Chelsea, Guus Hiddink preaching sense of calm ahead of daunting PSG test
The wounds may have been mostly self-inflicted, but Chelsea have been battered and bruised so much this season that most of their everyday setbacks now appear relatively minor. It is becoming easier to roll with the punches than to bite back, which perhaps explains the air of serenity around John Terry's absence from the team that will face Paris Saint-Germain at Parc des Princes on Tuesday night.
The captain's hamstring injury means both he and the suspended Nemanja Matic will miss out but Chelsea, who are likely to partner Branislav Ivanovic with Gary Cahill at the back, exude a calmness these days that verges on the disarming.
"We had the same problem against Newcastle and [regardless of injuries] we practice with other people, in this case in central defence," said Guus Hiddink in his pre-match press conference. "So it was not a surprise for the players that we have to make changes. Of course not having John is a bit of a setback as a leader, but I'm not the kind of manager who starts moaning, moaning, moaning. We go on and I have full confidence in the players who replace."
This is a new kind of test for Hiddink's fresher, newly confident Chelsea. The feeling around this tie last season was one of a clash between two heavyweights capable of grinding one another down until someone gave in. It proved that way -- PSG did deserve Thiago Silva's late second-leg winner at Stamford Bridge -- but the depths Chelsea have reached since August mean that in a curious sense, this year's meeting does not have the highly strung appearance of previous meetings. Instead, the Blues' mantra centres on regeneration.
"I think we are growing," continued Hiddink. "Everyone knows the situation in recent months and weeks. Step by step we try to establish more security in the team, more a way of playing how we like to play with the quality of players we have. I think, to be honest, we are not yet where we would like to be.
"You have to have an array of games where you are imposing the way you like to play; we try to do that step by step."
Chelsea have not quite managed that yet despite a 12-game unbeaten run under Hiddink but the regrowth is there and a positive result here would add to the feeling that Chelsea are far more like their old selves. Hiddink and Thibaut Courtois (who joined him in facing the media) were both keen not to paint this last-16 tie as a last chance to secure Champions League football -- by winning this year's competition -- for next year. You suspect that any sense of emergency would disrupt the equilibrium Hiddink is promoting.
"I think to win the Champions League is motivation in itself," said Courtois. Hiddink concurred, saying that first of all it is "beautiful to win a big cup."
The temptation is almost to paint this as a free hit for Chelsea but it will also be a chance for several individuals to cement some points. Diego Costa has scored eight goals under Hiddink; can he dovetail with the similarly revitalised Eden Hazard to unsettle a PSG defence whose right-back -- likely to be the specialist centre-back Marquinhos in the absence of Serge Aurier -- will be a square peg in a round hole.
Any gaps behind Marquinhos would be of interest to Pedro, whose staccato six months at Stamford Bridge flickered into life with two goals against Newcastle at the weekend. And can that reshuffled spine, likely to feature unfancied individuals like Cahill and John Obi Mikel, hold up to the challenges posed by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a PSG midfield that, whether or not the influential Marco Verratti is fit to start, has few equals on paper.
There are points to prove everywhere and Hiddink stressed that Chelsea will not be able to count on any rustiness from a home side that sits a jaw-dropping 24 points clear at the top of Ligue 1.
"That would have been the case if a team was not experienced," he said. "But when you see PSG and all their international players, they have the experience and know very well that in the Champions League there might be other circumstances, other ways of playing. They know very well -- they are focused, in capitals, on this event."
That might play into Chelsea's hands. PSG's domestic situation will surely need addressing at some stage but the status quo ensures that the Champions League, whose quarterfinals they have failed to breach in three consecutive seasons, now becomes a priority. In a way, the pressure to perform in Europe increases as their level of competition at home goes down. The time is now for Blanc, such a safe pair of hands in developing this club since taking the reins since 2013, and his team to reach the next level.
"Our players know each other a lot better this year, some have good experience of the Champions League," said the PSG manager earlier in the day. "We're not talking about a level we are not used to seeing in France. Now Paris Saint-Germain must show it is progressing. I think PSG is [these days] better considered abroad, which proves we are on the right path."
The fact that PSG are generally priced as fifth favourites for this year's competition -- ahead of their three English rivals -- bears out Blanc's thoughts on their reputation. They have a "best of the rest" feel about them, the impression of a team that belongs just a notch below Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich in quality. Now they must prove it and their quality of response in this tie will tell plenty.
"They are focusing to get the Champions League and a big club has to win that one year," said Hiddink in his only response that could be construed as anything like an attempt to create some pressure. "But we are in a similar situation; we are also desperate to get into the next round. [I think that] it's 50/50 and just one percent could go to our advantage."
Hiddink suggested that Chelsea would adapt their approach on the night to play one of two ways, whether on the counter or taking a more imposing approach. Whether or not they are able to play with the freedom he might wish for on Tuesday night, the overriding sense is that they are at least thinking with the clarity, and the absence of tension, to give themselves a chance.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and the Blizzard, among others. Twitter: @NickAmes82.