The Season So Far
There’s not a great deal we can say about Paris Saint-Germain’s domestic season: being so much richer than every other team in Ligue 1 has left them in a Celtic-esque situation, expected to win at a canter every week and, more often than not, doing so. They remain unbeaten and have won 22 of their 26 games so far, with 24 points between them and second place Monaco. Despite that achievement being obviously impressive, it’s hard to be moved or excited by it.
In a somewhat depressing era of footballing haves and have-nots, PSG stand out as the most striking example: a club with an infinite bank balance against a division of teams who can barely afford to pay transfer fees at all, let alone the kind of wages that would set someone up for life within two months. PSG alone made up 27% of Ligue 1’s total revenue last year and, given their constant improvement on and off the pitch, the best case scenario is that the gap between them and the rest of the league stays as it is. Only horrific mismanagement can make Ligue 1 competitive again.
The Season Ahead
Barring some kind of natural disaster or ‘Homer At The Bat’-style list of misfortunes, they’ll win every available domestic trophy with ease, while only really breaking a sweat in the Champions League. Much like Bayern Munich in Germany, glory at home is taken as a given and the real measure of success is how far they can go in Europe.
Truth be told, this is as good a chance as PSG will ever have to win it: they rank as fifth favourites with most bookmakers, behind Barcelona, Bayern, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, but with Bayern’s defence once again ravaged by injury, Real Madrid’s midfield practically non-existent and Atlético struggling for goals, PSG are realistic candidates, provided they get the luck and favourable draws to go with their awesome talent.
Zlatan Ibrahimović is slowing down but remains as potent as ever in front of goal, Ángel Di María looks to be getting back to something close to his best, Blaise Matuidi has established himself as one of Europe’s best box-to-box midfielders over a few seasons and Marco Verratti seems to be reaching that level too. In Thiago Silva and David Luiz they have a settled and high-class partnership in the centre of defence. There is a perception that Laurent Blanc isn’t a good enough manager to win the biggest crown of all with this group of players, but in a field as weak as this, simply sending them out to do their thing may be all he needs to do.
PSG don’t really have any tactical surprises up their sleeve: they’ve played their usual ball-hogging 4-3-3 in all but one game this season, and it functions like just about every other ball-hogging 4-3-3 you’ve ever seen. The anchorman in front of the defence runs the game, the full-backs support the wingers and overlap and the wingers come inside to combine with the box-to-box midfielders and the centre-forward. It can sometimes look rudimentary, but it doesn’t usually matter: when your players are that much better than the other team’s, there’s little need for complicated tactics or reinventing the wheel.
This tactical uniformity, ultimately, could be their undoing, as it so often is for teams who dominate their domestic competition with such ease. That said, Blanc will surely be aware of his need to have a good Plan B up his sleeve for when it’s needed, and after last season’s humiliating exit, Chelsea of all teams should be aware that PSG can reorganise to dominate a game even when all logic suggests that they should be dead and buried.
As we see most weeks, and as Chelsea learned last season, PSG are usually excellent at keeping the ball and winning the midfield battle. Only one team has played more short passes in this season’s Champions League so far – Pep Guardiola’s Bayern, unsurprisingly. While last season’s hero of Stamford Bridge, Marco Verratti, will be unavailable, the likely trio of Thiago Motta, Adrien Rabiot and Blaise Matuidi should form a unit much more formidable and capable in an all-round sense than Chelsea’s. Blanc has his team extremely well-drilled and it’s impossible not to admire their passing patterns and, to borrow an Arsène Wenger phrase, tactical maturity.
Indeed, they’re notable now for being a strong unit instead of being slaves to star names, as they were in the past. Rather than crowbarring Edinson Cavani into the team in an uncomfortable wide role, the once-feared Uruguayan forward will most likely be benched here to allow natural wingers Lucas Moura and Di María to support Ibrahimović. In previous seasons, such a move could have been politically disastrous.
It’s also worth mentioning their preposterous strength at set pieces at both ends: their height and power throughout the team, coupled with attention to detail in their preparation, make it very hard to create scoring opportunities from both the first and second phases of set pieces, while the quality of their delivery at the other end means they’re a very dangerous proposition. If John Terry is out and Chelsea are left with Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanović as their leading markers and headers of the ball [EDIT: gulp], expect trouble.
If PSG have an obvious weakness, it’s the full-backs: both Gregory Van der Wiel and Maxwell can be vulnerable in one-on-one duels and sometimes questionable positionally, so if Chelsea’s wingers can expose them in transition-phases then the Blues will have success on the flanks. While sitting deep and absorbing pressure isn’t a great idea against PSG, rapid counters really are the best way to go when attacking them.
Besides that, we’re really struggling. We could perhaps say that Zlatan’s underwhelming record in the Champions League knockout stages suggests he will be a passenger, or that PSG will be so surprised to face a relatively competent opponent that they might wilt, or that David Luiz might be liable to respond to Diego Costa’s shithouse antics, but this is clutching at straws. It’s almost inevitable that David Luiz and Diego Costa will clash, but it’s just as likely that Costa gets himself sent off as Luiz does.
As previously stated, Verratti won't start, while Javier Pastore will also not be risked after returning from injury. Regular right-back Serge Aurier has been suspended by the club after video footage emerged of him mocking his manager and his teammates (smooth work, Serge), so Van der Wiel comes into the side holding a gigantic placard with "I AM THE WEAK LINK" written on it.
As for Chelsea, Nemanja Matić is suspended so John Obi Mikel will have to be a one-man defensive midfield while Cesc Fàbregas stands around admiring the night sky, Zlatan’s ponytail and the fine stitching on his own shirt. John Terry faces a race to be fit, and Chelsea badly need him to win it [EDIT: he lost it; Chelsea are screwed]. As for the attacking midfield, I have no idea.
If Chelsea are still in the tie after 90 minutes, they’ll have done well. Just get an away goal and keep the difference down to one goal.