PSG edge depleted Chelsea with Cavani’s dramatic winner
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani each scored fine goals to lead Paris Saint-Germain past Chelsea 2-1 at the Parc des Princes on Tuesday night as the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 got underway.
It was a fully deserved win for the French stars as they looked miles better than their London rivals — but Guus Hiddink will not be entirely displeased with the result. Chelsea got a precious away goal from the unlikely source of John Obi Mikel, and that will leave the return leg at Stamford Bridge finely poised.
This was a clash between two teams heading in different directions. Chelsea, depleted and distressed, have made a hash of their Premier League title defense and likely must win this year’s Champions League if they are to feature in next season’s edition. PSG, on the other hand, have a 24-point lead atop Ligue 1 and have not lost a match in 35 games. They are on easy street, and have made no secret about the fact that their real goal is to hoist the European Cup, preferably this May.
"Of course the result is negative on one side but on the other hand it’s also important to have an away goal," Hiddink told BT Sport Europe after the win. "So at the end, yeah it hurt a little bit, but still we are in a race. When there are two legs then it’s important to have the away goal. At the end, if we can do it at Stamford Bridge then the defeat doesn’t count so much."
The threadbare nature of Chelsea’s ranks showed on the team sheet, as they were forced into fielding a makeshift central defense with Kurt Zouma (out for the season), Nemanja Matic (suspended) and John Terry (calf) missing. In came Branislav Ivanovic, slitting alongside Gary Cahill in the middle, and out wide went Baba Rahman, a speedy but naïve defender who was immediately targeted by PSG’s wide runners.
Indeed, the Parisians were all over Chelsea from the whistle, with Blaise Matuidi, Merco Verrati and Thiago Motta bossing the midfield at the Blues’ expense. Looking a team that was hoping to limit the damage and maybe snatch an away goal to take back to London, Chelsea invited that pressure, but at their peril as Thibaut Courtois was called upon early and often to intervene.
Veratti forced a sharp save out of Courtois after only three minutes with a swerving strike from atop the box; Lucas Moura’s lash from about 20 yards actually might have come closer but bent wide left at the last second to leave Laurent Blanc cursing on the touchline. Lucas continued to be a headache as Ibrahimovic and Matuidi kept freeing him with long balls down the middle, designed to pull Cesar Azpilicueta out of position, allowing Angel Di Maria space to operate.
Di Maria had a fine chance in the 35th minute that he unfortunately scuffed wide. Ibrahimovic was teed up moments earlier on a similar play but headed his ball right into the turf, seeing it go over the bar and land atop the net.
As the half wore on Chelsea did grow a little more confident, and Diego Costa had a chance or two. Kevin Trapp was called on to palm a header onto his own bar when Costa met a deep cross from Rahman. Had he put it anywhere else Costa would have scored.
But the turning point came when Obi Mikel foolishly fouled Lucas from behind despite having cover from Cahill. Booked for the tackle, it allowed PSG a free kick just outside the arc, and they took full advantage. Ibrahimovic stepped up, and blew his kick under the wall, off Obi Mikel’s foot, and into the back of the net with Courtois helpless. It was Ibrahimovic’s third goal in as many Champions League games, and his 46th all-time in the competition.
But soccer is a funny game, and it was Obi Mikel, of all people, who tied matters up just four minutes later, out of nothing. Obi Mikel, not known as a scorer, had a corner kick from Willian nodded on by Diego Costa to set up a stinging half-volley that Trapp had no chance on. It was the first goal that PSG had conceded at home this season in Europe, and it stunned the crowd at the Parc de Princes into silence.
But the second half saw a far more buccaneering PSG side, one that started to use Maxwell as a pincer out wide to great effect. Pinning Cesc Fabregas back, Maxwell forced two critical blocks and a great save by Courtois on the hour. Maxwell had left Cesc for dead on the far side, but the Belgian keeper made a sprawling stop at his near post to cut out the danger.
Lucas and Matuidi also had significant chances that were manfully cutout, but the strain was starting to show on the Chelsea players. Di Maria nearly made Pedro pay for a foolish tackle on Veratti when he whipped in a good free kick, but again the Chelsea keeper bailed his side out.
The dam finally broke when sub Cavani beat the trap in the 78th minute, running on to a finely weighted chip from Di Maria to smash the ball first-time through Courtois’ legs. The keeper had made six important saves in the match to that point, but was not blameless on this goal. Cavani should not have beat him from such an acute angle, regardless of how technically impressive his strike was. Chelsea, gassed, could not muster a response.
What was surprising about the game is that PSG, in fact, did not look as if they were firing on all cylinders and Chelsea actually looked as if they were playing one of their better games of the season. PSG’s Blanc rued the concession of an away goal and said PSG would strive to score at least one of their own in London in three weeks’ time.
"When you play at home you need to be stronger in defense because, if you concede a goal, it effectively counts double," Blanc said. "Chelsea scored, so we go to Stamford Bridge eager to score ourselves. We’ll have chances, most likely, so it’ll be about defending well but we are an attacking team. We have chances to score there. I hope we do."
Despite Blanc’s remarks, the gulf in class and talent was so huge that it’s hard to imagine the English team being able to recover. Even at half speed, PSG looked one of the elite; Chelsea looked a proud but ultimately midtable team.
Information from FOXSoccer.com’s newswire services contributed to this report.