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May 6, 2014

Super Swedes prepare to do battle as PSG host Rennes


Paris Saint-Germain host Stade Rennais on Wednesday with a chance to sew up a second successive Ligue 1 title after more than one week’s rest following their disappointing 1-1 draw against FC Sochaux-Montbeliard. AS Monaco’s 4-1 win over AC Ajaccio in Corsica last time out closed the gap on PSG to just eight points, but les Monegasques have not been able to narrow the gap further as their Championnat fixture was also rearranged because it was against Rennes’ triumphant Coupe de France opponents En Avant Guingamp. With just three games remaining, the French champions know that one win will now take them over the finish line and secure the capital club’s first back-to-back titles as well as a maiden league and domestic cup double. Laurent Blanc’s men have made a bit of a meal of it so far, though, struggling to win matches convincingly since Zlatan Ibrahimovic picked up a thigh injury in PSG’s 3-1 first-leg win over Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals. Luckily for the Parisians, their super Swede is expecting to make his return after a four-week absence just in time to win the title, he revealed to Luis Fernandez on his RMC Radio show on Monday. Since the 32-year-old has been unavailable, his team have failed to win in three of six matches across all competitions. Two of those -- against Chelsea and Olympique Lyonnais -- were defeats, while there was a draw at Sochaux as well as an unconvincing 1-0 win over Evian Thonon Gaillard that required a late winning goal from Blaise Matuidi. PSG are clearly not over the Ibra-dependence that they were accused of at times last season and now are in real danger of allowing what was a handsome lead in Ligue 1 to slip to the point that they might only defend their French title with a whimper rather than a roar. Ibrahimovic’s return comes at a perfect time -- although it is likely to further underline the point that his team are not the same without him -- with the Parisians hosting a demoralised Rennes side that suffered a third defeat of the season to struggling Breton rivals Guingamp in last weekend’s Coupe de France final. The match is notable for more than just the talismanic striker’s potential return to action, though. Wednesday’s encounter will see Ligue 1’s two Swedish stars go head-to-head for the first time since Rennes’ Ola Toivonen moved to Brittany in January and there is plenty at stake for both. Ibrahimovic and PSG can seal the title with a win -- or possibly even a point depending on Monaco’s result at the same time -- but Rennes now badly need a victory in order to guarantee survival. Philippe Montanier’s side sit three points clear of the bottom three, but Sochaux’s rapidly improving form has increased the chances of Evian, Guingamp or Rennes being sucked down into Ligue 2. It is Ibra vs. Ola and although the latter cannot claim to be of the same calibre as his compatriot, his importance for Rennes should not be underestimated. In just 12 appearances since signing from PSV Eindhoven, the Swedish international has scored six league goals and provided a further assist. Had Toivonen not arrived, les Rouges et Noirs could be as many as 10 points worse off and already relegated along with Ajaccio and Valenciennes. He is the Breton club’s second top goal scorer -- two behind Portuguese striker Nelson Oliveira -- despite having made less than half as many appearances.

Toivonen’s battle with international teammate Ibrahimovic will be an entertaining one on Wednesday night and the PSG man still has a chance to better last season’s total haul of 30 league goals with three matches remaining in this Ligue 1 season. In order to come close to beating his previous total, though, he will need to push his fellow Swede closer to the relegation trapdoor as he is on 25 at present. However, PSG can have few excuses on the night if they are not celebrating a second consecutive French title triumph. They have enjoyed an extended period of rest because of Rennes' Coupe de France final involvement and know that a win will crown them champions. But they have struggled recently against two of the relegation battlers -- Evian and Sochaux -- so Montanier’s men will be motivated for the Parc des Princes clash. PSG have also won only one of their last six home league encounters against the Breton side. Ibrahimovic confessed that he does not know how long he will be able to play for on Wednesday and that it will be up to Blanc to decide how to use him, but just the presence of the towering striker should be enough to lift the Parisians out of their current malaise against Rennes. It would also be fitting that the capital club’s standout player this season -- who had to miss the recent Coupe de la Ligue final with the injury -- returns in time to drag PSG over the finishing line.