With the Champions League Quarter finalist list beginning to take shape, it is the last chance saloon for a lot of teams as their European foray hinges on their next 90 minutes. Chelsea find themselves facing an uphill battle to overturn a 2-1 deficit from the first leg. While it is of course an incredibly difficult position that Chelsea have contrived, it is by no means an impossible circumstance for them.
Chelsea have been on a decent run of form since the departure of Jose Mourinho. In their last 10 Premier League games, Chelsea have won five and drawn five scoring 20 and conceding 10 as they have climbed the table up to 10th place with 40 points, 10 behind Manchester City in fourth and the last Champions League place. While many would have claimed they did foresee this Chelsea revival coming, it was not clear that it would be so abrupt. The demise of Mourinho was as surprising as it was quick as in the space of one summer, Chelsea went from Champions to chumps. So much was written about their demise that the subject does not need any more analysis, but suffice to say that Mourinho paid for his player’s poor form with his managerial life.
Fast forward three months and the landscape could not be different. The Blues have put distance between themselves and the apparent relegation battle they had found themselves on the edge of and, if an improbable amount of results go their way, then they might find themselves battling for a Champions League place. Guus Hiddink seems to have done the simple things well. First of all he got Diego Costa scoring again. The combative Spaniard was still at his physical best, but he seemed to be putting all his energy into frustrating defenders with his physicality as opposed to scoring goals.
Hiddink has changed this though with Costa scoring six goals in his last 10 games in all competitions. He has also moved onto 11 goals for the season which is a good return considering his poor form throughout this campaign up until the turn of the year.
Hiddink has also been able to plug what is an uncharacteristically shaky Chelsea defence. The long term injury to Thibaut Courtois and the poor form of Branislav Ivanovic had rocked their defence while many claimed John Terry had lost his ability to play at the top level. However, Hiddink has again stabilised the defence allowing Ivanovic to come back in to form most likely due to the confidence and faith he placed in him through his selection as captain when Terry picked up an injury. The form of Ivanovic is vitally important to Chelsea as he is one of their most underrated players. While the likes of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Willian generally make the headlines, it is the performances of Ivanovic blunting a wingers attack or playing as an auxiliary centre back which make Chelsea so robust. When he lost form, Chelsea did too and they plummeted down the table.
Hiddink has also rectified the hole in midfield which was left by the poor performances of Nemanja Matic. This put more pressure on Cesc Fabregas who was caught out of position offensively as he was attempting to contribute defensively. This then severely stunted Chelsea as their best passer was not able to get into the right positions to influence play due to his increased defensive work load. Hiddink chose to resurrect the faltering career of John Obi Mikel as the defensive shield in place of Matic which gave Fabregas the cover to push further forward. While Mikel did seem out of his depth against PSG in the first leg by first giving away the foul for the free kick which led to the goal before deflecting the resulting strike past Courtois, it has given Matic the time to rediscover his form in the smaller games. This may have been a masterstroke from Hiddink as if Matic were to have played in the PSG game it may only have served to exacerbate his problems and bad form.
It seems then that what Hiddink has really added to Chelsea is stability. With the defence far more robust than it has been this season, it allows the offensive players to focus on their own work as opposed to constantly tracking back and finding themselves out of position due to a heightened work load. This concept of Chelsea being robust is perhaps the best way to beat PSG. The French side will look to dominate possession and Chelsea are a fantastic team without the ball. Previously drilled by Mourinho, the Blues know what it will take to beat PSG. Their will be wave after wave of attack and the defence will quite likely have to put in their best performance of the season while Hiddink will hope that the way he has dealt with Matic will summon a game winning performance from the Serb, akin to those which won Chelsea the title last season. If Chelsea can soak up PSG’s pressure then they will trust their speed on the break through Willian and Hazard. The last team that visited Stamford Bridge needing goals was Porto and while they are not in the same class as PSG, it shows exactly what Chelsea are capable of as they ran out comfortable 2-0 winners in a game which could have been five or six nil.
Unlike Chelsea, the French champions have had a walk in the park this season. They currently sit top of the French Ligue 1 on 74 points, 23 clear of second place Monaco. PSG have lost just once in 29 games in the league, winning 23 times. While the scale of PSG’s crushing campaign is goliath, it must be considered that the French league is not a particularly competitive league. Second place Monaco recently bowed out of the Europa league against Tottenham after a humbling 5-2 defeat across two leagues. More still, few teams have troubled PSG both due to the Champions star studded team but also because the 19 other teams are significantly weaker than PSG both in standard of player and financially. While it should not be ignored that PSG are a World class team, they are made to look unbeatable by an incredibly weak league.
Away from the ease at which they have won the league, they do have one of the World’s best players leading their attack. Zlatan Ibrahimovic really is one in seven billion. The Swede, both in skill and wit, is as sharp as ever scoring some of the most audacious goals ever recorded. In the Champions League in particular he has supplied a plethora of clever flicks and thunderous volleys which have left spectators in awe. Ibrahimovic has scored 23 goals in 21 Ligue 1 appearancs proving to be the driving force for the French Champions, helping them to 68 goals in 29 games.
Along with Ibrahimovic has been the form of Kevin Trapp in goal. After ousting Salvatore Sirigu as starting goalkeeper, Trapp has been in fine form helping PSG’s defence to a miserly 15 goals conceded. He also made a superb save from Diego Costa in the first leg as the Spaniard’s point blank header was pushed away from goal with the keeper seemingly beaten. Trapp will need to be in good form once again with the likes of Willian and the back in form Costa looking to book Chelsea’s place in the next round.
Chelsea can take heart from their previous record against PSG though. Generally the team with the advantage from the first leg has failed to progress to the next stage. In the 2013/14 season PSG beat Chelsea 3-1 in France before a late Demba Ba striker sealed a 2-0 win for Chelsea. The next season, Chelsea left France with the advantage after a 1-1 draw but they were then eliminated after a 2-2 draw in London. This season PSG fly to England with the advantage and if the last two seasons are anything to go by then Chelsea can be quietly confident. Past results omitted, it could come down to the form of the centre backs. Thiago Silva and David Luiz will attempt to repel the likes of Costa, Willian, Hazard and Pedro while, if John Terry is still injured come Wednesday, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic will have to hold their own against Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Lucas.
This last 16 tie promises to be a dramatic one with neither side deeming elimination at this stage a success in Europe. PSG have been in good form all season and Chelsea seem to be peaking at the right time and if past matches are anything to go by then one of these sides is in for a late heart- breaking defeat that puts paid to their hopes of European glory for another year.
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