PARIS — Having demanded a new striker, Paris Saint-Germain fans should be grateful that Edinson Cavani was more patient with them than they were with him.
Cavani is playing well, and his goals have helped defending champion PSG withstand two early league defeats — as many as it had during last season’s record-breaking league campaign.
PSG’s all-time leading scorer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, left to join Manchester United in the off-season. The club then targeted Barcelona star Neymar, but the big-name striker expected to replace Ibrahimovic never arrived.
Instead, PSG signed Jese, a 23-year-old Spaniard from Real Madrid and an unheralded forward with 13 career league goals who is more of a wide player than a finisher.
That left Cavani — regularly a punchline among the team’s supporters — to lead the attack.
Their frustration was compounded when Cavani missed several chances in PSG’s first Champions League game against Arsenal on Sept. 13, which finished in a 1-1 home draw.
That game, they believed, was glaring proof that Cavani — despite scoring with a trademark bullet header — is a very wasteful finisher. That argument has merit, because the Uruguay forward does miss chances, but it is somewhat unfair because the way he was asked to play at PSG dulled his natural game.
Cavani very much plays on confidence. He’s a quick and explosive forward who relies upon speed and instinct rather than exceptional technique.
He can be lethal when that confidence is high, as 15 goals in 13 games this season for club and country has proven. He scored 104 goals in 138 games for Italian side Napoli before joining PSG in the summer of 2013 for a French record fee of 64 million euros ($77 million).
But his confidence was lessened by being played out of position for much of the past three seasons, as it was impossible to share the spotlight with Ibrahimovic.
"Our system does not allow Cavani to show his qualities at 100 per cent," former PSG coach Laurent Blanc said last season.
With the Swedish star playing mostly as the lone striker, Cavani was pushed out wide right as a harrying, energetic winger who often tracked back.
That he did so with little complaint is to his credit, for many players of his stature would have forced a transfer to play their preferred position.
On the occasions that he was the striker — mainly when Ibrahimovic was injured, rested or suspended — Cavani quickly had to revert to focusing on scoring.
He sometimes struggled and looked clumsy at times. Despite mitigating circumstances, he was given no leeway by sections of the PSG crowd or the French media.
Both demanded more goals — yet, despite often playing as a converted winger during his first three seasons with PSG, he still scored 81 goals in 147 games.
This season, Cavani has 11 goals in nine games for PSG, which plays at last-place Nancy on Saturday. He was also named the French league’s player of the month for September — seemingly a reward for putting his ego aside and working with Ibrahimovic for the previous three years.
But if many fans had their way, the 29-year-old Cavani would be playing elsewhere during what appears to be the striker’s peak season.