It’s come down to this again; 3-1 deficit in the Champions League, second leg at Stamford Bridge, and Chelsea must score twice. That’s the scenario that we will see on display Tuesday night when Chelsea face Paris Saint-Germain in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals.
Having taken advantage of the Blues errors, both tactically and mentally, in the first leg at the Parc des Princes to the tune of a 3-1 win, PSG will be looking to turn that advantage into an historic win for the club, given that it was at this stage last year that they were eliminated by Barcelona. As a club looking to become a major force on the European stage, these are the kind of situations that you must thrive in, and few are as tough as going to Stamford Bridge and getting a result.
For Chelsea, the scenario looks eerily similar to their cup-winning campaign of 2012. That year, the Blues were looking at a 3-1 deficit to Napoli upon their return to Stamford Bridge, and the Blues rallied to beat the Italian side 4-1, driven forward by the combination of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, and John Terry. Two of the three are still ever-present at the club, with both Lampard and Terry likely to start on Tuesday, but the hole up front that was Drogba’s has still gone unfilled, and the presence of the big Ivorian will have to be replaced by another if the Blues are going to find the resolve to win. But make no mistake. This is a big test for both clubs. PSG are looking to make their mark on Europe, while Chelsea will be looking to win in order to keep another hope for silverware alive.
PSG showed that they aren’t a group of mugs.
There were a few serious questions about PSG going into the first leg. The main one was about the potential of PSG and how much potential was really there. Those were valid questions because in both Ligue 1 and the Champions League, we hadn’t really had a chance to see PSG actually come out and play to their full potential. That’s mainly because they didn’t have to. They coasted through a group with Olympiacos, Anderlecht, and Benfica only dropping 2 points. And they faced a Bayer Leverkusen side that had conceded 5 goals to Manchester United in the group stages and throttled them 6-1 on aggregate after a 4-0 victory in Germany in the first leg. Couple that with the fact that they’ve cruised to a 13-point lead in Ligue 1, and you had every right to ask questions about whether they’d actually played anyone.
Those were all put to bed in the first leg, as PSG were every bit the equal of Chelsea and took advantage of how the match played out to take a 3-1 lead. Chelsea could have, and probably should have, scored at least a second goal in the first half, as PSG lost focus after Thiago Silva conceded a penalty, but they were able to hold on until the half, in part due to a post and lack of clinical edge. After the half, their renewed focus brought them a second goal from some sloppy marking and a questionable decision by David Luiz in committing a foul, and the third goal came from Javier Pastore’s skill and a bit of fatigue on the part of Chelsea.
Overall, the approach to beating PSG should be much different, as Chelsea shouldn’t need to feel out what they’re up against. They know. PSG are a very good side, albeit with one or two deficiencies, but they are very capable of putting this out of reach of the Blues if Chelsea aren’t careful.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is out. Is that really a good thing?
In the second half, Ibrahimovic pulled up with a thigh injury that will rule him out of the match Tuesday night. It’s safe to say that up until that point, he hadn’t been having the best game of his career, but there’s no denying the effect that PSG’s talismanic striker has on their play. Missing a player of that quality is never a good thing, but it does change the second leg in some interesting ways.
For starters, it means that Edinson Cavani will get a chance to play his preferred position through the center and will most likely be flanked by Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lucas Moura in the attack. Cavani didn’t have his best game either, but that’s in part because of being asked to play on the right. With Ibrahimovic, only Cavani and Lavezzi possessed real, threatening pace, and it’s no coincidence that PSG’s main threats came from the two former Napoli men.
The flip side to the absence of Ibrahimovic means that the wide players who are available aren’t quite as adept at defending or tracking runs, isolating the fullbacks, especially if they’re asked to defend. After the departure of Ibrahimovic, Cavani’s move to the center meant that they were asking Moura to play on the right and be responsible for tracking Hazard and Cesar Azpilicueta. At that point, the solution was to simply continue to attack to push them back, which was effective. However, every so often when the Blues would come forward, Moura was shown to be lacking a little bit when asked to come deep and defend. That is the trade-off you get for the pace in the side. While they’re a group of quick attackers and could do what they did in the first leg and threaten the Chelsea back line, they’re also a bit susceptible to being attacked themselves, as neither Lavezzi nor Moura are particularly great at defending.
