Ligue 1: Conquering Europe

NOT A PIPE DREAM: Zlatan Ibrahimovic is confident that PSG can do well in Europe as the standard of football in France has improved a lot.

PARIS - It's nearing winter's end.

A group of millionaire footballers stroked the ball around under a cloudless, azure sky, uncharacteristically sunny at this time of the year.

This was last Friday, at the Camp des Loges in the Western suburbs of Paris, where Paris Saint-Germain train.

There, a footballing dynasty is taking shape.

Not domestic dominance. That wheel was already set in motion.

After clinching the French Ligue 1 title last season, they look set to do it again.

A 2-0 win over St Etienne on Monday morning (Singapore time), courtesy of a Zlatan Ibrahimovic brace, kept PSG eight points clear of Monaco in the league standings.

But, given the size the club have grown into since billionaire conglomerate Qatar Investment Authority gave them their backing in 2011 , the coveted prize is now in Europe.

Their route into this term's Champions League quarter-finals was completed in emphatic fashion.

They topped Group C in the group stages, then swept Bayer Leverkusen aside with a 6-1 aggregate win in the Round of 16.

They are not quite in the league of Barcelona or Bayern Munich yet but, from the vibes one gets after speaking to the players, they feel they are getting there.

From the second-floor balcony which overlooks their training ground, PSG and Brazil skipper Thiago Silva spoke last Friday with a belief that success may be on the horizon.

"We have a good opportunity to win the Champions League this season," the 29-year-old defender, widely regarded as one of the finest of his trade, told The New Paper.

"We have shown that we are good enough to take on any team on our day."

Last season, their journey was cut short in the last eight by Barcelona, but they technically didn't lose.

The aggregate score read 3-3, but the Parisian outfit went out on the away-goals rule.

However, no French club have won European club football's top prize except for Marseille in 1993.

It's clear PSG have a huge task on their hands.

But, then again, it also seems as if PSG have plenty of justification to do.

SHOPPING SPREE

Since money poured in from the Middle East, they have shopped for the best that money can buy.

Six of their players - Silva, Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani, Javier Pastore, Lucas Moura and Ezequiel Lavezzi - accounted for about £200 million (S$421million) in transfer fees, not to mention the many others who were recruited over the last three years.

Against a backdrop of three groundsmen patching up the lumps he and his teammates had kicked up from the training pitches just minutes earlier, Ibrahimovic spoke with an air of confidence.

Clad in a PSG track top, stone-washed jeans and brown suede shoes, the 32-year-old Swede told TNP of their Champions League chances: "We're ready, we play good football.

"If we continue (with our good form), it'll be very interesting."

If improved domestic competition prepares teams better for continental challenges, then French clubs stand in good stead.

Ligue 1 matches, which air on SingTel mio TV, appear to be drawing more attention.

Ibrahimovic spoke with conviction when he said that the standard of league football in France has improved by "a lot".

Since Lyon lost their stranglehold, after clinching seven league titles from 2002 to 2008, five different clubs have won the top-flight title in the last five seasons - Bordeaux, Marseille, Lille, Montpellier and PSG.

Monaco, backed by Russians, are another high-profile club, with a roster that contains names such as Radamel Falcao, Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez.

For the next few years, they are expected to push PSG hard, if not claim their own glory.

Either way, PSG stand to benefit.

In an exclusive interview with TNP, PSG president Nasser Al Khelaifi said: "We hope to win the Champions League in four to five years' time."

He also said in no uncertain terms that results are expected at the club.

The roars that greeted Ibrahimovic's goals yesterday morning, a collective 45,000-strong effort at the Parc des Princes, almost feel like a ritual these days.

It was PSG's 21st victory in 29 league games, and Ibrahimovic collected his 24th and 25th goals in 28 league outings.

No one is doubting that the Ligue 1 trophy is staying in Paris.

The march towards European glory is next on the agenda.

Perhaps this season might have come a little too early for them.

But it seems like a matter of time before they reach the promised land.

garylim@sph.com.sg


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