The Champions League returns to FOX Tuesday (2 PM ET, FS1) with a critical clash between high-flying Paris Saint-Germain and struggling Chelsea. This is the third time the teams have met in successive seasons, and both teams have reasons to be nervous.
While revenge surely would be sweet for Chelsea, ousted last year by PSG after a wild 2-2 draw that saw the ten-man Parisians advance on away goals, this tie actually feels done and dusted before a ball has even been kicked. This is not 2014, when Chelsea clawed back a famous win after a 3-1 drubbing in Paris. There is no Jose Mourinho, the club’s title defense lies in tatters, and while interim manager Guus Hiddink has yet to lose a game, the fact it Chelsea’s recent progress up the league table has been driven by draws, not wins.
PSG, on the other hand, have innumerable advantages. They are in the midst of a remarkable 34 game unbeaten run, and sit a staggering 24 points clear atop the Ligue 1 table. As a result Laurent Blanc has the luxury of resting players whenever he wishes to focus on winning the European Cup. Blanc also has one of the most in-song midfields in the game, with Marco Veratti, Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi forming a three-man wrecking crew. And of course, there is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, ageless and still one of the great strikers in the world game.
Both teams need to win the Champions League â again for very different reasons. Chelsea has little chance of making the tournament next season unless they win it outright, which is far-fetched to imagine. That will have a serious knock-on effect as Chelsea, which is currently funding its transfers by selling players to keep in line with the new FFP rules, is likely to struggle to attract talent.
Chelsea star Eden Hazard admitted as much to French newspaper Le Parisien this weekend when he said "It would be difficult to say no to PSG, or to any of the teams capable of winning the Champions League. PSG are now in that category. And for me, winning the Champions League is my main aim."
PSG, which seems to be able to spend money without limit, have also made no secret that Blanc’s tenure will hinge on ultimately winning a trophy their Qatari owners desperately covet. PSG’s greatest European triumph in what is admittedly a short history was a lone Cup Winner’s Cup win in the mid-90s.
Neither team are looking past the other. Gary Cahill, who is likely to deputize for the injured John Terry, noted on Sunday that "[PSG are] near enough done in their league, so they’re waiting for this game and we need to be aware of that."
Chelsea, in fact, are thin in the back: Kurt Zouma is out for the season, Terry did not travel Monday, and that means Branislav Ivanovic may slide into the middle. American Matt Miazga is also an option, though it is likelier that Baba Rahman will get the nod.
Guus Hiddink alluded to PSG’s better position Saturday after his side demolished Newcastle 5-1, noting, "[PSG] have rested so many players, then there is no complacency from their side. They take it very, very seriously."
PSG will be missing a player, right-back Serge Aurier â but not to injury. In a bizarre rant on Periscope over the weekend, Aurier trashed his coach and assorted teammates with homophobic epithets. He has been indefinitely suspended by the club â and it should be noted this is not a first offense. He was also suspended by UEFA for three games after criticizing the referee, Bjorn Kuipers, who oversaw the last meeting between these two sides.
Blanc, incandescent over the matter, told the press Monday that, "it is a penalty for him but what I don’t accept either is that it is also penalizing the club. The player is a big boy and he can do what he wants. but he’ll have to handle the consequences."
The other match of the day sees Benfica host Zenit St. Petersburg (2 PM ET, FS2) in an intriguing matchup of dark horses. Benfica are looking to make the quarterfinals for the first time in four years, but to do so they will have to overcome a dynamic side that features three of their former players.
Zenit of course beat Benfica last season in group-stage play to snap what was a fourteen game unbeaten streak at home in Europe, and there is reason to think the Russians can repeat the trick. Boasting Hulk, Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia, the only enemy the Russians have is rust: due to the longer winter brea in their league, they have not played a competitive fixture since MatchDay 6 of the Champions League group stage â a loss to Gent after qualification was well-assured.
Benfica have been on a hot streak in the interim, winning 12 of their 14 games, but lost on the weekend to arch-rivals Porto. They have been scoring goals with abandon, led by Kostas Mitroglou. Nicolas Gaitan may be deployed as a forward in this game, according to speculation in the local press.