Chelsea renew acquaintances with Paris St. Germain on Tuesday in a hotly anticipated encounter as they meet in the knockout stages of the Champions League for the third season in succession.
Both previous meetings have provided great drama and have been settled by the away goals rule, with Thiago Silva taking advantage of Chelsea’s increasing tension to decide matters in the 10-man French champions’ favour in 2015, which came as revenge for Demba Ba’s late winner a little under a year earlier.
But a lot has changed since they last met, as after Chelsea went on to win the title they defended their crown abysmally and parted company with manager Jose Mourinho, whose replacement Guus Hiddink leading them on the road to recovery. For the hosts, they are becoming more and more of an unstoppable force in Ligue 1, which they are more or less certain to win for the fourth consecutive season, having gone unbeaten so far and built an immense 25-point lead.
For all their dominance domestically, PSG need to make more of a mark in the Champions League and so this is where manager Laurent Blanc will be truly judged. He will certainly hope progress has been made from the manner in which they were taken apart by eventual winners Barcelona in the quarter-finals of last year’s competition. Their quality is obvious and will surely hurt a Chelsea team that has struggled defensively at times this season, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic having a fine campaign in front of goal and Angel Di Maria making up for his disappointing spell at Manchester United.
As for Chelsea, this is a huge test of their credentials and whether they are capable of being competitive on the European stage in this most testing of seasons. Lifting the trophy in May would be a stunning achievement – and perhaps an even bigger shock than when they triumphed in 2012, but in reality it represents the Blues’ best chance of qualifying for the 2016-17 Champions League.
They come into this with confidence after a lengthy unbeaten run since Hiddink returned to the club in December, and the Dutchman fielded a strong line-up on Saturday in their convincing 5-1 victory over Newcastle United. It was a game that saw all of their attacking stars turn in excellent performances and continue to play with freedom. This match may require Chelsea to play much more methodically and call on Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel to provide a steely protective shield in front of the back four, as they cannot afford to be overrun in midfield.
Only an inept refereeing display and a terrific late Andres Iniesta goal prevented Hiddink from guiding Chelsea to the final of the Champions League in his first spell in charge, but the landscape has changed significantly since then as the English clubs have largely faltered. He will certainly take a draw from this first leg, where both teams will be very wary of giving anything away.
Captain John Terry is a doubt for Chelsea after he limped in the first half of the game against Newcastle. It could mean a start for Baba Rahman and a defensive reshuffle, with Kurt Zouma a long-term absentee.
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