Soccer-PSG dreams given substance after big win at Leverkusen

PARIS, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Paris St Germain's "Dream bigger" tagline may never sound so relevant.

The French champions displayed their European ambitions with an impressive 4-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday that all but secured their place in the Champions League quarter-finals.

It also suggested they could be serious contenders for the title this season.

"We had to send a clear message, and I think we have done that," defender Maxwell told reporters in Leverkusen.

"All the credit goes to us because we controlled the game. Tonight, we showed in the Champions League how strong our team is in the Champions League."

PSG, who easily reached the knockout stages and are well placed in Ligue 1 - five points ahead of second-placed Monaco - were eager to be tested by tough opposition in Germany.

But they proved too strong for Bayer in all areas, even without their injured Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice - including another special strike from distance - to bring his European tally to 10 this term, and Yohan Cabaye celebrated his first PSG goal since arriving from Newcastle United in January.

They were, though, aided by a Leverkusen team that had Emir Spahic sent off, and had previously shown a soft centre in a 5-0 loss to Manchester United in the group stage.

"We had played very well in our league until now, but the Champions League is something else, it's very difficult," said Brazilian Maxwell, who won Europe's elite club competition with Barcelona in 2011.

'PARIS IS BACK'

There had been doubts recently about PSG's capacity to raise their level, after they were eliminated at home by Montpellier in the French Cup last-32 round and laboured to beat some low-key sides.

But the questions were gone on Wednesday morning. "The great Paris is back," declared the sports newspaper L'Equipe.

"Paris showed inspiration and character," it added.

Midfielder Blaise Matuidi, who scored the third-minute opener and set up Ibrahimovic for the Swede's second goal, said he had had the same feeling on the pitch.

"We felt that we were strong," the France international said. "We have a high-level midfield. With what we've achieved in the Champions League for two seasons, we are not going to hide ourselves. We are a great team."

Ibrahimovic has never won the Champions League with any of his former prestigious clubs, including AC Milan, Juventus and Barcelona, and despite his typically confident performance, he was circumspect after the game.

"I've played for fantastic teams, but you can say a team is great when you win trophies," said the 32-year-old, who put PSG 3-0 up just before half-time with a fierce 20-metre left-foot shot that arrowed into the far corner of the net.

Ibrahimovic's double on Tuesday took him ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo as the competition's leading scorer this season.

PSG coach Laurent Blanc, who praised his players' state of mind, believes his squad has the quality to live up to the expectations created by Tuesday night's result.

"Nothing will stop you from thinking we are one of the favorites," he said. "I don't dream of anything at the moment. But we know what we have done so far and we know what we need to do to go further in this competition.

"PSG is ambitious. We expect a very exciting end of the season."

The second leg of the last-16 tie is in Paris on March 12.

(Reporting by Gregory Blachier; Editing by Stephen Wood)