The Champions League resumes this midweek, with Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea’s clash at the Parc des Princes the pick of the first set of round of 16 ties (7.45pm Today, Tuesday).
It is a pivotal game for both sides, whose seasons now hinge on their performance in Europe’s primary continental club competition – for very different reasons.
Despite a 5-1 win over Newcastle United on Saturday – a victory that extended the Blues’ unbeaten run to 12 matches in all competitions, with interim boss Guus Hiddink yet to taste defeat in his second spell at Stamford Bridge – Chelsea have endured a miserable campaign domestically. The champions were the bookmakers’ favourites to come out on top this time around too, but a dreadful pre-Christmas run left Jose Mourinho’s men languishing in 16th place – just one point outside the relegation zone – in mid-December, with the Portuguese sacked following a 2-1 loss at surprise leaders Leicester City.
While Hiddink has steadied the ship since then, there is little left to play for in the top flight, with Chelsea still down in the bottom half and a hefty 14 points adrift of Manchester City in fourth place. The Champions League thus offers the west Londoners a shot at redemption, as well as their best chance of qualifying for next year’s edition of the tournament. Chelsea are undoubtedly outsiders in this game and in the competition as a whole, but they still have enough quality to harm PSG and should not be written off despite their poor league position back home.
PSG’s situation in Ligue 1 could hardly be more different. After being pushed by Marseille in the first half of 2014/15 and Lyon in the second, Laurent Blanc’s men have had it all their own way this year. After 26 matches, the gap separating them from second-placed Monaco stands at 24 points, with another league championship effectively sewn up already. It is unclear whether the lack of competition at home will be a help or a hindrance to their chances in Europe, however. On the plus side it, it allows PSG to focus solely on the Champions League, although they may find it difficult to suddenly raise their intensity after coasting in France for so long.
Blanc will have to do without Marco Verratti (groin) and Javier Pastore (calf) for today’s first leg in the French capital, although Thiago Silva, Maxwell and talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic are set to return to the starting XI. Serge Aurier will miss out after video footage emerged of him insulting his manager and a number of his team-mates over the weekend, with Blanc understandably not reacting at all well to the episode.
Chelsea, meanwhile, will have to make do without captain John Terry, who picked up a hamstring injury against Newcastle at the weekend. With Kurt Zouma out for the season, Branislav Ivanovic will likely move from right-back to centre-half and Cesar Azpilicueta from left-back to right-back, with Baba Rahman expected to take the Spaniard’s place on the opposite flank. Radamel Falcao remains out and January additions Matt Miazga and Alexandre Pato will probably not be involved, although Oscar is hoping to return from a knock in time to start.
PSG are rightly considered favourites to progress to the last eight for the fourth consecutive season, with the Ligue 1 leaders and champions simply possessing more quality than a Chelsea side who have gone backwards since these two sides met at the same stage of the tournament last term. The Premier League club’s defensive crisis makes things even harder for Hiddink and his players, who will want to still be in the tie at the very least when the full-time whistle is blown at the Parc des Princes this evening.