Champions League, Europa League W2W4: PSG vs. Chelsea, Zidane's test
With the UEFA Champions League and Europa Leagues firing up again this week for the knockout rounds, Miguel Delaney recaps the storylines worth watching.
Can PSG put wounded Chelsea away?
Meeting for the third successive season, they are two teams who know each other so well and are so close in quality despite their starkly different league positions. It is precisely those league positions, though, that mean both PSG and Chelsea must figure out the same issue, albeit from different perspectives.
The French champions are a remarkable 24 points clear at the top of the table this season, but that means they must now motivate and raise themselves for the much more intense challenge of individual knock-out matches against much better sides. Chelsea's league games are now almost similarly meaningless since they lie in 12th after a dismal start to the season under Jose Mourinho; they must now lift themselves to a level of performance they've rarely shown this season.
The English champions have the talent but have infrequently had the focus or circumstances to fully apply it. The big question is which of the two can pull themselves up to the required standard. It is arguably a more important factor in this game than how Guus Hiddink's defence stop Zlatan Ibrahimovic without the injured John Terry, or whether PSG will be able to cut out a resurgent Chelsea counter-attack. The French side are obviously on better form but the oddity is there is more precedent for Chelsea making progress.
While six sides (Real Madrid 1998 and 2000, Milan 2003 and 2007, Liverpool 2005 and Chelsea 2012 themselves) have overcome underwhelming domestic seasons to lift the Champions League, only two eventual winners have also won their domestic league by more than 10 points. The issue is that while one side can suddenly recharge themselves, the runaway league leaders tend to have flattened out. This first leg will be telling.
Can new managers on old stomping grounds cut a new path?
Despite the domestic problems that saw both sides eventually change managers, Real Madrid and Roma meet in the last-16 and it's only added to the excitement about their respective new men. That excitement, of course, is partly based on the brilliant Champions League pedigree of both.
As a legendary Real Madrid player, Zinedine Zidane was responsible for one of the most famous moments in the competition's history, scoring the brilliant volley that won the 2002 final against Bayer Leverkusen. Current squad members like Rafael Varane have already stated that his playing experience has already helped deepen an attacking cohesion between the team while also bolstering their physical edge.
Returning Roma manager Luciano Spalletti made the Italians one of the finest sides in Europe between 2006 and 2008, by innovating with a striker-less system that was eventually copied by Champions League-winning Manchester United. He has already restored Roma's vibrancy this season and they have won their last four in all competitions.
Right now, these are two sides on the up and that could mean an open and exciting contest.
Which of the unfashionable outsiders can seize their big opportunity?
As has been made all too obvious by the way Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich tend to automatically reach the semifinals, the Champions League is very much in the "super club era". Those three are merely the wealthiest of a cabal of about nine supremely resourced sides, including Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus. That would usually mean the quarterfinal spots are also mostly dominated by those teams but with the way the competition has worked out this season, there is a unique opportunity for a few sides well outside that group.
Two of Benfica/Zenit St. Petersburg and Gent/Wolfsburg will reach in the quarterfinals; given that a bit of luck can go a long way in a cup, it may well set them up with the chance to do something very big. Benfica and Zenit have been bubbling just beneath the biggest clubs for a while, with the Russian side in particularly looking like they're on the verge of a breakthrough.
These may be even giddier times still for Gent and Wolfsburg. The German side stunned Manchester United to get this far, beating them 3-2 to eliminate Louis van Gaal's side, while Gent stunned most of Europe by eliminating Valencia and Lyon. They could yet offer more surprises, if they seize this chance.
The Europa League selections will tell a lot about the Premier League season
After Tottenham's 2-1 win over Man City, Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino said this week that it might finally be time "to dream." But that dream probably doesn't involve a fixture-heavy Europa League run sapping energy for what could be a historic chance to win the title.
The continent's second-tier competition is often unfairly dismissed in England, but its bloated nature means that treating it is a top target is only justifiable when you only have a slim chance of qualifying for the Champions League and are out of everything else. It is much less justifiable when, like Spurs, you are right in the middle of an intense title battle. Devoting resources to the Europa League could derail them and so ahead of an awkward tie against Fiorentina, there is a strong argument to play second- and third-string players.
It is almost the opposite for Manchester United. After their latest Premier League setback, a 2-1 defeat at Sunderland, Louis van Gaal admitted that finishing in the top four will be difficult. The Europa League now offers an alternative route to the Champions League so it is probably worth playing a strong team against FC Midtjylland -- even if it's hard to know what a strong United team is right now. Liverpool are in a similar situation ahead of a tie against FC Augsburg. What the managers do will indicate a lot about the rest of their campaigns.
Can one Europa League side show their Champions League credentials?
The way that Champions League sides drop into the Europa League has always been somewhat controversial but, this season, it has made for some enticing ties especially since there are a fair few sides in the lower competition that would feel they belong on the higher plane.
Among the best of them are Borussia Dortmund vs. Porto, Villarreal vs. Napoli and Marseille vs. Athletic Bilbao are among the pick of them. Given the potential prize, we could well see some matches worthy of the Champions League. They could even trump some matches in the elite competition.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.