Despite a 2-1 defeat to Benfica in their final Group C game in Champions League play, Paris Saint-Germain should fear nobody ahead of Monday’s last-16 draw. The French champions were already assured their place in the knockout stage and the top spot in the group, after their 2-1 home win over Olympiakos in their penultimate group-stage clash.
Laurent Blanc’s men emerged from their pool with 13 points from a possible 18, three clear of the Greek champions in second but two points worse than they were under Carlo Ancelotti at the same point last year.
There are more reasons for optimism this time around, though, not least the early form displayed by the Ligue 1 giants on the continent. After their opening three matches in Group C, PSG had stormed to nine points and scored 12 goals while conceding just one. Two of those three victories came on the road, with heavy beatings handed out to Olympiakos and Belgian champions RSC Anderlecht.
After moving within three points of practically instant qualification, the Parisians got a little complacent and suffered a draw at home to John van den Brom’s side, prolonging their need to go with full-strength starting XIs by one match. However, a victory over Olympiakos in the next game confirmed their safe passage and decided the group, allowing Blanc to give his side much-needed rest against Benfica to remain competitive on all fronts with progress in the domestic cups back home.
That rotation has generally worked, and PSG are two points clear of title rivals AS Monaco, with a Coupe de la Ligue clash on Wednesday against AS Saint-Etienne with the side in top form once again. The Ligue 1 side will be keen to reassert their dominance with a full-strength side once the Champions League resumes.
Nobody will be more keen than Zlatan Ibrahimovic to get back onto the European stage. The mercurial Swede was no doubt disappointed that he did not have the chance to set a record and become the competition’s top scorer in the group stages by missing the trip to Lisbon.
Instead, that honour now belongs to Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored his ninth goal of the campaign away to FC Copenhagen, leaving Ibrahimovic on eight. However, Ibra's form has been sensational in this season’s edition so far, and it helped catapult him into Ballon d’Or contention. He may not have made the three-man short list, but that form has not deserted him, and he now boasts an incredible 57 goals and 22 assists in just 69 appearances this year. Second only to Ronaldo in Europe, he leads teammate Edinson Cavani by two goals in Ligue 1 as France’s leading scorers.
Aside from Ibra, though, PSG arguably boast one of the most complete squads in the competition and certainly one of the, if not the, strongest starting XI on paper.
Gregory van der Wiel has been outstanding at right-back, providing Ibrahimovic with four of his eight goals. Marquinhos, 19, has been a revelation in central defence, scoring twice, yet not even boasting enough experience to keep his place in the starting XI now that Thiago Silva is once again fit. In the Selecao captain, PSG have the defender who is regarded as the best in the world, while fellow Brazilian Alex is a strong and experienced partner.
Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti are one of the best midfield trios anywhere in the world, while Blanc has the luxury of choosing between Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas Moura and Jeremy Menez to play alongside Ibrahimovic and Cavani.
PSG should fear no one; instead, other teams should fear them.
However, the French champions should be wary of having been lured into a false sense of security by their group-stage exploits. Among the possible last 16 opponents are the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and AC Milan, all massive names and excellent teams with plenty of pedigree, but sides that have come through more difficult groups.
The German sides Schalke 04 and Bayer Leverkusen are part of a wave of four Bundesliga teams representing the current strength of German football in the latter stages, while Galatasaray knocked out Italian giants Juventus in their rearranged fixture earlier in the week.
Zenit St. Petersburg, who advanced with just six points from Group G, and Olympiakos are the two weakest sides to finish as runners-up. PSG cannot face the Greeks again so soon after the group stage, though.
Perhaps a draw against one of the teams from the middle band of this group -- a Leverkusen or a Schalke -- would be preferable to one of the bigger sides this early on. But do PSG really have a genuine cause for concern ahead of the draw? No. Manchester City, Arsenal and AC Milan will arguably be fearing Blanc’s side more than PSG fear them, and drawing one of those would give the team the step up in quality that it needs after a relatively straightforward group stage.
Getting an “easy” draw in Zenit would do the team no favours, and Galatasaray would be a draw that no remaining side wants given Juventus’ struggles in appalling conditions in Istanbul. The big danger is that the difference in quality between PSG’s Group C opposition and their next challenge will be massive and that it takes the French champions by surprise.
With a winter-break friendly against Real Madrid in Doha on Jan. 2, PSG have an excellent chance to prepare to face an in-form European giant in preparation for whatever task they are handed on Monday.
Possible last-16 opponents for PSG: Bayer Leverkusen, Galatasaray, Manchester City, Schalke 04, Arsenal, Zenit St. Petersburg, AC Milan.