All the hype. The new Classic, they said. The day of judgement where Paris Saint-Germain would finally jogo bonito their rivals to death, earning at last the respect of the footballing world. And yet, John Obi Mikel.
How absurd that Mikel of all people would essentially decide the tightly-contested first 45 minutes. Chelsea F.C. have undergone a heap of turmoil since the reigning (and soon to be dethroned) English champions last came away from the Parc des Princes with a 1-1 draw in February of 2015. Back then, they were even slight favorites against an out-of-form, injury-ravaged PSG side; now, with Guus Hiddink at the reins and 12 places down in the Premier League table, the London club cut a clear underdog figure.
Paris fans expecting an easy demolition, perhaps egged on by the absences of key Chelsea defenders Kurt Zouma and John Terry, will have surely been disappointed by the first half. Despite the surprise return of Marco Verratti to the starting XI, PSG failed to penetrate after a completely dominant 20 minutes. Angel Di Maria in particular played wastefully, and Paris certainly did not benefit from the absence of Serge Aurier, whose replacement, Marquinhos, often struggled to combine with the Argentine on the right flank. The tide of the game turned as Chelsea earned their first period of possession, keeping the ball well and eventually weaving the ball into the box for a great chance for Diego Costa. Kevin Trapp came up big.
It is here that Hiddink’s style of play clearly shows, with a far more conservative game at times in possession of the ball. Cesc Fabregas was essential for the away side in recycling possession, as were Eden Hazard and Willian going forward. Typically, when PSG regained the ball it would be for longer periods, and Chelsea would be forced wide on the break if they could find it. Such attacks were less effective with Thiago Silva and David Luiz coping well. The London club has lost some of its sting (particularly in the form of one out-of-form Belgian) in terms of creating decisively from the front, but when allowed to build up slowly, they threatened consistently.
Paris spent much more of their time in the midfield with the ball, the return of the Verratti-Thiago Motta duo greatly influencing this style of play. Both Italy internationals were able to drift about, overloading small spaces with interlinking play and then moving the ball to a more open area of the pitch, usually for Blaise Matuidi or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In this respect, Paris did exceptionally, but at the same time lacked impetus in the final third. Lucas Moura and Ibrahimovic had more success than Di Maria, who again was isolated on the right flank due to Aurier’s absence. Maxwell’s penetrating runs on the left freed Lucas of the shackles of wide play, and it was during one of his darting runs in the middle that Mikel hacked him down.
Ibrahimovic scored from the ensuing free kick, with the help of a misery-compiling deflection from Mikel. Raucous scenes at the Parc, but Mikel giveth and Mikel taketh away. The big Swede can be accused of lax defending on the corner that ended the first half, with Costa nodding the ball onto the Nigeria international to tap home past Marquinhos and Kevin Trapp. An unfortunate goal to concede on the stroke of halftime, but a fair reflection of a nerve-wracking and entertaining first half.
The single greatest loss for Chelsea, and what ultimately lost them the game, was the lack of midfield in the second half. Fabregas completed 40 of 42 passes in the first half, not creating any chances directly but proving vital in buildup play. His long, searching balls down the left-hand side were among the most penetrative that Chelsea had in their locker, freeing up Hazard and Baba Rahman. Suddenly, as if mimicking his career trajectory, he vanished. Twenty-four passes completed from 28 attempted in the second half—unacceptable for a man who is ostensibly the prime creator from deep. His only chance created came from a dead-ball situation where Oscar snuck in behind an unaware Marquinhos, but Trapp came off his line quickly enough to deny the substitute. The lack of possession play made Mikel essentially left to sweep up behind as Fabregas was not only conspicuously out of position often but succeeded in only four of his 12 tackle attempts across 90 minutes. Willian was the lone saving grace for Chelsea (how often has that been said this season?) in the middle third as he immediately looked to run with the ball and start a counter from central positions.
Marquinhos grew into the game from the right wing—perhaps aided by the aforementioned disappearing Spaniard—and in turn so did Di Maria, who left his wide position far more frequently. El Fideo completed nearly double the passes (31) in the second half than he had in the first, and that source of direct play in the final third changed PSG’s attack. The impact of Marquinhos stepping up cannot be understated. Over 90 minutes, Di Maria played exactly two passes to the makeshift right-back, who was solid defensively but frequently stalled or stopped his runs down the flank. The lack of chemistry on that side forced PSG to concentrate much of their attack down the left, where an extremely capable Cesar Azpilicueta coped well against Lucas and Matuidi. The shift in fortunes only highlights the damage Aurier’s self-immolation has caused.
