Well-documented big spenders Paris Saint Germain kicked off the 2012/13 season as they did their last - against talented outfit FC Lorient.
The Parc des Princes was a fine place to be on Saturday night. 40,000 flags were waving, and that mesmerising first glimpse of the pitch hit like a cold shower on a hot day. Indeed, all of Paris' majesty was on display in the evening warmth, but there was something more at stake for the flag-bearers.
Hope, the most powerful emotion of the collective, set in as the natural light dwindled on the fresh turf. Meanwhile, a new season was dawning.
This was a celebration of what is to come for the French capital in footballing terms. Tonight, PSG began their campaign full of optimism, reinforced and assembled with Qatari money. The result is a team more than capable of achieving considerable success. The belief that this will be the year that PSG elevate to the top of French football was rife, and along with the ambiance, it was infectious. We were witnessing a perfect repeat of last season, beginning against FC Lorient at home, and an opportunity to demonstrate just how far the team has come in a year. Undoubtedly, the skill of this season’s team is greater now than it was twelve months ago, which is testament to the amount of money that PSG’s owners have invested this summer, and indeed to the ambition of the club at large.
Nevertheless, Paris Saint Germain, even with a star studded team and billions in the bank, remain Paris Saint Germain. Flattery to deceive is inherent with this club. Predictably, it didn't take long for the hope to dwindle as well, as PSG fell behind early on – Maxwell helplessly putting the ball past his own keeper after four minutes.
There was a sense of disbelief around, as the carnival atmosphere had barely started before it was forced into retreat. The fans sang to drown out the well-known and ever-mounting sense of disappointment, which was tinged with expectancy.
Marco Verratti, the talented young Italian holding midfielder who has drawn comparisons with Andrea Pirlo, began to take hold of the game for PSG. Frustratingly, for Verratti and any Parisian stakeholders, the rest of the team was static and therefore attacks were infrequent and ineffective, though Lavezzi and Ibrahimovic looked threatening when they got the ball.
Lorient, on the other hand, looked set to repeat their stoic victory of the beginning of last August. New arrival from Auxerre, Alain Traoré, was outstanding in the first half, showing great technique, quick feet and a direct approach as he penetrated the shaky PSG back four time after time. He was unlucky not to score as well, his fantastic free kick just saved by the fingertips of Nicolas Douchez.
Les Merlus play some super football, and groans throughout the first half gave audible recognition of such from the PSG fans, as well as highlighting the inadequacy of their own side’s performance. Lorient carved many chances for themselves, with tidy central midfielder, Yann Jouffre, conducting the tempo. The visitors even had a goal disallowed as it was ruled marginally offside. It went from bad to worse for PSG, though, as Lorient did add a second just before the break, former Arsenal striker Jeremie Aliadiere capping off an impressive display, wriggling away from three PSG defenders to finish with conviction into the bottom corner.
Needless to say, the stadium hissed with anger as the players headed down the tunnel for half time. Murmurs of discontent and a suggestion near me that Ancelotti ought to struggle to keep his cool underlined the extent to which the mood had changed in forty-five minutes.
Parisian fans are indeed among the most fickle I've ever had the pleasure of watching a match with, to such an extent that I would go as far as saying they border on the delusional. Even so, the fans had every right to be outraged by the first half, as far as I was concerned.
The second half was an entirely different story, to say the least.
PSG emerged with purpose and a hunger that had been absent before the break. Notably, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ezequiel Lavezzi, the two most well documented of the big signings, began to turn on the style and the midfield controlled and distributed with more efficiency and urgency.
There were a number of chances for the home side to score early on in the half, Lavezzi failing to convert from three yards after some nice build up play down the right side. Jeremy Ménez also found his stride in the half, providing an attacking outlet on the left, a position he had failed to stick to in the first half. Ménez can be a hugely frustrating player to watch, when a culmination of laziness and arrogance sees him out of position and unproductive. Perhaps Ancelotti did struggle to keep his cool with the winger.
Lavezzi continued to stretch the Lorient right back, and whipped in a cross for Ibrahimovic who smacked the post with a half volley. Voices grew hoarse and familiar anxiety crept into the minds of the Parisians, who know all too well that PSG don't do things the easy way. It wasn’t going to be their day, it seemed.
Perhaps the most positive aspect of the game was that PSG kept fighting, determined to cash-in on their work.
The breakthrough finally came. Never have I seen a player with such an incredible ability to control the ball on his chest like Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The towering Swede can pluck the ball out of the air with grace and elegance, quite literally creating a chance from nothing. PSG’s star player did just that in the 64th minute, taking down Verratti’s lofted through ball and in spite of the pressure from two centre backs, managed to slot the ball home. Parc des Princes erupted. Belief flooded back as the best player on the pitch heard his name ring around the stadium.
PSG came again, pressing hard and should have added to their first goal earlier than they did, with Ménez missing a couple of golden opportunities, putting the ball high over the bar and into the hoards of fans desperate to see their team equalise.
Lavezzi was substituted around the 70-minute mark, going off to a standing ovation. He had put in a real shift for his new club, troubling the Lorient defence throughout the game. With his exit came a lull in PSG’s intensity, during which restlessness set in on and off the pitch.
Sakho and Alex were solid in the second half and Maxwell and Jallet offered a lot going forward down either wing as well. With five minutes to go, the intensity found its resurgence. This was a time for defenders to step up, and they did. The ball rattled around the Lorient penalty area a number of times, but their centre halves scraped it clear.
Finally, in the 90th and final minute of the opening game of the 2012/13 season, substitute Blaise Matuidi burst through and was brought down by Gregory Bourillon before he could pull the trigger. Lorient were reduced to ten men, and up stepped Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score the second goal of his competitive debut for PSG. The main man had stepped up to the plate, highlighting just why the fans are so delighted to see him in the distinctive PSG colours.
Despite a late flurry of optimistic attacking during which Ménez had yet another chance – this time blocked – the game ended 2-2. Not quite an ideal start, but a phenomenal match nonetheless. There are many positives to take for Carlo Ancelotti and his men but there can be little debate that the first half will also pose some difficult questions too.
As in the same fixture that kick-started last season, PSG had a rather bruised beginning, illustrating that much work still needs to be done. Nonetheless, there is an abundance of quality in that side and if they regularly replicate the type of performance shown in the second half, they will be unstoppable.