Michael Cox looks at one of PSG's midfield dangermen, Italian international Marco Verratti...
By this stage of the competition, European Cup matches are generally highly technical and tactical. The tie between Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, however, is likely to be extremely physical, especially in midfield. The players in that zone are extremely strong, imposing midfielders who will attempt to overpower opponents.
This quality has been particularly obvious in Chelsea’s approach in recent weeks, and while Nemanja Matic is cup-tied having played for Benfica earlier in the competition, it’s likely that at least two of David Luiz, John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard will be used in central positions to prevent PSG’s players combining in advanced positions. Mourinho’s surprising use of a Luiz-Matic-Lampard trio in the weekend defeat to Crystal Palace underlines the fact that Chelsea remain extremely powerful.
PSG, too, have a couple of extremely physical midfielders. There’s Thiago Motta, an underrated defensive midfielder who offers a sturdy defensive presence and a great aerial threat too, while Blaise Matuidi plays something akin to Ramires’ role at Chelsea, shuttling forward to connect midfield and attack through sheer energy rather than guile. There’s also Yohan Cabaye, who hasn’t yet established himself in the PSG starting XI since joining from Newcastle in January, but he offers power and the odd physical challenge too.
PSG, however, have something Chelsea don’t possess – a true deep-lying playmaker. Italian Marco Verratti sits in front of the defence, starts moves from deep, and sprays passes into attack. Because he simply offers something different to everyone else, Verratti is arguably the key player in this tie.
Unveiled at PSG on the same day as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Verratti’s arrival prompted little more than a few newspaper columns asking who on earth he was – the midfielder had never played at a higher level than Serie B, although had been voted the best player in that division. It sums up PSG’s wealth that £10m Verratti was the club’s cheapest outlay that summer – their spending totalled £130m. No-one expected him to become a key figure for a couple of years.
Instead, he made an instant mpact. Under first Carlo Ancelotti and now Laurent Blanc, Verratti has been one of the vital cogs in the PSG midfield, despite still being only 21 – and Cabaye’s arrival hasn’t changed that. Generally starting to the right of PSG’s midfield trio, he drops into extremely deep positions, almost directly in front of PSG’s right-sided centre-back, to receive possession away from opponents. If he is closed down, the Italian has a habit of attempting extravagant tricks to get away from his marker, often in extremely dangerous positions.
His distribution is both reliable and ambitious – PSG often play without a defined attacking playmaker, and it’s Matuidi’s energy and Verratti’s forward passing which prevents them becoming a broken side.
The 4-0 victory over Leverkusen in the previous round was a fine example – Verratti’s pass completion rate was above the 90% mark, but he doesn’t shy away from playing penetrative passes when required – he set up Matuidi for the opener within three minutes.
His comparative weakness is the defensive side of his game, much like the man he’s inevitably compared to, Andrea Pirlo. Verratti isn’t a natural scrapper and at just 5’5, he doesn’t win much in the air. A good performance with the ball in the recent win over Marseille was undermined by his lack of success at tackles and aerial duels. This, of course, is why he’s always played alongside Motta, who offers those qualities.
Hopefully, Mourinho will be reasonably adventurous and play 4-2-3-1 rather than 4-3-3, using Oscar at the head of his midfield triangle. The Brazilian is one of the most tactically intelligent number tens in Europe, but he’ll be faced with a decision about whether to press Thiago Motta or Verratti.
Having marked Pirlo out of the game on his Champions League debut, Oscar will fancy his chances of stopping Verratti, too. If he does, PSG might struggle.