When Paris Saint-Germain host Chelsea on Tuesday it will be the third straight season that the two teams have faced off in the Champions League knockout phase, and the second-successive matchup in the Round of 16. Yet for all the familiarities that now exist between the two sides, much has changed since PSG dramatically triumphed a year ago. Indeed, much has changed merely since the draw was made for this season’s matchup two months ago.
Whereas it has previously been Chelsea who were the established force and PSG the newly minted pretenders aiming to crash Europe’s elite, this season the side from the French capital have been the commanding force.
Champions of France for the last three years, PSG are now more dominant than ever, currently leading Ligue 1 by a massive 24 points. They have not tasted defeat in 33 domestic matches this season. In fact, a goalless draw at home to Lille on Saturday was just the fourth time they have failed to win in Ligue 1, the Coupe de France, or Coupe de la Ligue.
The Champions League was the setting for the club’s only defeat, against Real Madrid. Yet there is a strong feeling that PSG are now the strongest they have been since the Qatar-funded takeover of the club in 2011 that propelled them to prominence. Particularly with the arrival of another world-class performer last summer in Ángel di María , there is the biggest expectation yet that, after three straight quarterfinal exits, PSG are now ready to make a breakthrough into the Champions League’s prestigious final four.
At Chelsea, the mood has been very different. The club has endured the most disastrous title defense in the history of the Premier League, finding themselves closer to the relegation zone than the top of the table, or even a top four place that would earn them a return to the Champions League for next season. Players that excelled in romping to the title last season have painfully disappointed for much of this campaign. Chief among them has been Eden Hazard, often linked with a move to PSG in the past but who has inconceivably failed to find the back of the net in either the Premier League or the Champions League this term.
Those failures cost manager Jose Mourinho his job just three days after the draw for the Champions League Round of 16 was made in mid-December, meaning one of the key characters in the recent clashes between Chelsea and PSG will not be present for Tuesday’s first leg.
If all that points toward PSG being strong favorites to progress to the quarterfinals for a fourth straight season, then cause for reassessment has arrived in recent days. Under Mourinho’s interim replacement Guus Hiddink, Chelsea have gone 11 matches unbeaten, and on Saturday they recorded their most emphatic result of the season when swatting Newcastle United aside, 5-1.
The win saw the previously blunt Diego Costa take his tally to eight goals in 10 games under Hiddink, helping to effectively end any lingering fears of being dragged into a most unlikely relegation battle. It means Hiddink can now focus on what is Chelsea’s only realistic hope of returning to the Champions League next season: winning it. And the veteran Dutch coach has form in guiding Chelsea to the competition’s latter stages as part of a rescue job. He took over for a similar interim spell in 2009 and it was only some hugely controversial referring decisions and a last-gasp goal from Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta that denied Chelsea a place in the final.
If Chelsea’s spirits have improved of late, PSG have suffered the kind of potentially destabilizing off-pitch story that was so common at Stamford Bridge in the first half of this season. Shortly after PSG’s draw with Lille it came to the attention of the French media that regular right-back Serge Aurier had made a Periscope video in which he directed homophobic insults at his manager, as well, as reportedly mocking teammates including Di María and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
After initially claiming the video was fake, the Ivory Coast international conceded it was genuine. And the player has subsequently been asked not to attend training and left out of the squad to take on Chelsea. There must surely be considerable doubt about whether he will ever play for the club again.
Prediction: Last season’s victory over Chelsea looked set to be the moment when PSG truly joined Europe’s elite and where Blanc showed he was the manager who could take them there. However, a subsequent limp quarterfinal loss to Barcelona meant the doubts immediately returned. And lackluster performances in both matches against Real Madrid in this season’s group phase did little to dispel questions over whether PSG really can take the next step.
Despite how impressive they have been in France, they will again have a point to prove against Chelsea, even given the English side’s struggles. Chelsea have been solid at the back in recent weeks and will surely go to Paris hoping to keep things tight ahead of the return to Stamford Bridge. PSG’s attacking quality, though, going up against a Chelsea defense that may be missing captain John Terry as well as long-term injury casualty Kurt Zouma, may just see them get a narrow edge.
Predicted score: Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 Chelsea