Paris Saint-Germain believe they can beat Chelsea in the Champions League tomorrow night, writes David Shonfield.
Matches are won and lost by goals but they are decided in midfield.
That may seem strange, and it may not always be true, yet it is one reason why Paris Saint-Germain believe they can upset the odds against Chelsea tomorrow night.
History is against them. A 2-2 draw would put PSG in the quarter-finals but they have played against English clubs on five previous occasions, twice against Chelsea, and are still to record an away goal. Laurent Blanc also has bad memories of an earlier visit to Stamford Bridge when he was in charge at Bordeaux: they lost 4-0.
Yet PSG have the quality in attack to trouble any opposition – and no lack of motivation.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who says he would have been ready to die for José Mourinho when he played for Inter, has all the incentive in the world to end his club’s blank record in England. Edson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi both lost out to Chelsea when they were at Napoli as well as last season with PSG.
Cavani looked as sharp as ever when he came on for the last quarter of Saturday’s 4-1 win against Lens, as did Javier Pastore, who could be preferred to Lavezzi in the starting line-up according to the pre-match gossip in Paris.
However, the midfield confrontation in midfield holds the key to this match.
Chelsea should have Nemanja Matic back to provide the strength and control they have sometimes lacked recently. Against that, PSG gave Thiago Motta a game on Saturday and he seems to have recovered fully from injury. The expectation is that he will take the holding role with David Luiz returning to centre back alongside Thiago Silva in an all-Brazilian defence.
There is no mistaking Motta’s importance to this PSG side.
“He is at the heart of our game,” said right-back Gregory van der Wiel after the victory against Lens. “He’s important in the big games,” said fellow midfielder Blaise Matuidi. “He’s got great experience and he’s already won the Champions League.”
David Luiz describes that experience as “crucial” against Chelsea. Motta played eight Champions League matches for Mourinho’s victorious Inter side five years ago, including the 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge. That night, his strength alongside Esteban Cambiasso allowed Wesley Sneijder to control the pace of the game and set up the winning goal.
For PSG, the hope is he can do the same alongside Matuidi, providing Massimo Verratti with the time and space to open up the Chelsea defence.
Verratti’s part in the first leg three weeks ago could politely be described as spikey, especially in the second half when he was booked and might have been sent off after a series of fouls.
In France, Verratti – still just 22 – is regarded as PSG’s player of the season and in Italy they see him as the natural replacement for Andrea Pirlo.
Like Pirlo, Verratti started out in an advanced role before switching to become a deep-lying playmaker under the guidance of Zdenek Zeman at Pescara in Italy’s Serie B.
If Verratti has a weakness, it is his tendency to get carried away. He has the ability to dribble the ball past markers and likes to take on opponents one-to-one. It can be asset to his team, but also a burden when he loses the ball, as his manager pointed out in public only last month.
It is also in Verratti’s nature to take risks in tight situations, and then concede free kicks in dangerous areas.
With his most creative player one booking away from suspension, Blanc will be hoping that referee Bjorn Kuipers allows the game to flow in midfield. Equally, Mourinho will undoubtedly be looking to put pressure on the youngster and to disrupt Motta’s link-up play.
This is a match where we can probably expect PSG to break their English goalscoring hoodoo, but also to concede.
As former Chelsea man Franck Leboeuf says: “PSG have to go for it. The big problem is that Chelsea are strong on the counter.”
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