Edinson Cavani's late winner earns PSG a narrow advantage over Chelsea
PARIS -- Three thoughts on Paris Saint-Germain's 2-1 win against Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 on Tuesday.
1. PSG win but Courtois saves Chelsea
For the first 20 minutes it appeared as though the Parc des Princes would witness a total mismatch and, at times in the second half, it threatened to become a rout. But after it all, the hosts managed just the narrowest of victories, thanks largely to Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
The Belgian was tested only by Marco Verratti's low drive during the early Paris Saint-Germain onslaught, as the massed ranks of Chelsea defenders in front of him at least did a good job of forcing the home side to shoot from distance, even if the visitors rarely ventured outside of their own half.
Chelsea weathered the storm, displaying a calmness and discipline reminiscent of last season's Premier League title run, and began to find ways to pass their way into space. Much of the pre-match talk centred around how much Nemanja Matic would be missed at the base of midfield, but Cesc Fabregas' superior vision proved invaluable as the visitors gradually gained a foothold.
Kevin Trapp made a remarkable save with his trailing hand to direct Diego Costa's bullet header onto the crossbar and, by the time Zlatan Ibrahimovic's deflected free kick gave PSG the lead on 39 minutes it felt undeserved.
Chelsea made sure it was a short-lived lead as John Obi Mikel, whose deflection wrong-footed Courtois on the hosts' opener, brought down Costa's near-post flick from a corner and lashed in a rare goal with the last kick of the first half.
But when PSG raised the pressure after the break, some of Chelsea's desperate defending evoked memories of rearguard actions at Barcelona and Bayern Munich en route to their 2012 Champions League win.
Courtois stood firm, though, tipping Angel Di Maria's rasping drive over the crossbar and winning a personal duel with Ibrahimovic, who appeared determined to make the difference on what might be his last Champions League run.
In the end substitute Edinson Cavani made the difference when he raced onto an Angel Di Maria through pass and coolly slotted the ball through Courtois' legs from a tight angle. The Chelsea No. 1 deserved a better fate but, were it not for his earlier heroics, his side might be heading back to Stamford Bridge with only pride at stake.
As things stand, the tie remains alive. PSG have the edge but Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink will be encouraged by the way his side played with a measure of freedom and ambition as well as grit and vigilance. But he will be more heartened by the knowledge that he has one of the world's best goalkeepers in his corner.
2. The best and worst of Mikel
Until Tuesday night, Chelsea had won every match in which Mikel had scored. Admittedly six games in 10 years is a limited sample size but the omens appeared good when he smashed in from close range on the stroke of half-time.
It was a rare moment of celebration but also one of redemption for the Nigerian, whose rash tackle felled Lucas Moura in the build-up to PSG's opening goal, which went in via his outstretched leg that connected with Ibrahimovic's low drive and bamboozled Courtois.
Mikel is rarely prone to such extremes. It's why he's lasted so long in a Chelsea squad that has transformed around him and why Hiddink trusts him so much. The 28-year-old has played in 25 matches across the Dutch manager's two spells, making simple rather than spectacular passes and sensible rather than showy decisions.
PSG's second-half barrage provided ample evidence of the limitations that have prevented Mikel ever becoming a star at Stamford Bridge. His lack of mobility in front of the back four left more than enough space for Di Maria, Lucas and later Cavani to attack between the lines, with Fabregas far from qualified to cover.
Mikel's return to prominence under Hiddink is as much an indictment of Matic's regression as it is testament to any personal resurgence. He is the player he always has been and, on the evidence of Tuesday night, Chelsea's fortunes will continue to be intertwined with his highs and lows until at least the summer.
3. PSG's attack too varied for tiring Chelsea
Hiddink said in the build-up to the game that English football's governing powers must do more to create conditions for Champions League success. Nine of Chelsea's 11 starters played against Newcastle on Saturday, shortly after Laurent Blanc had made seven changes for PSG's goalless draw with Lille. The contrast in energy was glaringly obvious in an utterly one-sided final half-hour at Parc des Princes.
Chelsea also missed John Terry, though much less than many anticipated. Branislav Ivanovic made countless clearing headers and Gary Cahill was as committed as ever, even if Terry's organisational instincts might have helped to steady the ship as his team rocked.
Ultimately, however, it was the quality and array of PSG's attacking options that proved decisive. Ibrahimovic occupied Cahill and Ivanovic all evening, while Di Maria and Lucas drove into the space between Chelsea's drifting midfield and deep-lying defence whenever they got the opportunity.
On the occasions when the visitors edged upfield, PSG intuitively switched from their possession game to try and release their lightning fast wingers with direct passes.
The variety of PSG's goal threat gradually wore Chelsea down and Cavani's incisive instincts, deployed in a central role in tandem with Ibrahimovic, were lethal in the final minutes.
Unlike Lucas and Di Maria, the Uruguayan was rarely involved in the early stages of attacking moves. His focus instead was solely on attacking space and he scored with only his fifth touch, following a fine Di Maria pass.
Mikel's away goal will give Chelsea justifiable confidence as they look to overturn the narrow deficit at Stamford Bridge next month. But in Di Maria, Lucas and Cavani, PSG are better equipped to exploit their opponents' attacking ambition than ever before.