Overcoming potential Matuidi absence key to win in Nantes

Posted by Jonathan Johnson

During preseason, few would have predicted Paris Saint-Germain would travel to Nantes for the third round of Ligue 1 matches having only registered two points from a possible six. That is the reality for the French champions after a Guillermo Ochoa-inspired Ajaccio somehow escaped from the Parc des Princes with a point last Sunday.

By the time Laurent Blanc’s side take to the pitch at the Stade Beaujoire for this weekend’s final fixture in Le Championnat on Sunday, they could find themselves a provisional seven points behind early season title rivals Monaco and Marseille. Early days it may be, but if the draw at Montpellier was excusable, then the two additional dropped points at home to Fabrizio Ravenelli’s Corsican side were more than a little inconvenient.

-Leonardo backs Blanc to succeed

In truth, PSG dominated their opponents and will be looking to pick up where they left off against a Nantes side faring better than many expected on their return to the top-flight after a four-year absence. Les Canaris currently sit one point and seven places ahead of PSG, but due to an administrative error they fielded an ineligible player in the season-opening 2-0 win over Bastia and will likely lose those points.

Michel Der Zakarian’s side will be approaching the clash as if they have nothing from their first two matches, but PSG should be seeing this as a must-win game given the circumstances. With Marseille and Monaco displaying more fluency and looking highly convincing in their early season form, Blanc's side must get out of second gear this time around.

Nobody at the club is panicking too much just yet, but falling back on the excuse that they didn't even win a match until week four under Carlo Ancelotti last season will not be considered satisfactory if the team only manage a point or worse in western France. That was last season when the competition was less intense and the team is much improved, not to mention that the coach is also different.

Key to ending the side's ‘traditionally slow start’ this weekend will be how ‘Le President’ handles the absence of the irrepressible -- or should that be irreplaceable -- Blaise Matuidi, if necessary. The French international is peerless in the PSG midfield, but suffered a nasty clash of heads with Ajaccio youngster Joshua Nadeau and required eight stitches after the match.

It is not yet known if the 26-year-old will be fit enough to return to action, but this weekend might come too soon despite Blanc's reports that he has “progressed better than expected.”

If Matuidi is unable to play, head protection or not, Thiago Motta will likely shift into his holding position, with one of Marco Verratti or Adrien Rabiot coming in to partner him. Going back to a point I made following the Montpellier result, another possibility is that Blanc opts to deploy struggling playmaker Javier Pastore there instead. The Argentine disappointed once more against Ajaccio, getting booed when replaced by compatriot Ezequiel Lavezzi after 58 minutes following another lifeless performance.

Looking back at it, the game with Les Ours would have been the wrong moment to experiment switching Pastore back into the middle with a full complement of healthy players to choose from in that role. But this weekend, with Matuidi unavailable and given the potential banana-skin nature of the clash with Nantes, Blanc may wish to go with two experienced players in the middle ahead of the erratic Verratti and the teenage Rabiot.

Bringing Lavezzi on in place of Pastore against Ajaccio had the desired effect; PSG were more direct, they had width and they created more chances with the former Napoli man’s pace and energy wreaking havoc in what had been a resolute Corsican back line until that point. The defending champions need that same width, energy and attacking impetus from the start on Sunday against another side who will likely try to replicate Ajaccio’s stubborn defensive showing.

With chances likely more limited than they were last week, maintaining the same silver service for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani is of paramount importance. Therefore, more width is required, something that can only be granted by Lavezzi for now in the absence of Jeremy Menez through injury and suspension. Lucas Moura came in for criticism after his showing against Ajaccio, but remains a vital outlet on the opposite side (and in the middle) provided a more reliable right back than Christophe Jallet backs him up.

The midfield would also have to compensate for the loss of Matuidi’s multiple talents. The 26-year-old enjoys a particularly good understanding with Ibrahimovic going forward, so an increased level of creativity in the middle will be needed to offset his all-round contribution and not just his defensive reliability.

This is something that arguably takes two of the players from the available midfield selection instead of the all-in-one Matuidi.

Verratti may have the energy and creativity, but he does not have the same composure and discipline that Motta possesses. Pastore may lack the speed and exuberance of the younger Italian, but makes up for it with his superb technical abilities when he applies himself. The 18-year-old Rabiot is undoubtedly talented enough to start, but it is perhaps a bit of a risk to throw him in given the pressing need for three points.

History is on PSG’s side in western France, having won four of their last 10 trips to the Stade Beaujoire and allowing the hosts only two victories. The fixture has produced four draws in that time though, and another would create further problems for Blanc and the French champions.

PSG need a first win of the campaign and can't afford to wait longer than Sunday to get it. But in order to do so, Blanc must make one or two difficult decisions to avoid a “traditionally slow start” to the season becoming a premature but genuine crisis.

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