Both Paris Saint-Germain manager Laurent Blanc and his Chelsea counterpart Guus Hiddink believe their sides’ Champions League Round of 16 matchup is too close to call ahead of Tuesday’s first leg at the Parc des Princes.
The two clubs will be meeting for the third straight season in the Champions League knockout phase, with Chelsea having ousted PSG in the quarterfinals two years ago, before the French champions got their revenge in the last 16 a year later. On the evidence of this season, it is PSG who would appear to be the strong favorites to break the tie in their favor.
While they have won Ligue Un for the past three years, this season they are dominating France’s top division like never before. Blanc’s outfit are currently 24 points clear at the top and have not lost in 33 domestic league and cup matches this season. Indeed their only defeat in any competition this campaign came in the Champions League group phase when going down 1-0 to Real Madrid.
In contrast, Chelsea have mounted a disastrous Premier League title defense, losing nine of their first 16 matches. That record, along with numerous off-the-pitch controversies, led to Jose Mourinho’s dismissal in December. The change has had the desired effect, with the London side going undefeated in 11 contests under interim coach Guus Hiddink. A 5-1 destruction of Newcastle United on Saturday continued the upward trajectory. And, with any distant relegation fears now effectively eradicated, Hiddink, who took over for a similar interim spell in 2009, has suggested that Chelsea could thrive with the opportunity to salvage their season in the Champions League.
“If you see where we are now, if you see where PSG is now, they are building up a very strong team, they are dominating completely the French league,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “Then they are focusing to get this Champions League. A big club has to win the Champions League.
“But we are in a similar situation, of course everyone knows that the league hasn’t started good this year and we had some recovery from December until now. But we are also desperate to get into the next round of the champions league and that is a very good test for our players as well. So I agree that it is 50-50 and I hope that the one percent can be in our advantage.”
For all the money that has been invested sine the Qatari takeover of PSG in 2011, PSG have yet to make a big breakthrough in the Champions League, losing at the quarterfinal stage for the last three seasons. And Blanc sees the matchup with 2012 European Cup winners Chelsea as another opportunity to show PSG’s might on the biggest stage.
“The two teams are evenly matched,” he said, according to Paris Saint-Germain’s official website. “The coach [Hiddink] has a lot of experience in the Champions League, he has brought calm and serenity to the club. They're getting back to form and they're building in confidence. It will be delicate, tight, aggressive.
“Our intention is to impose our game. Our players are getting to know each other better and better, and some players who have won the Champions League with other clubs have joined us. We're boxing in a weight class that's very unusual for a French team. That's where Paris Saint-Germain need to prove that progress is being made. I think Paris' reputation as a powerful team is growing overseas. That proves that we're on the right track.”
Both clubs, in very different circumstances, have suffered blows to their defense in the buildup to Tuesday’s first leg. Chelsea, already without Kurt Zouma, have lost captain John Terry to a hamstring injury suffered in the win over Newcastle. It means Branislav Ivanovic is likely to move inside to partner Gary Cahill, with Cesar Azpilicueta switching to right-back and Baba Rahman coming into the side on the left.
PSG, meanwhile, will be missing regular right-back Serge Aurier, after the Ivory Coast international was suspended by the club for making insulting comments about his manager and several teammates in a Periscope video. Blanc has said he is still deciding whether Gregory van der Wiel or Marquinhos will be the replacement.
Start time: 2:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 1, ESPN Deportes