Over the past three seasons, Barclays Premier League clubs have won only seven UEFA Champions League knockout ties. That’s a shocking statistic, as clear an indication as is conceivable of the lesson that, in soccer, money is necessary for success but doesn’t guarantee it.
What’s even more striking is that of those seven wins, six have been won by Chelsea. With Manchester City and Arsenal trailing to Barcelona and Monaco after their respective home legs, for the sake of its morale if nothing else, English football desperately needs Chelsea to add a seventh win against Paris Saint-Germain (live, Wednesday, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go, 3:45 p.m. ET).
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A 1-1 draw in the first leg in Paris means Chelsea should go through. Last season, in the quarterfinal, Chelsea lost 3-1 in Paris and still went through, Jose Mourinho adding forward after forward until finally Laurent Blanc blinked and a late Demba Ba goal sealed a 2-0 win and progress on the away goals rule. Since then, if anything, Chelsea has improved and PSG has gone backwards, even if Blanc’s side did hammer Lens 4-1 on Saturday to remain a point behind Ligue 1 leaders Lyon.
Chelsea was without a fixture at the weekend, but the previous week could hardly have gone better, bringing a first trophy of the season and the first of Mourinho’s second spell at the club. With the Capital One League Cup triumph, the Blues followed it up with a doughty 1-0 win at West Ham United midweek that keeps the club five points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand.
Neither that performance nor the 2-0 win over Tottenham at Wembley showcased the sort of fluidity that characterized Chelsea at the beginning of the season. Both victories rather, were built on defensive resolve and the sort of bloody-mindedness that became the club’s trademark during Mourinho’s first spell. The effect of Mourinho’s protests about a supposed conspiracy against his side — by a television company showing footage of Diego Costa stamping on Liverpool’s Emre Can and then by a referee sending off Nemanja Matic for shoving over Burnley’s Ashley Barnes after what he felt was a dangerous challenge — has been the creation of a siege mentality that seems to have stiffened defensive sinews.
Matic, having missed those last two games through suspension, will be back and who Mourinho selects alongside him at the back of midfield will say much about his approach. The young centerback Kurt Zouma has excelled in an anchor role and it may be he keeps his place alongside Matic, with Cesc Fabregas used as a central creator. After all, Chelsea will progress if it keeps a clean sheet.
"Chelsea have a slight advantage, because they were able to score an away goal," Blanc said during Tuesday’s press conference. "It’s up to us to try to do what Chelsea did in Paris. One of Chelsea’s main threats is the fact they’re very good on the counter-attack, so I don’t think we should go gung ho. We have to attack and we need to score a goal, regardless of whether Chelsea get one or not."
Mourinho could return to the pairing he has preferred for most of the season, with Fabregas alongside Matic and a more attacking player operating behind Diego Costa. Given the obvious strength of PSG is its midfield of Thiago Motta (or, in the first leg, David Luiz), Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti, it seems more likely Mourinho will opt for caution.
That is something of which PSG are well aware. "I know how Jose will prepare for this, he will be telling the boys to be patient and hit us on the counter-attack," said David Luiz, who played for Chelsea in last season’s quarter-final before his transfer to Paris. "He knows that we need to score and that they don’t, I know that is his way. We must be careful because I know that Chelsea have the ability to hurt on the counter-attack, but they must be careful as well. To sit back and just defend against Zlatan [Ibrahimovic], [Edinson] Cavani and [Ezequiel] Lavezzi can also be very dangerous, so it is not just us who have to be careful."
Ibrahimovic, still at 33 the icon of this PSG side, missed the second leg of the quarterfinal last year and there is a sense he has a point to prove. In seven matches against Mourinho sides since working with him at Internazionale, he hasn’t scored, hasn’t registered an assist and has been substituted three times. "We worked together for one year at Inter," Ibrahimovic said in what from anybody else would probably have been taken as a plea for a transfer. "The feeling was great between us and my only regret is that we were together for only one year."
With its league form indifferent — by its standards — there is a sense that the PSG project is ailing and that major surgery is required in the summer. This may be the final chance at the club for this group of players. Mourinho’s second stint at Chelsea, meanwhile, is just coming into bloom — but it needs to progress to reassure an ailing Premier League.
"Experience helps you to sleep good tonight," Mourinho told reporters on Tuesday night. "Just for that, you feel comfortable to play; it’s something that you do a lot of times. So it’s one more game in spite of it being a knockout game and a second leg. During the game, the players they play and we are speaking about teams with very good players and some of them are very comfortable to play at this level so I think it’s more about that."
The battle at Stamford Bridge will provide more answers on Wednesday night.