To counteract the lack of defending in the forward areas, Laurent Blanc must get his central midfield setup right.
This will be the main factor to keep an eye on if PSG are to have a chance of getting through this tie. The personnel at Blanc’s disposal does not lend itself to being able to control the match without the ball. It means that his team are going to have to come out with an attacking mentality and look to play on the front foot. If they play that way, they will be left open to counterattacks, which is Chelsea’s forte. To limit the damage and to ensure that their two-goal advantage is enough, Blanc must look to a midfield that provides both the ability to distribute the ball intelligently and has the strength to hold the midfield against a counter, just in case they aren’t able to control the match with the ball.
When watching the first match, I thought the weak link in that midfield was Marco Verratti. He is definitely the smallest of that midfield last week, but might be the best technically. However, I did notice that for a player with such great passing ability, he seems to take extra touches on the ball in order to play those passes, and I thought it led to him getting caught in possession a lot more often than you would think that he should.
For that reason, and for experience, I expect Verratti to start on the bench and Yohan Cabaye being asked to start in midfield alongside Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi. Not only does Cabaye possess a bit more strength than Verratti, but he gives a similar look to the midfield. In addition, he’s better acquainted with the atmosphere he’ll face at Stamford Bridge and having the experience of winning there with Newcastle United. Blanc could also opt to bring Pastore back in his starting 11, but if he does, I’d expect it to be for Moura to shore up the defence on Hazard’s side. I don’t think he’ll do that, rather introduce Pastore as a possible defensive substitute later in the match.
PSG’s main weakness is their deficiencies at the back.
As mentioned in the last point, Blanc has to get his midfield correct because if they plan on attack, which I think they will, he cannot leave his centre backs on an island because they were nearly overrun in similar circumstances in the first leg. Thiago Silva and Alex are both very good defenders, but they are neither very good in 1 v 1 situations. Silva was guilty of conceding the penalty for an unnecessary challenge on Oscar and both were complicit in allowing Hazard the space to volley toward goal, which hit the post, much to their luck.
Both chances came from instances where a Chelsea attacker was able to run at them without any midfield support. Because of the way that PSG went forward in the first half and the lack of tracking back from their wide men, if the midfield balance is wrong, you end up seeing attackers running at either a back two or a back three, depending on whether both fullbacks have gone forward. It was in these instances that the two Brazilian center backs found themselves in trouble, mostly because of a strange inability to turn and run, at least on the part of Silva (we know that’s not Alex’s strength).
However, in the second half, the gap between midfield and defence was much less pronounced, and things were much more comfortable. In particular, the withdrawal of Andre Schurrle and the introduction of Fernando Torres made things a bit easier, particularly because Torres was less of a threat to control possession and run at them than Schuerrle had been. If Chelsea are to get the two goals back, they must follow a similar pattern in bypassing the midfield as they did in the first half in order to take advantage of the Brazilians lack of ability to deal with quicker players.
False Nines don’t work for Chelsea.
While the “false nine” has become the en vogue term in world football, few sides can actually play with one. Chelsea are one of those sides. In the three instances where Mourinho has tried something of the sort, against Manchester United, Manchester City in the FA Cup, and against PSG, it’s proven that without a reference point, the team look lost. Schuerrle is a good player, but as a striker, he looked confused as to what to really do on two occasions, since he’s really an out-and-out wide player. Mohamed Salah was asked to do something similar in the second half against City in the FA Cup, but that lasted a whopping 15 minutes before Torres was called into action.
The big thing is the revelation that Samuel Eto’o may be available to play. Mourinho’s comments about not having a striker are in some ways correct, as none of his three options have been terribly consistent. Eto’o has failed to score a goal away from Stamford Bridge, Torres has been hit-and-miss, and 2 of Demba Ba’s 5 goals came in the last 10 minutes of one match.
The question will be whether Mourinho gambles on a not-completely-fit Eto’o from the start or elects to try and show faith in Torres. Ironically, most of Torres’ best games have come in European competition, and it will be up to the manager to decide whether he’s seen enough reaction from him against Stoke after his stint on the bench last week. In all likelihood, Mourinho’s playing games and will start Eto’o against PSG.