The UEFA Champions League returns on Tuesday night with the first matches of the Knockout Round, and there are many reunions between teams that faced one another last year. Despite winning their group, Chelsea are one of the victims of the knockout round draw with a return meeting with PSG with the first leg taking place in Paris. Last season, Chelsea were able to squeak past the Parisian outfit, winning the tie on away goals and a 3-3 aggregate scoreline. However, it was at the Parc Des Princes that put the Blues in a hole, with a 3-1 defeat, courtesy of a calamitous own goal by David Luiz and goals from Ezequiel Lavezzi and Javier Pastore. This season, the Blues are hoping to make this tie a bit easier for themselves and not have to rely on a stoppage time winner from a striker to win the tie.
Jose Mourinho’s team is in much better position than they were 10 months ago. Last season, Mourinho lamented his lack of firepower up front, and that was proven true in the first leg where the Blues struggled to score a goal. Ironically, the winning goal for the tie came from one of those much-maligned strikers, and Demba Ba did what Demba Ba does – poach a goal. This season, the addition of Diego Costa has added that clinical finishing that was lacking last term, Cesc Fabregas is providing the creativity that was lacking, and Chelsea are reaping the benefits of both.
Chelsea have only met defeat three times in all competitions this season; to Bradford in the FA Cup, to Tottenham and Newcastle in the Premier League. However, the Blues have not lost this season in the Champions League and qualified for the knockout stages with only a couple nervy moments.
PSG, on the other hand, are still looking to establish themselves as a major force in the Champions League and will look to do so by beating a much-more established Chelsea side. This season, PSG amassed 13 points, good enough to qualify comfortably but finish in second.
Since that time, PSG haven’t been great, losing twice in Ligue 1 away from home to EA Guingamp and SC Bastia, making them third in their league. More importantly, injuries have wrecked them as of late, losing their talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a myriad of injuries and seeing no fewer than six players limp out of their 2-2 draw with SM Caen at the weekend. Laurent Blanc’s side have an uphill battle Tuesday night and most likely will be happy with any sort of result that doesn’t kill the tie.
If there is a better time to play PSG. I’d like to see it.
If you read the prematch press kit for this tie and just look at injuries, it reads like the infirmary report from a battlefield. Javier Pastore was ruled out of this match with a calf injury before PSG’s weekend meeting with Caen, but then the explosion happened.
Not only did PSG throw away a 2-0 lead, but they watched as five players limped out of the match with injuries, leading them to go down to nine men. Lucas Moura and Serge Aurier both went down with muscular injuries late in the match after PSG had used all three substitutions. Prior to that, Yohan Cabaye, Marquinho, and Blaise Matuidi all went off due to various muscular injuries. Suffice it to say, PSG are short of numbers coming into this match, and that’s not factoring in the amount of time that Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed due to injury.
Injuries haven’t been the only problem for PSG. Since qualifying for the knockout rounds from a tough group with Barcelona and Ajax, PSG’s league form has not been good. Two losses away from home and a number of draws have PSG sitting in third, level with Marseille and behind Lyon. Given the vast difference in moneys spent between the three clubs, PSG should be disappointed with their position. Not only has league form been a problem, but there have been rumours of dressing room issues, with some suggestions that the players have had enough of manager Laurent Blanc and might even be trying to get him sacked.
Amidst the turmoil on and off the pitch, it will be interesting to see what PSG side turns up and if they’re finally motivated by a chance to avenge last season’s defeat to Chelsea. If they are to win Ligue 1 again and threaten in the Champions League, they will need to play better than they have to date.
PSG have sorely missed Zlatan Ibrahimovic playing to his best.
Last season, Ibrahimovic was one of the three best players in the world, scoring various types of goals with his typical Zlatan flair. It was Ibrahimovic that provided PSG with that talismanic striker and the man whose performances could singlehandedly raise the game and the mentality of his performances.
This season, Ibrahimovic has suffered a variety of injuries that have caused him to not show the same form that he did last season, and PSG have suffered for it.