Ibrahimovic’s hold-up play must be highlighted as well, as the Swede returns to his undisputed best. His combinations with Lucas were at times sublime, and most of all, he no longer feels sluggish or behind the play. Paris fans who watched his tepid performance in a scoreless home draw with Real Madrid will be relieved that where once he might have played a backpass, he now plays with strength and desire. Should Paris advance far enough in this competition, the narrative writes itself: the Swedish legend seeks the one trophy that has eluded him in his career. Who better to be the face of a club so obsessed with European success?
As for Lucas, his pace is no longer the only element of his game that threatens. Replicating his form in the first half of the 2014-15 season, before his time was cut short by injury and subsequent surgery, the young Brazilian tormented Chelsea’s slower defenders with great movement and close control, evidenced by Mikel’s cynical foul to give away the free kick that led to the opening goal. If there is one element that could be criticized, it is his off-the-ball movement. Not that he lacks it, so much as he must learn when to peel off. On several occasions he was one of several players competing for the penetrating run down the middle, when his legs might have been much more of use heading wide and splitting off a defender. In that respect, it makes sense that he was the one withdrawn for Edinson Cavani—although, at the time, fans would have had excuse to be incensed.
Before moving on to El Matador, though, the midfield must be discussed—or more specifically, Thiago Motta. The Brazil-born Italy international is the metronome of Paris Saint-Germain, the anchor at the heart of Blanc’s project. Yet these past few fixtures have been particularly unkind to Motta, not necessarily in the numbers but in the manner in which he has played. His accuracy rarely dips below 90, and 109 passes from 123 is hardly a poor total. It’s not so much where he has been sending the ball, particularly when aided on by Verratti, who unlike Adrien Rabiot, can drop below and allow the Paris No. 8 to advance up the pitch and pick out a pass himself. Indeed, the two make a very good team, such that Matuidi prefers to join the attacking or defensive unit rather than take part in their intricate dance. That said, Motta was dispossessed directly once, and the passes he did misplace are sometimes short ones, a very strange development. Frequently these shorter passes kill the buildup in the most vulnerable phase of transition, particularly with those closer to his own half. With players like Willian and Pedro Rodriguez pressing incessantly from the front, these errors nearly proved costly.
On the other hand, Javier Pastore’s 10-minute cameo in place of Matuidi is ever-encouraging. The Argentine has suffered through a nightmare season, injury after injury, but after a mixed performance on the weekend against Lille, he seems to be at last returning. With nearly his first touch, he set off down the right and played a superb backheel for Marquinhos, who fired off a dud shot straight at Thibaut Courtois. Late on he dipped in a gorgeous cross for Ibrahimovic, a real chance just stopped by the onrushing goalkeeper. El Flaco was essential in last year’s 3-2 victory over F.C. Barcelona, and the rejuvenated attacking midfielder would be a capable replacement up front or in midfield. His creativity can be just as crucial as Di Maria’s, particularly when paired with the stability of a fully-fit Verratti.
While the midfield did run the game, the subject cannot be put off any further. Angel Di Maria cushioned a delightful ball in the 77th minute over the top to Cavani, who just moments after coming on, scored between Courtois’ legs. Just as he was finally exiled from the starting XI, the Uruguayan scored a decisive goal and went absolutely mad. Once again, he does it against Chelsea. El Matador‘s showing against Lille was no less poor than usual, and his atrocious finishing in the match attracted the ire of the press and of a certain teammate. Yet now, undeniably, the game has changed. What to do about him? At this point, the domestic stage must be an experimenting ground. Verratti will be in midfield again going forward, and game time will only serve to make him more dangerous. The return of Pastore, however, complicates Cavani’s situation further. Blanc prefers to deploy El Flaco as a ‘winger,’ at least on paper, and allow him to drift into the middle of the park. He is, in essence, directly competing with Cavani for a place.
— PSG Society (@PSGsociety) February 16, 2016
The return leg at Stamford Bridge in one month gives Blanc time to sort his squad out. Provided no further injuries to key players, Cavani must be given a chance to try and regain his spot. Lucas has hardly done anything to lose his, but good form can always force the manager’s hand; likewise, the World Cup winning defender surely wants Pastore’s creativity in the team. With so much competition for attacking spots, it’s a shame that no one can step in to put some fire in Motta’s belly, and even more, that Serge Aurier is essentially ruled out for the second leg. Although no official word has come through other than ‘indefinite suspension’, it’s safe to say that the Ivorian will not return to action by then unless he treks naked to Canossa.
For now, a two-goal win will satisfy PSG supporters given Chelsea’s recent return to form. The away goal is hardly decisive. It’s not ideal, but Chelsea will still need a positive result at Stamford Bridge and if Paris replicate their performance against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, this lead will hold. For now, Stade de Reims await on Saturday to bring the club from the capital back to domestic reality.