Chelsea rattled prolific PSG but will need more to reach UCL quarterfinals
PARIS -- Chelsea were never going to live or die by their latest appearance at Parc des Princes, but it was still an evening for mixed feelings. From one angle, a spirited and resourceful effort from a depleted side kept them firmly in this tie; from another, they were finally picked off after weathering heavy pressure from superior opponents. Now, they'll need their best performance of the year in the second leg to keep alive their hopes of an unlikely tilt at the Champions League.
A modicum of the resilience shown here, coupled with the return of key players when the teams resume in three weeks' time, would certainly give them a chance. Equally encouraging is that Guus Hiddink's team stuck doggedly to his plan. It was extra quality, rather than any systemic failing, that gave Paris Saint-Germain the edge in the tie.
"PSG like to play very smart, very alert football, and that's why we put emphasis on the back four and two more or less shielding midfield players," Hiddink said in his postmatch news conference.
There was certainly plenty to occupy them. It was an unfamiliar Chelsea setup behind their front five, but they wore a sufficiently battle-hardened look. When Gary Cahill stretched brilliantly to stop a 65th-minute pass from Blaise Matuidi from reaching Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a minute after his centre-back partner Branislav Ivanovic had blocked a near-certain Matuidi goal inside the 6-yard box, it was tempting to think Chelsea's core was tough enough to ride this one out.
Cahill, alert and communicative throughout, certainly did his best to fill the John Terry role, though he and Ivanovic were both culpable when allowing Edinson Cavani to spin several yards off them for PSG's winner. John Obi Mikel, whose equaliser might yet prove critical, had been at fault previously when allowing Lucas Moura to run beyond him, which forced the Nigerian to draw the foul that led to Ibrahimovic's opener. In the end, Chelsea's application was not quite enough.
"I thought the performance of our players, tactically, was very good," Hiddink said. "You have to be keen and very alert. In theory, you can prepare well, but sometimes the errors creep in. [PSG] have a nose for causing danger when you are out of position -- they are very smart."
That was a reference to the second goal, but Hiddink's biggest complaint was that Chelsea did not capitalize on the "four or five" counterattacking opportunities they created. They retained a threat until the dying seconds -- when Pedro lashed into the side netting after being located by the excellent Willian -- and Diego Costa was superbly thwarted by Kevin Trapp twice, but Eden Hazard in particular never quite managed to expose PSG's attack-minded defence by winning his one-on-ones. The makeshift right-back Marquinhos performed impressively to win their battle. Hazard was replaced by Oscar in the 71st minute, and it was a small concern to hear Hiddink say he was not yet ready for 90 minutes at this intensity.
Yet there are enough doubts about PSG to keep appetites sharpened. The morning's headline in Le Parisien read "History begins now." That means at least matching their run to the semifinals of 1995, and the difficulty is that with Laurent Blanc's team 24 points clear of an undemanding Ligue 1, success in Europe stands to be the club's lifeblood.
This is a better side than the one Chelsea defeated on away goals after losing 3-1 here in the first leg of the 2014 quarterfinals; it is probably better, too, than the one that prevailed so dramatically at Stamford Bridge a year ago at this stage. The pressure to perform is intense, but there was little sign of nerves early on, as they eased into a crisp, precise rhythm, and the pressure they went on to exert during long periods of each half was of an intensity and quality to make most sides buckle.
Even so, questions about their durability remain. Chelsea "forgot to play" in the early stages, according to Hiddink, but after switching on, they had periods of success in exposing a skittishness in the home side's game. Challenges were niggling and rash, and passes were hurried. At one point in the second half, a quickly taken free kick by Angel Di Maria failed to find its man at both first and second times of asking. There was an edginess about PSG when they did not control possession, and it became easier to understand how, after defeating Chelsea last year, they were comfortably defeated by Barcelona in the last eight.
They will need to be tighter in the second leg. The improved fitness of playmaker Marco Verratti, outstanding on the ball but late to the tackle more than once, would lead to a logical step up in their pressing.
"Before their goal, we had one or two chances to hurt them, and they got a bit unstable," Hiddink said. His last word was the most telling. PSG do not ooze stability, and even if Blanc were pulling a poker face afterward when wishing that the return fixture would be "open and, hopefully, with some goals," it is easy to envision a match of similar ebb and flow.
The reality is Blanc would be perfectly happy with no score at all. The reality, too, is that PSG have the players to pull another fraught situation out of the fire if need be. Di Maria's pass to Cavani, a beautifully weighted ball down the inside-right when a switch to the completely open Maxwell seemed the obvious option, was ingenious, and the substitute's run emphasised the value of sharp, world-class minds on the bench.
"I envy a bit the bench of PSG," Hiddink said. "They have 15 or 16 internationals, which is very important. When you see what they can bring on in the second half, world-class players, it's a very strong team."
That is what counted in the end. Chelsea put in one of the most commendable efforts of their 2015-16 season, but you sense it will take something on an altogether different level for that to have been enough.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and the Blizzard, among others. Twitter: @NickAmes82.