PSG underline Champions League title credentials in win over Chelsea
LONDON -- Paris Saint-Germain have now eliminated Chelsea from the Champions League in consecutive seasons, but there was a distinctly different feel to Wednesday night's victory, compared to PSG's performance at Stamford Bridge 364 days ago.
A year ago, PSG were very much the underdogs: failing to win at home in the first leg (1-1), getting a man sent off early at Stamford Bridge, and twice battling back from behind with set-piece goals to draw 2-2 and advance.
This time, they triumphed relatively comfortably: winning at home, dominating the start of this game and scoring two well-worked goals with low balls into the box, converted by Adrien Rabiot and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
PSG complemented their 2-1 home win with a 2-1 away win on Wednesday. Two slender victories, you could argue, but these scorelines -- combined with the away-goals rule -- left Chelsea requiring three goals in the dying minutes to avoid elimination.
Last year, PSG manager Laurent Blanc believed their "victory" (actually it was a progression on away goals) marked the moment PSG became a truly elite club. "PSG want to be one of Europe's top clubs, we want to sit at top table," he said at Stamford Bridge afterwards. "This is a turning point, a reference point in the club's history."
On Wednesday night, things were more routine. PSG now have the aura of a genuinely big club, as you might expect, considering they're currently 23 points clear at the top of Ligue 1, and Blanc was less emotional.
"After the match, it's always easy to have a slightly more positive view of the match, but in terms of the result and the game itself, we've gone through," Blanc said. "We were preparing for a tough match. We were right to think Chelsea are a top side. We didn't necessarily think we would be able to put in a good performance away from home, so that's very pleasing. I think we controlled the game from start to finish. When we conceded the goal, we weren't concerned. We continued to play as we had intended."
PSG started in control. Some expected them to sit deep and play primarily on the counter-attack, using the pace of Lucas Moura and Angel Di Maria. Instead, their approach was about possession football, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic notably dropping deep to help overload the midfield zone. Di Maria often did similar, with Chelsea creating a 4 v 3 in that zone.
The first goal of the night was hardly against the run of play. Ibrahimovic, often frustratingly static in the Champions League, showed good movement throughout the first half, and pulled wide to play a low ball across the six-yard box, converted easily by the onrushing Adrien Rabiot.
This meant PSG had an early away goal, and Chelsea were in a perilous situation. The Blues needed to push forward and get back into the game, but more importantly, they needed to prevent the concession of another away goal.
Chelsea's response was impressive. Guus Hiddink's side didn't push men forward and leave gaps at the back unnecessarily, but there was a notable change in their approach without possession. Having previously concentrated on sitting deep, they now pushed forward and pressed in advanced midfield zones. Thiago Motta, normally such a commanding presence at the base of the PSG midfield, was troubled by this constant pressure and constantly caused turnovers, allowing Chelsea to attack their opponent's backline.
"When you analyse, we started too respectfully in the first 10 or 15 minutes on one hand; on the other hand, we're playing against a team that knows how to play a short-possession game very well, and you have to be careful not to be outplayed in the first part of the game," Hiddink said. "At 1-0 down, we lost this 'wrong' respect, and wanted to defend a bit more fluidly. We got a deserved equaliser and there were more some chances both ways in the first half."
Chelsea's midfield pressing here was extremely good, especially as it was somewhat uncharacteristic. Willian, usually praised for his defensive work when tracking opposition full-backs, played an important destructive role from the top of midfield, winning tackles and setting the tone for the pressing. This defensive work suited Cesc Fabregas, too. Motta was booked for fouling Fabregas, then Fabregas was booked for fouling Motta; it was feisty and physical.
Chelsea's equaliser, meanwhile, came when Pedro charged inside from the right to dispossess Motta, and then a quick passing combination ended with Diego Costa calmly sliding the ball past PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp. Chelsea's approach had worked: Motta, the man meant to be putting PSG in charge, was being overrun, and the absence of the diminutive deep-lying playmaker Blaise Matuidi was particularly obvious.
Chelsea continued to press at the start of the second half. Rabiot, commanding in possession at times, was also pressed by John Obi Mikel and then Cesar Azpilicueta, giving away the ball in his own half. PSG were now playing conservatively, retaining the ball and rarely pushing forward.
The next goal was crucial: either Chelsea drew level on the tie, or PSG effectively won the game. Chelsea had chances, most notably when Trapp was forced into a superb double save from Willian and then Eden Hazard. Costa limped off injured, with Bertrand Traore introduced upfront. The Stamford Bridge crowd were preparing for the type of late rally that turned this tie two years ago, when super-sub Demba Ba put them through.
Instead, PSG hit them with a sucker punch.
Motta, so troubled toward the end of the first half, collected a Di Maria pass that Rabiot couldn't quite bring under control, and immediately fired it back toward the left flank for the Argentine. Chelsea right-back Azpilicueta, perhaps expecting a turnover of possession, was caught sleeping, and Di Maria's drilled cross was volleyed into the top of the net by Ibrahimovic. That was that; Chelsea needed three in 23 minutes. It was game over, and while the last two ties between these sides had seen incredible late drama, on this day, PSG simply killed the game with unambitious passing.
For now, PSG have yet to better their previous efforts in this competition: they were beaten comprehensively by Barcelona at the quarterfinal stage last season. Anything less than the semifinals this time around will be regarded as a failure -- but on this evidence, PSG are a real contender this time around.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.