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Zlatan takes Portugal, Eastern block dynamism – UEFA Champions League Group A preview

Oct 2, 2012, 2:35 PM EDT

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What’s Zlatan doing this week?

It takes an incredible talent to makes one of the world’s free spending clubs and turn it into his own traveling show, but that’s what Paris Saint-Germain got when they brought in (one of) the world’s greatest center forward(s). Anytime they play, it’s all about what Zlatan Ibrahimovic does, and whenever they’re away from the Parc de Princes, the only question is where’s PSG taken The Zlatan Show this week?

On Wednesday, Cirque de Zlatan is in Portugal to take on Portguese champions Porto. In Group A’s other match, Dyanmo Kyiv hopes a new coach can help them recover from a matchday one thrashing when they host Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb.

Porto (Portugal) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (France)
Estádio do Dragão, Porto, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

For a team of PSG’s ambitions, Porto’s a perfect litmus test. The perpetual Portuguese champions have had trouble translating their domestic and Europe League successes into Champions League. Last year was a perfect example. Porto went 2-2-2 in a group that most picked them to win, relegated to Europa after finishing behind APOEL Nicosea and Zenit St. Petersburg. They’re a talented and accomplished team, but ever since taking away the title 2004, Porto’s Champions League success has been elusive.

It’s not hard to imagine Paris Saint-Germain entering a similar state, if only temporarily. When a eam experiences a long a break from the tournament, the first year back in Champions League can be trying. it can be difficult to create a squad and mindset to balance domestic priorities and the tournament’s mid-week intensity. As we saw last year with Borussia Dortmund, Lille and Manchester City, talent can not always offset inexperience. Or, as we’ve seen with Porto (or during Real Madrid’s long spell pre-Mourinho), even experience isn’t enough. The unique demands of Champions League make it hard to predict whether a team will succeed until they do, in fact, succeed.

That’s why Porto is such a great test. They are right at that edge. At some point, it’s going to click. Perhaps it’s continued emergence of Colombian dynamo James Rodríguez. Maybe a year’s experience will help coach Vitor Periera. Or perhaps the difference between Hulk and Jackson Martínez will add a missing dimension. This year, Porto may be able to scare a team in the knockout round, but until they do, they’re the perfect measuring stick. If you can handle this team, you’re probably dangerous. If you can’t, you probably belong in Europa League.

Early returns on PSG’s ability to meet this challenge are good. They opened their Champions League campaign with a 4-1 thumping of Dynamo Kiev. On the domestic front, they’ve rebounded from a goal-starved start to roll off four straight wins, their +9 goal difference best in Ligue 1. The improved results have come as coach Carlo Ancelotti has settled into a 4-3-1-2 formation, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jeremy Ménez on top of a midfield leld by Javier Pastore, anchored by 19-year-old Marco Verratti. Since the switch, PSG’s clicked.

No matter the formation, the key is Ibrahimovic, who is off to an incredible start with his new team. In seven all-competition appearances, Zlatan has eight goals. He’ll likely be too much for center halves Nicolas Otámendi and Maicon, who will need help from midfielders Joao Moutinho and Steven Defour as Ibrahimovic drops into space. That will only open up room for Pastore and Ménez as well as make it more difficult to pick up Blaise Matuidi and Mohamed Sissoko coming up from midfield.

Despite those advantages, it’s still a big task to go to win at the Dragão. The last team to do so in group stage was Chelsea in 2009, another hint that this is the perfect test for PSG. If the Parisians want to be world elites, they have to perform like world elites.

More: Group A Group B Group C Group D

Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine) vs. Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)
Olimpiysky National Sports Complex, Kyiv, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

The must-wins come early in a six-game tournament. By the math, Dynamo Kyiv could lose on Wednesday and still get into the knockout round, but coming off a poor performance in Paris, failing to win at home against the group’s trailing pack would leave them with a lot of ground to make up on Porto, let alone Paris Saint-Germain.

Oleg Blokhin, now former Ukraine national team coach, will be the man tasked with making up that ground. The new coach was thought ready to keep both roles after recently being appointed to the role at Dynamo; however, Blokhin tendered a surprise resignation last Friday, allowing him to focus on getting Dynamo caught up Shakhtar Donestk on the domestic front, into the Champions League knockout rounds in Europe.

His first order of Champions League business: making the team forget about the 4-1 loss in Paris. From the club’s website:

“In the Champions League, Dynamo will fight for a way out of the group.

“The defeat by PSG with a score of 4-1 does not say anything. I remember a couple of years ago, the same happened when Shakhtar Donetsk lost in London, 5-1 to Arsenal.

“They then went into the play-offs with first place in the group.”

It’s a strange world where Dynamo is drawing inspiration from Shakhtar, but that’s the challenge Blokhin’s inherited. His team is a clear step behind their Ukrainian rivals, and advancing in Europe is seen more as a fancy than a goal. It’s Blokin’s job to change that view.

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