When he’s right, he’s a commanding presence as a striker and threatens in the air, with the ball at his feet, and can also attack you off the dribble and with his back to goal. The problem is that the variety of injuries has robbed him of a lot of his match sharpness, and he’s looked much slower and off the pace in recent weeks. Signs of the old Zlatan were there against Caen on the weekend, and if PSG are to beat Chelsea, they will need him to be on form, particularly because his replacement, Edinson Cavani, has failed to adequately replace him as needed.
Cavani is a real mystery in this match because he’s clearly not happy when Zlatan’s around. Zlatan’s presence means that Cavani is often pushed into a wide position, somewhere where is capable of playing but doesn’t really want to. However, Cavani had his chance to show that he deserves more playing time in his preferred striker role while Ibrahimovic was injured, and he simply failed to take that chance. In recent weeks, Cavani has played better, but he’s clearly not played his best when asked to play wide. With the return of Ibrahimovic, that is quite likely, especially given the dearth of wide players available on Tuesday night for Laurent Blanc.
Midfield options could be a problem for Laurent Blanc given injuries and ineffective play.
This is one area of PSG’s team that could have some serious questions asked of them against Chelsea. We all know the issues at the back for PSG, but midfield at one point looked to be one of their strengths. However, the injuries to Cabaye and Matuidi are a major concern, particularly because they don’t have anyone who can replicate the box-to-box play of Matuidi or the ability of Cabaye to dictate play from deep. Not only are those two struggling with injuries, but Thiago Motta is likely a doubt for the match as well, robbing them of three key midfielders ahead of this match.
Without those three, the responsibility of controlling the midfield will largely fall on the shoulders of Marco Verratti. The diminuitive Italian is perfectly capable of dictating play in the midfield, but he does come with question marks of his own. Verratti’s size will be a major problem, considering that he’s listed at 5’5” and he’s going up against Nemanja Matic who has nearly a foot of height and a pile of strength on him. Not only is size an issue, but Verratti still has moments where he tries to be too clever on the ball and loses possession. He’s improved his decision making this season, but there’s still a tendency to try to become to clever with his skills on the ball and will find himself robbed of possession.
For PSG to be successful through the midfield, Verratti must control that aspect of his game, especially against one of the best counterattacking sides in Europe, or he must hope he can get help from one of the other midfielders if one or two can pass fit.
Diego Costa must be licking his chops just to get back on the field, but maybe also to go against those PSG center backs.
Anyone who watched Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Everton on television should never question Diego Costa’s commitment to the team. Every time he appeared on camera, he seemed to be kicking and heading every single ball from his seat in the stands. Tomorrow night, he has to be looking forward to returning to the pitch and expect it to be like unleashing a caged animal.
It doesn’t hurt that his opposite numbers, Thiago Silva and David Luiz have been disappointing this season for the side from Paris. Silva missed the first two months of the season and hasn’t looked anywhere close to the player he was before the World Cup and we all know about David Luiz.
In particular, David Luiz may find it very tough against Costa. He’s seen him before last season when we faced Atletico Madrid, but Costa’s strengths are well-placed to take advantage of Luiz’s weaknesses. The one problem David Luiz has always had was his attempts to pinch the ball from the striker before it reaches him. When he gets it, it leads to a perfect counterattacking chance, but when it doesn’t work, it leaves him horribly exposed. With Costa’s ability to turn a defender, Luiz is going to have to mind his p’s and q’s or give Costa opportunities.
The other factor is that Costa plays a very strong physical game. Luiz can stand up to that, but he’s always been known for giving away silly, cynical fouls and getting booked. Costa can force those yellow cards out of you, especially if the ref is strong and gives the correct fouls. If Costa’s refereed like he is in England and Luiz is allowed to get away with persistent fouls, he can limit Costa. If the ref is strong and calls those, Luiz may find himself in a bigger battle to stay on the pitch.
It would be much easier for Silva, who is a bit more controlled as a defender, but his form has been so bad, it’s a big ask for him, too.