David Beckham's arrival at the mega-rich French club has attracted the headlines – but he may have to get used to being in the playing shadow of the Brazilian magician
Paris Saint-Germain's big January arrival is already lighting up Ligue 1, helping to show why the club has little or no need for David Beckham on the pitch. Unlike Beckham, the Brazilian midfielder Lucas Moura was wanted by Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson believed he had the youngster in his grasp until PSG proved that there is a fearsome new knight in the football kingdom, clad entirely in golden armour: a £35m offer for a player who at the time was 19 left Ferguson wittering about a world "gone mad"– but Lucas is starting to make the move look shrewd. And PSG are beginning to look like a team capable of upsetting many more members of the European establishment.
The Lucas transfer was agreed in August but the player was allowed to stay with São Paulo until January, marking his last appearance with a goal and victory in the Copa Sudamericana final. He has yet to score in his four matches for PSG but has certainly sparkled.
His latest outing was his brightest yet, as he created two goals in PSG's 4-0 triumph at Toulouse on Friday night, the home side having had to play the second half with 10 men after defender Cheikh M'bengue was sent off for twice resorting to desperate hacks in an effort to contain Lucas. PSG are now three points clear at the top of the table – though Lyon could draw level if they win at Ajaccio on Sunday – and have won seven and drawn one of their past eight league matches, setting a club record by not conceding a goal in any of them. All this amid grumbles that, until the win at Toulouse, they have not been playing particularly well.
The victory at Toulouse was their fifth 4-0 win of the season and it says much about the level of expectation around this team that during a previous one – against Troyes in November – they were booed by their own fans. Given how much has been invested by the Qatar Investment Authority since 2011, Carlo Ancelotti is obliged to produce a team that not merely wins, but does so with panache. That is a familiar mission for the former Chelsea manager, and one he accepted with his eyes open: after all, when he took the job 13 months ago he replaced Antoine Kombouaré, who had been sacked with the team at the top of the table. Ancelotti failed to keep them there, as Montpellier took the title last season but the Italian was cut some slack: the project was in its infancy, the team needed time to gel. That team was embellished even further in the summer as the owners splurged £60m to bring Ezequiel Lavezzi from Napoli and Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Milan.
Ibrahimovic has been an unqualified success, plundering 20 league goals this season, eight more than anyone else, but Ancelotti has been under pressure because his team have not been completely convincing, at times appearing too reliant on individual ingenuity over any collective might. At Toulouse, however, they were mighty indeed. It helped that Toulouse were weakened by the sale of Moussa Sissoko to Newcastle – that PSG are recruiting lavishly while virtually everyone else in Ligue 1 is downsizing is another reason why not landing the title this season would be an amazing failure. In Sissoko's absence, the France international Blaise Matuidi and the 20-year-old Italy international Marco Verratti dominated central midfield, combining huge dynamism with sharp passing.
Verratti was another of last summer's signings and during the first months of the campaign his performances led to him being dubbed a more dynamic Andrea Pirlo. However, his displays then dipped and his tendency to over-dribble began to irritate and when Ancelotti, seeking greater fluency from his side, switched to a 4-4-2 formation rather than a three-man central midfield about two months ago, Verratti was squeezed out by the less eye-catching but more solid Thiago Motta. The latter soon got injured, however, and since returning to the side Verratti has shone. That is a pattern that has been replicated all over the pitch recently.
Christophe Jallet, one of the club's few remnants of the pre-Qatar era, began the season well at right-back before concerns arose that, for all his effectiveness going forward, he was dodgy defensively. An upgrade was hired in the Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel and the captaincy taken off Jallet and entrusted to Thiago Silva. But Van der Wiel struggled so Jallet was reinstated in December and has been excellent. Van der Wiel was consigned to the bench, off which he came against Toulouse to claim his first goal for the club.
Similarly, Thiago Silva formed a formidable partnership in central defence with his fellow Brazilian, the former Chelsea defender Alex, but they have been injured recently and the run of clean sheets has come with Mamadou Sakho and Sylvain Armand protecting the goal of Salvatore Sirigu. It is starting to look as though there is so much quality in the squad that no matter who Ancelotti chooses, PSG are unbeatable.
That theory will get its most stringent examination in the Champions League, where PSG meet Valencia in the last 16. The biggest test PSG's opponents face, meanwhile, is taming an attack that may be starting to function with the flair demanded. At Toulouse, where France internationals Jérémy Ménez and Kevin Gameiro again began on the bench, Javier Pastore's return to form continued and the Argentinian, who was the new regime's first marquee signing when he joined from Palermo for £33m in 2011, interchanged slickly with Lavezzi and Lucas, as that trio flitted around the always classy Ibrahimovic with beguiling effect. It is as if the zest and invention Lucas has radiated since his arrival has inspired those around him. "This was undoubtedly our best performance of the season," said Ancelotti. "And Lucas is going to get even better with each game."
The task now for Ancelotti is to ensure that if Lucas's performances start to wane in the way that so many of his team-mates did after promising starts, his downturn does not last as long as theirs. Perhaps that is where the ultra-professional Beckham may just have a useful role to play beyond his corporate mascot duties.