For PSG and Chelsea, familiarity breeds contempt as they meet again in UCL
Not all derbies are local. Proximity, where football teams are concerned, may be a fairly reliable source of friction, but it is far from the only one. Not every rivalry is rooted in the desire to win local bragging rights. There is another sort of enmity. Familiarity, too, can breed contempt.
This evening, for the sixth time in three years, Chelsea meet Paris Saint-Germain. For three seasons in a row, fate, with a helping hand from UEFA's drawmaster Gianni Infantino, has brought these two sides together in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. For three seasons, these ties have been tense affairs, games of fine margins and slender advantage.
Chelsea claimed first blood, winning in the 2014 Champions League quarterfinals on away goals as Demba Ba crushed Parisian dreams of a first appearance in the competition's final four after 177 of 180 minutes.
French revenge came 10 months later, when two towering headers -- first from David Luiz, then from Thiago Silva -- gave Laurent Blanc's side their own away-goals win, vanquishing Jose Mourinho's side in the last 16.
Round three is no less delicately poised. PSG have a 2-1 edge from the first leg, thanks to Edinson Cavani, but Chelsea have an away goal, a platform to build on and, since the arrival of interim manager Guus Hiddink, a much-improved -- though perhaps not entirely convincing -- form. It would be a bold call indeed to predict which one will claim victory in the final episode of the trilogy.
Whatever the outcome, though, over those three ties, the relationship between these two clubs -- who had barely crossed paths until 2014 -- has changed considerably. Football in the Champions League is relentlessly sanitised. Every utterance, every action, is ruthlessly media-managed, carefully controlled and perfectly packaged. But scrub away the Instagram gloss, investigate beyond the Vine loops, and there is something there. Almost out of nowhere, Chelsea and PSG is suddenly turning into a genuine derby for the selfie generation.
The best parallel, perhaps, is an unlikely one. The rivalry between Chelsea and Leeds United has lasted, now, for almost half a century. And yet that, too, seemed to come from the ether. The two clubs had co-existed for nearly 50 years -- Leeds, in their current guise, were not concocted until 1919 -- before the 1964-65 season. They met only occasionally and rarely challenged for the same trophy at the same time.
One game, though, was all it took, in September 1964. Both teams would end that season in a battle for the First Division title and were not, it is fair to say, afraid of a tackle.
When they met at Stamford Bridge, the game was brutal. So brutal, in fact, that it created a blood feud. By the time they met again, six years later, in the FA Cup final, the spite was palpable.
The first game, at Wembley, was bad enough; the replay, at Old Trafford, was worse. Chelsea won after extra time, but what the 28 million who tuned in to watch remembered most of all was the sheer violence of it all. Neither side has forgotten. They are separated by 200 miles and two divisions, and they rarely cross paths these days, but Leeds still sing about Chelsea. They still sing about washing their mouths out.
Chelsea's meetings with PSG, of course, bear no resemblance to those old encounters with "Dirty" Leeds. There is no Ron Harris, no Jack Charlton, nor any player in their mould. The way football has changed in the intervening decades makes such brutality all but impossible. The sport is now a canvas for artists, not a playground for bullies. It appears Chelsea and PSG are peers and rivals; Chelsea and Leeds were visceral enemies.
Look beyond the surface, though, and the two rivalries have more in common than you might think. There is the shared history: we have seen often enough in the Champions League era that a series of meetings in quick succession require only the faintest hint of controversy to morph into actual antipathy -- Chelsea and Barcelona can bear witness to that.
Then there is what each team represents. Chelsea against Leeds was so potent as a rivalry because it stood for something more: a manifestation of the North/South divide, the provincial upstarts against the metropolitan stars and showbiz princes of the King's Road. "When Saturday Comes" magazine rather neatly suggested Chelsea as the Beatles and Leeds as the Rolling Stones.
The same can be said of Chelsea and PSG -- both represent football's new wealth, depending on your definition of "new." Leeds and Chelsea was a feud spurred by domestic demographics; Chelsea and PSG is one funded by global economics.
Here, too, the shared history becomes relevant. Over the last three years, chance has dictated that Chelsea have become a yardstick by which PSG can measure their growth. That first year, 2014, when the London side progressed, it was taken as a sign that the French club were not yet ready to form part of Europe's elite; when they overcame them 12 months ago, Nasser al-Khelaifi, the PSG president, interpreted it as a sign that they had finally made the big time.
This is fitting, too, because it is in Chelsea that PSG like to see their future. It is the Chelsea model, after all, which Qatar Sports Investments -- the body which rescued PSG from apparently endemic drift and turned them into football's coming force in 2011 -- are hoping to follow. Remember, it was Roman Abramovich who laid down the blueprint for how to gate-crash the established elite when he bought Chelsea in 2003.
There is a metaphor that football executives like to trot out with startling regularity. And it has been relayed to me, independently, by head honchos at clubs in at least three countries. If there are two ships, they say, one ahead of the other, the boat that is trailing cannot hope to overtake simply by sailing on the same course. They have to find another way to get ahead.
That is not true of Chelsea and PSG. The French club are trying to barge their English forebears out of the way by virtue of straightforward speed, hoping an engine fed by gas is quicker than one run on oil.
For now, Chelsea remain ahead. They are a more accepted part of the game's elite. They have managed to sustain their place at the top table for more than a decade -- John Terry absent on Wednesday through injury, is the last survivor of that first side of the Abramovich era, testament to their longevity -- and they have already won the trophy that would mark the PSG project as a success.
Chelsea's challenge now is to stay ahead. There is far too much glitz and glamour, far too little blood and thunder, attached to these games to make them feel much like the Chelsea-Leeds encounters of decades ago. But they are, deep down, not that different. The way they are projected is different -- filtered by Instagram, relayed by Twitter -- but they have taken root in similar soil. Not all derbies are local. Now, some even cross borders. Familiarity, though, always breeds contempt.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.