Over the last ten years or so, as the rich have become richer on the European football landscape, we’ve seen places in the latter stages of the Champions League increasingly become the privilege of only a select few club sides. There are obvious downsides to this situation, most obviously the lack of variety and heightened predictability of the earlier rounds; for the first time in the Champions League era, this season we saw all eight group favourites live up to their billing before going on to win their last 16 ties, respectively. Predictable, yes, but on the flipside it means that we now have to enjoy arguably the strongest quarter final line up in the history of the competition, with every remaining participant (bar probably, Man Utd) in with a decent shout of reaching the final in Lisbon.
In spite of such strong competition across the draw though, our tie with PSG was immediately highlighted by many, as the most intriguing of the four match ups and it’s easy to see why, with the respective strengths and weaknesses of each side contrasting directly in almost every area. Potentially key match-ups will exist practically everywhere on the pitch…
Defence: To start by comparing the back lines, at a glance it’s clear how different both the profile and style of these two defences are. For PSG, the fullbacks are predominantly attacking assets, with Maxwell enjoying a fantastic relationship with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, having played with the Swede at Ajax, Inter and Barcelona previously; Gregory Van Der Wiel also tends to maintain a very high position on the right flank. The Brazilian centre half partnership of Thiago Silva and Marquinhos is capable of pressing high also, with both being exceptionally fast as well as technically very good on the ball. In comparison our backline is of course far more conservative and is likely to remain deeply set – neither full back is particularly effective offensively whilst Terry and Cahill rely heavily more so on their positioning/penalty box defending than they do on their pace. They won’t help the midfield to press the opposition, but they also shouldn’t be caught out leaving space in behind or making the kind of individual errors Van Der Wiel in particular is known to be capable of.
Midfield: Moving on to the midfields, which is where PSG are almost certainly (by typical Premier League audiences at least) the most underrated. The trio of Blaise Matuidi, Marco Veratti and Thiago Motta is wonderfully balanced and settled to the point where €20m signing Yohan Cabaye cannot even get into the team. Matuidi is unspectacular but remarkably consistent and efficient on and off the ball as a defensive midfielder (probably the best in France); Veratti can be hot-headed but is prodigiously gifted and widely tipped as the eventual replacement for Andrea Pirlo for Italy. Meanwhile Thiago Motta’s performances in this holding role have been vital to his team’s successes this season – the Italian is a player Mourinho has already expressed the importance of stifling if we’re to maintain any sort of control in the middle of the park.
Our midfield in contrast, though slightly more talented, is far less well balanced and is in poorer form also. David Luiz has played well in a defensive midfield position in a few big matches this season but hasn’t played their often enough to inspire too much confidence. Ramires is another who we know is capable of performing in big European matches but has had a poor 2014; whilst Oscar’s attacking form has dwindled sadly too since the turn of the year – the Brazilian will most likely be the one charged with making sure Motta and Veratti aren’t allowed too much time on the ball in deep positions.
Strikers: This of course is where we fall woefully short in comparison. Ezequiel Lavezzi is probably a little bit overrated in my opinion (technically speaking) – not in the same league as Eden Hazard at any rate, but the Argentine is a dangerously direct player none the less, extremely effective on the break and selfless with his defensive running also. Edinson Cavani is probably wasted out on the right flank (and has strongly implied frustrations at such recently) but remains one of the most lethal front men on the planet and keen for ‘revenge’ over Chelsea’s defeat of his Napoli side two years ago. Meanwhile, hardly a word needs to be written on the superstar name of this tie. He is almost indisputably the best centre forward on the planet and he holds an unfortunate particular grudge against English sides, mainly for our football viewing public/press’ being too slow on the uptake regarding his genius. There are some who still hold reservations over Ibrahimovic’s tendency to ‘flop’ in big matches – I don’t buy it one bit but hope to goodness that they’re proved right over the next seven days.
In a sense it isn’t really a fair comparison to asses our frontline next to PSG’s. Hazard and Willian aren’t exactly ‘forwards’ in the same sense as Lavezzi and Cavani. Both will doubtlessly play more tactical roles and will be looking to counter attack behind the full-backs when given the opportunity. Then finally, thought it might have been several years since he could claim to be in the same league as Zlatan, Fernando Torres’ recent CL record hasn’t been that bad. This could potentially be one of the last big matches the Spaniard ever plays for an English club – hopefully he won’t provide any more evidence of why that needs to be the case.
PSG: Sirigu; Van Der Wiel, T.Silva, Marquinhos, Maxwell, Veratti, Motta, Matuidi, Lavezzi, Cavani, Ibrahimovic
Chelsea: Cech, Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Ramires, Oscar, Willian, Hazard, Torres
Even though their squad may be stronger overall, I think Chelsea are probably slight favourites going into the tie. Man for man for the Chelsea starting XI will be far more experienced in terms of playing in these big European ties. I also think that in spite of this, PSG will be playing more so under the weight of being favourites to progress. Mourinho’s literally flawless record in CL quarter final ties is a pretty promising statistic also. Laurent Blanc has done a pretty good job at the French side but I wouldn’t back him to outthink Mourinho tactically over two legs. And so provided the game does become a tightly fought, tactical contest, I think we’ll somehow, just about get through. If Man Utd can draw against Bayern Munich, I know we can get a result in Paris, that’s for sure.