PSG looking for revenge as they meet Chelsea again
A perfect example of the increasing homogeneity of the Champions League will beam across the world’s screens this week, as Paris Saint-Germain take on Chelsea in the round of 16.
If you're eyeing up the tie with that nagging feeling you’ve seen it all before, it’s because you have: the two teams met less than a year ago in Europe’s elite competition, Chelsea eventually trumping the Parisians on away goals in the quarter-finals thanks to a late Demba Ba strike.
Last season’s 3-3 aggregate draw is, therefore, the obvious reference point when looking ahead to what should be another exciting encounter. To a certain extent, it felt like PSG had finally arrived when they beat Chelsea 3-1 in that first leg 10 months ago. “It’s settled: PSG are a European giant,” whooped Le Parisien, rather prematurely, after Laurent Blanc’s tactical manoeuvring handed them a two-goal advantage.
“A huge coup” declared L’Equipe. Javier Pastore’s late goal prompted pandemonium in the stands and gave the club a huge feel-good factor. After years and millions spent trying to carve out a place as a European giant, this was the landmark win PSG had craved.
What followed next, however, was heartbreak – and a whole lot of humble pie. Having trolled Chelsea relentlessly via their rather cocksure official Twitter account (“Dear Chelsea fans, for better Parisian souvenirs, better try Montmartre #ParisChampionsDream”), Mourinho managed to turn the tie around in the second leg, lumping on three strikers and a whole load of Hail Mary high balls to finally grab an 87th-minute winner.
Having described his team’s defending in the first leg as ‘ridiculous’ Mourinho found a way through. Montmartre could wait.
The rematch promises intrigue, but this is arguably a poorer PSG team than the version that coasted Ligue 1 last year, winning the title at a canter. Blanc’s side are currently third in the table and have registered a league-high 10 draws from 25 games. After two consecutive league titles, the Parisians have gone into cruise control this season, and that 2-3% dip in intensity has made a big difference.
They’re still likely title winners and an excellent team on their day boasting some of the world’s leading stars, but le magique hasn’t quite been there consistently this campaign.
Chelsea, on the other hand, have plugged the gaps since last season’s encounter – funded largely by the sale of David Luiz to their opponents for an eye-watering £50 million fee. One of the whacky Brazilian's final memorable acts as a Blue was his own goal at the Parc des Princes in last season’s first leg after Luiz played both games in midfield - as he may be required to do for PSG in the first leg, at least.
One of the main differences heading into this last 16 game, therefore, is this: Chelsea have sold a defender playing out of position in midfield for £50m and replaced him with La Liga’s second most creative player last season (Cesc Fabregas), with spare change left to replace Samuel Eto’o with the third top scorer in both La Liga and the Champions League (Diego Costa). With PSG also facing an injury crisis that could effectively see them without a recognised right-back, it’s little wonder that Chelsea are favourites.
PSG’s individual star quality is their main strength. On any given Sunday (or Saturday, Friday, Tuesday or Wednesday), a plethora of multi-million pound geniuses are at Blanc’s disposal – several of whom have the ability to change a game in a heartbeat.
Everybody’s cult hero Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the man that first springs to mind, but a supporting cast that includes Javier Pastore, Edinson Cavani, Lucas Moura and others means they’re not to be underestimated.
In Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti, PSG boast one of the best midfield trios in Europe. Though not quite as fluid and snarling as in recent years, the triumvirate still possess the aggression, technical excellence and intelligence to dictate games from central midfield areas if left unchecked.
The dominance they displayed in the recent title clash at Lyon summed it up: PSG managed 66% possession and almost complete control of central midfield at times, with Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti putting up 223 passes between them – not too far short of the total number of passes completed by Chelsea’s entire team in the recent 1-1 draw with Manchester City (293). Pastore's return from injury would also be a huge boost.
Concentration. PSG have lost 15 points in the league from winning positions this season, capitulating shockingly against Bastia, for one, to lose 4-2 from 2-0 up, and 89th and 90th minute goals against Caen at the weekend turned a routine 2-0 win into a 2-2 draw. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire career,” Blanc grumbled, after PSG finished the game with nine men due to enforced injuries.
PSG’s ailing squad is also a hindrance, a symbolic disability prompted by Financial Fair Play-induced belt-tightening and a fatigued squad that sometimes runs low on energy and inspiration.
“The fans must understand that we’re in difficulty in terms of the level of the squad,” Blanc commented in the build-up to the Chelsea game, and injury concerns over several players including Lucas Moura, Thiago Motta, Yohan Cabaye, Serge Aurier and others means we probably won’t see PSG at their strongest.
The game plan
For the Parisians the plan will largely depend on the personnel. PSG are proponents of a 4-3-3 system with a focus on patient build-up dictated by the midfield trio of Matuidi, Motta and Verratti.
This patience can drift towards slow, laboured play – as it often has this season – and last season Jose Mourinho countered it by playing Andre Schurrle as a false nine and harassing Verratti & Co. into forced errors in deep midfield positions, a tactic that worked effectively but for Chelsea’s poor defending.
The plan will likely be similar here, though with Motta and Cabaye possibly missing the construction of that midfield trio may need tinkering. No Lucas means Ezequiel Lavezzi may occupy a prong of the forward three, with Cavani playing in a wide role he’s never quite looked comfortable in.
The gravitational pull of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s raw charisma means everything centres around him. Build centrally and get Zlatan the ball as quickly as possible.
“The game will be a big test of maturity for Marco Verratti,” Blanc commented in his pre-match press conference. The 22-year-old Italian is a wonderful player, whose intricate playmaking from deep midfield areas is lovely to watch. Dictating play like the impish delight that he is, Verratti also has a mean streak to him: 28 yellow cards since joining PSG in 2012 marks him out as one of the most sanctioned players anywhere in Europe, with a ratio worse than the likes of Pepe and Joey Barton.
Blanc has been heavily critical of Verratti’s propensity to end up in the book, saying: “if he doesn’t have the intelligence to understand he’s going to have big problems.” His ponderous play deep in his own half nearly cost PSG on a few occasions against Chelsea last season and you can bet Mourinho will brief his team of Verratti’s tendency to overindulge in midfield at times. Still, Verratti’s metronomic midfield style and poise will be vital in helping PSG both retain possession and dictate play, and a big performance is needed.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be slowly creeping up on him, but the Swedish icon still has a while to go to catch Pedro Pauleta – the greatest goalscorer in the club’s history. Pauleta’s 109 goals between 2003-2008 helped fire PSG to two French Cups and a League Cup and is remembered fondly by fans.