Resurgent Pastore ready for Lyon
When Javier Pastore arrived at Aeroport Charles de Gaulle in August 2011 to join up with Paris Saint-Germain, his trademark playboy locks had been shorn. Instead, he sported twin tramlines on the side of his head that would have made Vanilla Ice blush, the sort of go-faster stripes that declared that the Argentinian prodigy meant business.
The change wasn't even skin-deep, it turned out, as Pastore has struggled to adapt to French football. That wasn't entirely surprising, after a player of uncommon elegance and vision was catapulted, by an astronomical transfer fee, from the relative comfort of Palermo. Yet lately it seems - at a time when rumours linking him with a return to Serie A, with either Milan or Inter, have redoubled - that there might just be redemption.
Carlo Ancelotti had spoken of Pastore in sombre tones in the last few months, admitting he had a player "short of confidence" when describing why he was out of the team. Now, after three successive wins that have hinted at the style the Parc des Princes craves, the coach is trumpeting the merits of a "transformed" Pastore, whose bright displays have been a key element in the sharp upturn in PSG's watchability.
That Pastore shone in the first of those games, an impressive home win over Porto that clinched first place in PSG's Champions League group, was not such a revelation. The 23-year-old always seemed a player made to be at ease on the most exalted of stages. Even when he was struggling most this season, the Champions League provided refuge. He had been outstanding in September's emphatic home win over Dynamo Kiev, a game that marked PSG's return to the competition after an eight-year exile.
What was more impressive is that he took the momentum into Ligue 1, a competition that his demeanour has sometimes suggested he regards as drudgery. PSG needed a lift going into last Saturday's match with Evian on the back of a sequence of three defeats in five. The often-isolated Pastore provided the spark.
He was fully integrated with the team and improvising, with his wonderful, intuitive backheel helping Christophe Jallet to create the opener for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Pastore later took a pass from Ibrahimovic to set up the third for Thiago Motta, and his beaming smile as he embraced the Italy international in celebration said it all.
In Tuesday's brutally efficient dismissal of fifth-placed Valenciennes, the theme continued, with Pastore's razor-sharp pass allowing Jeremy Menez to prise apart the home back line and create Ibrahimovic's first-half breakthrough, en route to another 4-0 victory. After nearly 18 months of firstly Antoine Kombouare and then Ancelotti struggling to fit Pastore into a workable system, it seems that Carletto might finally have hit on the solution - by going 4-4-2. "The system's not important," Ancelotti said after the Evian win. "It's the players that have the keys to the game and who have to do the work." That's not strictly true in Pastore's case. He never seemed like the ideal candidate to fit a 4-4-2, but Ancelotti's decision to use a loose, limber representation of a tactic whose death has been greatly exaggerated has really done the trick for the Argentinian.
Pastore is nominally stationed on the right, with the need to maintain shape offset with a licence to drift inside as well as out. Ancelotti certainly agrees that the change has coaxed a little more industry from his charge. "His attitude on the pitch has changed," Ancelotti said this week. "He's put himself at the service of the team, he's defending well and his talent does the rest."
It looked as if that talent would suffice on its own when he first came into the PSG side. Much as with his now-teammate Ibrahimovic's spell at Barcelona, it takes a look at Pastore's numbers for his debut season to provide a reminder that he wasn't a total failure. He scored 13 times in 30 starts, outstripping the goals-to-games ratio of his sensational last season in Sicily.
There was more to the story, of course, than meets the eye. Those who remember Pastore's galloping run and fearsome finish that cracked open the October 2011 fixture against Lyon - reprised live on ESPN HD in the UK this Sunday night - may assume this current surge to be just a recovery of his early form directly following his move to France. That, again, is misleading. He never really adjusted to the pace and physicality of Ligue 1, a fact that those decisive moments of individual brilliance masked during those productive early weeks in Paris.
Pastore came up short in the biggest matches, such as November 2011's humiliating defeat in Le Classique at Marseille. The miserable look on his face as he sloped, flat-footed, to the edge of the pitch after being substituted in that game is an image that lingers.
Months after arriving in the capital, Pastore gave a revealing interview to So Foot magazine, a piece in which he was observed in conversation with his mentor at Huracan, coach Angel Cappa. It offered a window into a player pushed into growing up fast, and a little unwillingly.
"In France, you play with your head down," he lamented. "At PSG, I'm in a zone and I don't go outside it... it's what they ask me to do, so I do it, but I don't feel free."
Of course, Pastore was indulged a little by Cappa. "PSG didn't pay 40 million for Javier to go out there and kick the opposition," the coach argued. "They can't change Pastore. He is what he is. When Barcelona recruited (Juan Roman) Riquelme, I didn't understand. They brought him over for the qualities he had and then the first thing they told him was: 'Now you have to stop being Riquelme. You have to play differently.'"
Fortunately, Pastore seems to be making the compromises that Riquelme - his idol - was rarely prepared to. Ibrahimovic can make many of PSG's dreams come true, but he can't give them the fluidity that they want. Pastore can. Now, to see whether he can do so consistently - starting with Sunday's battle for Ligue 1 leadership.