Saint-Etienne are a favoured prey of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so perhaps it was inevitable that he would make the difference when Paris Saint-Germain secured a hard-fought 1-0 success at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on Sunday evening.
Ibra has faced the Loire side on eight occasions and from these encounters he has plundered eight goals, including five in three matches this term.
There was nothing straightforward about the victory, however. PSG laboured to break down France’s best defensive unit, while the spot-kick that proved the difference was the result of a horrendous refereeing decision as Jeremy Clement was punished for a non-existent handball.
While Ibrahimovic converted the penalty with minimal fuss, the performance from the 33-year-old was well below the sparkling level Ligue 1 fans have become accustomed to.
The Swede was involved in plenty of build-up play, but on too few occasions did he threaten the opposition goal. By dropping deep, he left his side without a central threat.
With only four goals since the end of August, the Ibrahimovic who scored 26 times last season or 30 the campaign before has been nowhere to be seen. A chronic heel problem has hampered the forward throughout this term, and he remains short of 100 per cent fitness, regardless of Blanc’s denials in recent media conferences.
While the magic is currently missing, the arrogance and self-belief that have always characterised football’s most mercurial of performers remains. After a late argument with Paul Baysse, the Swede seemed to cheekily ask the bit-part defender who he was, concurrently spinning the former Brest man around to read the name on the back of his shirt.
Baysse returned the insult by asking Ibrahimovic of his identity – and he was right to do so because this was the striker’s imposter.
Perhaps more tellingly about the forward’s current form, though, was the incident that sparked the discussion. After losing possession on the touchline, Ibrahimovic fouled Romain Hamouma in a manner that was dealt with leniently by the officials, who ultimately punished him with a yellow card. With another referee, it might easily have been a red.
Ibrahimovic’s positive influence on the game – penalty aside – was significantly below his best and his team suffered dramatically as a result.
PSG may have moved themselves up to third in Ligue 1, level on points and goal difference with second-placed Olympique de Marseille, but if they are to catch leaders Olympique Lyonnais they need their talisman to rediscover his best form. On Sunday, a mundane effort was masked by a simple penalty.