For the second straight season, Paris Saint-Germain eliminated Chelsea from the Champions League with an impressive performance at Stamford Bridge, though this time the Parisians’ triumph was less surprising and more convincing. With their 2-1 victory against the Blues last week, the Parisians booked their place in the quarterfinals with a tactical and spirited performance against a Chelsea side that has been decent under interim manager Guus Hiddink.
The second leg of last year’s tie was full of drama almost from kickoff, with Zlatan Ibrahimović being sent off after just half an hour. Ten-man PSG rallied to level the match and the tie at 2 in the 86th minute, with David Luiz forcing extra time with a thumping header. An Eden Hazard penalty put PSG behind again before their other Brazilian centerback, Thiago Silva, beat Thibaut Courtois with a header of his own, putting PSG through on away goals.
This time around, the Parisians’ place in the next round was never in doubt, particularly after Adrien Rabiot slotted home the opening goal in London, giving PSG a matching away goal and setting them up for a thorough performance that put them through. They won their home leg 2-1 thanks to Edinson Cavani’s late goal, and the Parisians looked even more comfortable on Chelsea’s ground, securing the same result in London.
PSG dominated Chelsea in the center of the park in both legs, which was particularly impressive during the second leg at Stamford Bridge with Marco Verrati out and Blaise Matuidi playing injured. In the deciding matchup, PSG boss Laurent Blanc deployed a sturdy midfield pair alongside Matuidi in veteran Thiago Motta and the ravishing Rabiot. Even against lesser sides, Chelsea can cede possession at home, so Blanc put his faith in a trio capable of recycling possession and doing the dirty work in midfield, necessary qualities in a game PSG merely needed to control, not dominate.
The Parisians were far from complacent, though, looking to add to the 2-1 lead they stepped onto the pitch with. At times, PSG’s passing was as slick and instinctive as you will see in football. Their movement looked choreographed and their triangles were as tight as ever, culminating in some aesthetically pleasing football and a handful of good chances.
Understandably, Matuidi was far from his lively self in this game, straying from confrontation in the midfield and rarely springing forward into the attacking third. With Matuidi slowed, Rabiot was critical for the Parisians, and he played one of the best games of the season. Rabiot was comfortable exchanging short passes with Motta in the middle of the park and he had great success drifting wide and linking up near the touchline, which spurred moves like this one.
Rabiot had 92 passes with a 90.2 percent completion rate, the game’s second highest total behind Motta, who picked 118 passes in this game and helped PSG establish control. Motta did, however, look a bit throw off when Chelsea pressed him intently and he wasn’t tremendous defensively. Without Rabiot buzzing around the field, Motta might have been at fault for a few more mistakes, but the youngster did well in this game to provide an outlet for Motta, and PSG were able to dominate the midfield.
But it wasn’t just the three midfielders Blanc picked that made the difference in this game; an attacking midfielder turned winger in Angel Di Maria had a massive impact in this game by dropping into the hole and helping usher play into the attacking third. Zlatan has played the No. 10 role extensively during the latter part of his career, but he stayed forward against Chelsea, often drifting off the centerbacks just a tad and attacking for wide positions. Di Maria’s central positioning and Ibrahimovic’s slight drift were key in PSG’s first goal, as was Rabiot’s ubiquitous nature in this game.
Di Maria has been brilliant in a lot of different facets this season, and against the Blues he showcased an element of his versatility that will give Blanc a lot of different attacking options as the Parisians progress to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
Zlatan, whose recent comments indicate this will be his final season in France, is doing all that he can to secure his first Champions League trophy as a Parisian. The Swede was integral in PSG’s attacking play against Chelsea, scoring twice and assisting once in the tie. As someone who has been criticized for shrinking in big games, Ibra has refuted those criticisms with his typical stern tone. He was magnificent against the Blues overmatched centerback duo, drifting wide of Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic on both of PSG’s goals – once as a playmaker, once as a scorer – and Lucas worked well as his silent counterpart, making critical runs that drew defenders away from PSG’s talisman.
Ibra is in flying form having had a hand in two goals against Chelsea and scoring another four against Ligue 1 bottomfeeder Troyes. PSG have wrapped up the domestic league with eight games to play, meaning Blanc can save Ibra specifically for the Champions League. If Zlatan can maintain his fitness and form during the next month or so, PSG will have a great shot at winning the one trophy he desires the most.
Sorting out the defense
Blanc might do well to stay away from totally rotated sides in the league, because his defense can use some sharpening. Although they couldn’t get their attack going against them, PSG’s defense was more impressive in its matchups with Real Madrid during the group stage (one goal conceded in two games) than it was in either game against Chelsea. The centerback duo of Luiz and Silva is firmly the Parisians’ best, but Blanc has some options, each talented and flawed, at the fullback spots that he will have to sort through ahead of the Champions League quarterfinals.
Maxwell and Marquinhos started both legs against Chelsea at left and right back, respectively, with Gregory Van der Wiel managing a cameo in the second leg, summer signing Layvin Kurzawa never seeing the pitch and Sergio Aurier rightfully out of the team after his disparaging comments about his manager on Periscope. Maxwell, aka Zlatan’s lucky charm when it comes to trophies, probably won’t be displaced, but Marquinhos might find himself out of the squad should PSG have the misfortune of drawing Ronaldo, Douglas Costa or Neymar in the quarterfinal.
And that, really, is what is most intriguing about the next challenge for PSG. They’ve proven to be one of the five best sides in the world this season, with dominating form in their league and good showings in the Champions League. But PSG have consistently failed to live up to the standards set by the few clubs that boast more lavish teams, living proof of the difference between great and world class sides.
With the addition of Di Maria, the evolution of their midfield and Ibra’s farewell looming, this is PSG’s best chance to prove they belong with the perennial big boys.