after being named in the team of the tournament at last summer’s U19 European Championships. Maouassa is undoubtedly talented, and still just 18, but he needs to improve his discipline if he is going to not only continue his progression but help his team stay in the top flight. Benjamin Mendy had similar issues with his tackling, even into his time at Marseille, and has developed into France’s first-choice left-back, so there is still hope, but Maouassa’s progression needs to accelerate or it will have to take place in the second division.

4 | Nantes’ signing of Préjuce Nakoulma may have seemed a stretch, even if he had been released by his previous club, Kayserispor at the end of 2016, meaning he had arrived on a free transfer. He had looked sharp at the Africa Cup of Nations, playing a key role in Burkina Faso’s surprising run to the semi-finals, but had failed to make an impact for one of Turkey’s worst teams. He had enjoyed a couple of strong seasons in Poland, but given the quality of that league, many attacking players (notably Mariusz Stepinski) have struggled to make the step up from the Ekstraklasa. Nakoulma, however, has been all too eager to prove his doubters wrong, and has averaged a goal every 90 minutes through his first five appearances, capped by a brace in a 2-1 win over Angers.

Cynics might offer the caveat of rather dubious offside calls yesterday, but that is countered by a wickedly swerving goal-bound shot deflecting off of his teammate Emiliano Sala and an incredible acrobatic finish for his second. Nakoulma has played on both wings in his career, but with Nantes, he has thrived as a second striker. Nakoulma uses his considerable upper body strength and searing pace to link play in a free role, either playing off the shoulder of a more archetypal centre forward, such as Emiliano Sala or Yacine Bammou or leading the line himself. Manager Sérgio Concieção rightly deserves the lion’s share of credit for Nantes’ improved form, but Nakoulma, even if a bit erratic, has allowed the Portuguese to mix up his attack just a bit more, providing another weapon to propel Les Canaris’ rise up the table.

A.W. and E.D.

 

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