Champions League

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PSG move to Europe's elite class

FOX Soccer: Watch PSG clinch their first Champions League quarterfinals berth in 18 years.
FOX Soccer: Watch PSG clinch their first Champions League quarterfinals berth in 18 years.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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It takes most nouveaux riches superclubs several years to find the right man to realize their towering ambitions.

It took Paris Saint-Germain almost no time at all. Just months after taking control of the club in the summer of 2011 and pumping in hundreds of millions of dollars, the Qatar Investment Authority installed Carlo Ancelotti as manager.

Ancelotti, now in charge for just over 14 months, patrolled the sideline wearing a permanent frown between his baggy cheeks and watched his side advance into the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals on Wednesday. They advanced by virtue of their 1-1 draw at home against Valencia, whom they’d beaten 2-1 away three weeks prior but lost star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and playmaker Marco Verratti to suspensions for the return leg along the way.

But in the end, that challenge was no match for Ancelotti’s tactical acumen. The 53-year Italian manager played for AC Milan for five years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and managed them for seven and a half years in the 2000s. He won the Champions League twice in each of those spells. He is as well qualified to turn a newly assembled band of talented but incohesive superstars into continental conquerors as any other man. And that’s been borne out by results such as Wednesday’s.

In the first half, PSG, knowing that it needed nothing more than a tie or 1-0 loss to advance, granted Valencia all the ball and initiative. But such was PSG’s defensive organization, a hallmark of any Ancelotti team, that the Spaniards had little use for all the possession ceded to them. Valencia’s forwards Jonas and Roberto Soldado twice combined for a half-decent chance but finished weakly, once making simple work for Salvatore Sirigu and once hitting it harmlessly wide.

This was the accomplishment of PSG’s six-man block in the back. Central defenders Alex and Thiago Silva and their Brazilian compatriots, left back Maxwell and holding midfielder Thiago Motta, were inscrutable. So were right back Christophe Jallet – and, following an injury, his replacement Gregory van der Wiel – and Blaise Matuidi, the other holding midfielder. They gave Valencia little room to work with. And if PSG mustered little of their own, since Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas Moura, Javier Pastore and Clement Chantome were starved of the necessary touches to make an impact, the status quo suited their modest needs just fine.

DOWN TO EIGHT

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In the second half, Valencia briefly made a contest of this drab affair, when PSG stupidly coughed up the ball in the middle of the field and Jonas ran off with it and smacked it past Sirigu from 20 yards out. They were now within a goal of advancing.

But Ancelotti simply inserted Kevin Gameiro into the mix in favor of Motta, adding brawn and spring to the forward line’s step. The move paid off quickly when the French forward charged through three Valencia defenders, opening up room for Lavezzi to take a crack at the Valencia goal from nearby and then knock in his own rebound.

With a 3-2 aggregate lead, PSG was out of danger again. So it resumed killing off the tie – sitting in, slowing the pace again and deferring to the playmakers Valencia kept bringing on. In the 83rd minute, Ancelotti unapologetically added a fifth defender, subbing on Mamadou Sakho for Moura.

One could say his PSG were poor and that they were very much outplayed on the night. Or that they were cynical. But one could just as easily argue that they were effective. As Valencia churned towards its exit from the tournament, exerting themselves immensely but achieving very little, Ancelotti looked on and, as ever, revealed no emotion of any kind until the game was won. Things were going according to plan; a plan well-conceived and executed by one of the game’s great thinkers. He’d known he would be with without the two players that make his side sing, and he adjusted accordingly. If negative soccer would see him and his through, then so be it. That’s a European lesson only experience teaches, and wisdom not often so quickly acquired by newcomers to the rarified atmosphere. Not until PSG had seen the game out did Ancelotti let out a celebratory roar.

Through savvy and experience, he’s quickly turned a perennially underachieving club into true contenders for the European crown. And they are very much that now. Heading into the quarterfinals – their first in 18 years – they are among the favorites, no matter who they draw.

Ancelotti’s former club, Juventus, were just as clinical in seeing out the formality that was their second game with Celtic, having destroyed the Glaswegians 3-0 away in the first leg.

Juve deftly worked the clock, gave nothing away defensively and took their chances where they presented themselves. In the 24th and 65th minute, Alessandro Matri and Fabio Quagliarella cleaned up after sloppy defensive work by the Scots. That made the aggregate score 5-0, reflecting how badly Juventus had outclassed their opponents, finally bringing Celtic’s cinderella run to an end.

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