It was the Lille coach, René Girard, who dared to go against the grain. Or perhaps more accurately, to voice publicly what everyone is privately thinking. Paris Saint-Germain are almost out of sight in Ligue 1, their domestic dominance established courtesy of Qatari billions and a team inspired by a superstar the likes of whom French football has not lauded as one of their adopted own in generations. They have been virtually untouchable. And yet for all the giddy progress and glitzy profile enjoyed by the Parisians and their talisman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there is plenty France's leading nouveaux riches still have to prove.
On Wednesday, in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, Chelsea will provide them with a proper test. "Michel Platini talks of PSG being champions here for 10 years, but we're only experiencing in France what it's been like in Spain, with Real Madrid and Barcelona, or in Germany for years," said Girard. "The real issue is the fact that, between the top 15 clubs in Europe and the others, there is still a chasm. Even PSG, who are miles clear in Ligue 1, are not at the top in Europe. Far from it. And look at Ibrahimovic. He aspires to win the Ballon d'Or. He is a king in France, but he has still to prove he can be a king of Europe."
There is a thrilled anticipation about the tie. Tickets for the first leg at Parc des Princes sold out in two hours and, were trading on the black market for up to ¤3,000 (almost £2,500). The 2,000 made available for travelling fans at Stamford Bridge for the return were snapped up in the blink of an eye on Friday morning. PSG exited the competition to Barcelona at the same stage last season, severely testing the Catalans en route, but losing to such opposition almost felt acceptable, almost a rite of passage en route to establishing the club at the top table. This time around, with José Mourinho having made such play of his own team being outsiders – despite having claimed the European Cup and the Europa League in the past two seasons – there is an expectation that PSG can stamp their newly acquired status on one of the established elite.
This can be the moment when PSG became a force, ousting Chelsea and Mourinho en route. It can also be the stage upon which Ibrahimovic truly wounds another contender, transposing effervescent domestic form on to the latter stages of Europe's elite competition. There is an eagerness to witness the 32-year-old forward roughing up John Terry or unsettling Gary Cahill, players who will not waver in his presence in the same way as so many domestic centre-halves over the past two seasons. Ibrahimovic's mere presence has intimidated opponents in France. Markers are diminished in his company and he met little resistance, too, in a far from daunting Champions League group before Christmas, or against Bayer Leverkusen in the round of 16. But Chelsea, with that experienced back-line and reputation for European success, will be different. This will be a truer indication of progress.
Ibrahimovic's status in France requires some context. The Swede had already toured the continent's elite by the time the front page of l'Equipe trumpeted, in July 2012, the arrival of a "Giant" on a three-season contract from Milan worth ¤18m a year gross. The most expensive journeyman ever had won domestic titles with Ajax, Internazionale, Juventus (both of which were subsequently revoked due to the Calciopoli scandal), Barcelona and Milan. He already boasted the reputation for arrogance born of brilliance. And yet his impact at PSG has still surpassed expectations. From the moment he scored twice to haul his new club back from 2-0 down at home to Lorient on debut, he has blazed a trail in France. There were 35 goals in 46 matches in all competitions last season. This time around he boasts 40 from 41, breaking Carlos Bianchi's club record that had stood for 36 years. There have been 25 in 29 league games to fuel the belief that Josip Skoblar's record of 44, set with Marseille in 1971, might also be eclipsed.
Throw in a conveyor belt of assists – 13 in the league – and his contribution is merely underlined. David Beckham, who played alongside him last season, has described him as "in the top three" players with whom he has lined up. "At PSG everything revolves around Zlatan," said the forward Ezequiel Lavezzi, who had previously been so pivotal at Napoli. The Swede had rather strolled through contests at times last season, but has been galvanised, perhaps by the summer arrival of Edinson Cavani as a potential rival galáctico, to reach new levels. He and the Uruguayan have hit it off. Great players tend to thrive in each other's company.
Laurent Blanc has certainly enjoyed unleashing them on all-comers, with his admiration for Ibrahimovic obvious. "Zinedine Zidane played as if he had the ball on the end of a string," said the PSG coach. "Zlatan is more athletic, a player who is almost 2m tall and nearly 100kg, but plays with the speed and dexterity of a player much shorter and slighter. But they're each capable of doing things you can't believe with a ball at their feet. Imagine watching them together in the same team. That would have been something really special."
PSG revel in Ibrahimovic's presence. "When you have a player of that level in the team, you come to depend upon him," said the midfielder Marco Verratti. "It's like Lionel Messi at Barcelona. You can have other stars in the side, but he's the cherry on the cake. If I give him the ball, I know he's going to do something special that will change the game. Playing with him is a joy."
France has become accustomed to his brilliance. It was the television channel Canal Plus who coined the verb "zlataner" and, even if the major French dictionaries have felt inclined to include it in their editions to be published this summer, it has still become footballing slang. Zlataner, verb, transitive: to win a football match; to dominate or outrageously humiliate a rival. He has his own puppet on the channel's comedy show, Les Guignols de l'Info – an honour usually reserved for political celebrities – who wears a perfume, Eau de Zlatan, made from the Swede's concentrated sweat.
Such references are flippant, but Ibrahimovic, to whom this emerging force can point as evidence of new-found standing, is raising the whole profile of the game in France. Domestic football is growing in popularity again, the sight of Ibrahimovic illuminating what recently would have been considered run-of-the-mill top-flight games adding to the appeal. In a recent survey conducted by the Union des Clubs Professionnels de Football, the game had eclipsed tennis and rugby as France's sport of choice. Ligue 1 was apparently more popular than the Champions League (that may be tested in the fortnight ahead) and 69% of those quizzed declared Ibrahimovic the league's most emblematic figure. No surprise, then, that a young Lorient fan sprinted on to the pitch at the end of PSG's recent win at Stade du Moustoir to hug the Swede and implore him to hand over his shirt. Ibrahimovic, idolised even by opposition fans, duly obliged.
Within the PSG set-up he exerts considerable clout. Thiago Silva is the team's on-field captain, but it was Ibrahimovic who negotiated the ¤1m per man bonus with the club's president, Nasser al Khelaifi, should the team claim the Champions League this season. Qatar Sports Investments' five-year plan had always aspired to be "in a position" to win this competition by 2014, but the bonus would be the biggest paid in football. That will have gone down well with team-mates already impressed by the level of professionalism their leading scorer has brought to training at Camp des Loges. Silva called him "a magician" this season, "someone who can conjure skill or finishes that defy belief at any second every day in training as well as in games".
"I remember him putting on one of the most unbelievable sessions I've ever seen," said the former PSG No2, Paul Clement, who is now working alongside Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid. "It was a couple of days after he'd come back from scoring four against England [in November 2012]. The last goal he'd scored for Sweden had been out of this world and he came back on the crest of a wave.
"We only had a small group of players, five versus five work, and I've never seen a player train like that: the quality, the intensity, the drive. He scored an overhead not dissimilar to the one in the match, but in a small-sided game into a 2m x 1m goal. Everyone just stood there with mouths wide open.
"He's an incredible athlete. I worked with Didier Drogba at Chelsea and he was immense, physically, with what he could do on the field with his body and power. But Zlatan's at another level. A phenomenal player: ability, character, power, strength. Special."
"But it's the team that gives him the chance to show his qualities," said the side's vice-captain, Thiago Motta. "Sure, he's a top-quality player who has proved his credentials over a long and glittering career, one of the best forwards of the last decade, but the team gives him his platform on which to star. We allow him to make the difference."
They have thrived all season even if some point to the home draws with Monaco and Lille, the closest contenders for the title, as evidence that they do not always prevail against a better standard of opponent.
That merely adds to the hype and expectation surrounding the Chelsea tie. Ibrahimovic is enjoying his most productive season in the Champions League, with 10 goals from seven appearances, to suggest a player in his pomp. And yet puncturing Anderlecht and Bayer Leverkusen, even Olympiakos and Benfica, is one thing. Deflating Chelsea quite another. Girard, and France, are seeking evidence that Zlatan can carry this team to new levels.