As Champions League returns, 5 key questions that will be answered in PSG-Chelsea clash
Chelsea are in Paris tonight to face PSG for the third year in a row in the Champions League last 16, while Andre Villas-Boas returns to Portugal with Zenit St Petersburg
Will Chelsea’s makeshift defence be able to cope?
Captain John Terry limping off against Newcastle on Saturday was the last thing Chelsea wanted to see, after fellow centre back Kurt Zouma was ruled out for at least six months the week before. Right back Branislav Ivanovic will likely partner Gary Cahill at the back with Baba Rahman coming in at left back and Cesar Azpilicueta moving to right back.
“We made a test this morning and it didn’t work out well so the decision was made to leave him at home,” said Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink on Monday. “He was convinced himself he would not be of worth to the team at the moment.”
PSG’s attack – on fire in Ligue 1 – will likely fancy their chances against the Londoners’ second string back line. And even more worringly is the prospect of Ivanovic or Cahill picking up an injury, which would leave the untested American youngster Matt Miazga, or teenager Jake Clarke-Salter, facing a high-pressure debut.
“[Terry] is an important element of their side. He also gives them an aerial threat in attack,” PSG coach Laurent Blanc said. “On Saturday when he went off it changed their defensive block entirely.”
Will Zlatan Ibrahimovic be fully fit after meeting Aurier?
PSG’s Swedish striker, who has a black belt in taekwondo, is unlikely to have reacted positively to this week’s social media scandal, when teammate Serge Aurier launched a bizarre attack on Ibrahimovic and Blanc as well as several other PSG players.
Aurier is said to have claimed Ibrahimovic engages in oral sex with the manager – “[Blanc] takes everything,” he said during a Snapchat Q&A with fans. He also apparently called Blanc a homophobic slur in French.
According to L’Equipe, Ibrahimovic has demanded a full translation of Aurier’s Snapchat session – if the forward appears to be limping, it’s probably from repeatedly kicking the Ivory Coast defender in the head.
Meanwhile, PSG will have to do without their right back – one of their best defenders this season despite his apparent lack of brain cells – who was suspended by the club.
“I find it pitiful but we are here to prepare for Chelsea. He has penalised himself,” said Blanc.“He should be preparing for a last 16 Champions League tie. That would be better for him than being stuck at home not knowing what to do.”
Will Eden Hazard be out to impress?
The Belgian international won’t have won over his teammates by declaring in an interview with Le Parisien on the eve of the game that “it would be hard to turn down” a move to PSG.
But given his dire form this season – even Liverpool’s hapless defender Kolo Toure has scored as many as his one – it’s unclear that the French side would want him.
“[It is] difficult to say no to PSG, or to any of the teams capable of winning the Champions League,” Hazard said. “PSG are now in that category. And for me, winning the Champions League is my main aim.”
He’ll have to turn on the style and get back to something approaching last season’s sensational form in the Parc des Princes tonight if he really does want to win that move. If he turns it on against PSG, Chelsea fans will swiftly forgive and forget those comments.
But according to Hiddink, if Hazard really does want out of Chelsea, he shouldn’t be looking at the relatively lowly Ligue 1.
“France is not a bad league but this team are now ahead [of second-placed Monaco] by 24 points,” he said, as he told Hazard to focus on his fitness and returning to form. “For me, I think big, big, big players always like to be in the biggest league, which is the Premier League, La Liga and also the Bundesliga.”
Could PSG’s form actually count against them?
As Hiddink mentions, PSG are making something of a joke of Ligue 1, with the weekend 0-0 draw at Lille only the fourth time they haven’t won this season (22 wins and four draws).
Their only defeat this season has come in the Champions League, at Real Madrid at the start of November, and it’s nearly a year since they lost domestically, against Bordeaux on March 16 2015.
It makes daunting reading for Chelsea. Though their own form has been on the rise since Hiddink took over – 11 games unbeaten – there’s been far too many draws in that run and they still look far from their best.
It might be clutching at straws, but Chelsea will hope the lack of competition in France works against PSG – even if Blanc scoffed at the idea.
“There’s hardly any point in even playing in the league because apparently you’ve won it before it has even begun,” he said sarcastically.
“Here we are up against a club in the same category as PSG, if not even stronger. Now we are boxing in a category that we don’t have in our domestic league.”
Can Hiddink ease the pain of 2009?
The last time the Dutchman took temporary charge of Chelsea, he took the team to the Champions League semi-final, where they were controversially knocked out by Barca after a late goal from Andres Iniesta and a refereeing performance from Tom Henning Ovrebo that has gone down in infamy among Chelsea fans.
Didier Drogba’s rant at and about the Norwegian – “IT’S A DISGRACE” – earned him a five-match ban, while Ovrebo says he still receives death threats after turning down four good penalty shouts for Chelsea.
“It’s still a bit of a nightmare for me,’ said Hiddink.”Usually you lose and after one or two days you go on. But this was a game where I thought, ‘How is it possible?’ When you saw how it happened, then I was having second thoughts about the game.”
With Chelsea having almost no hope of making the top four in the Premier League, winning the Champions League is their only hope of a return, admitted the Dutchman, who would love to put that “nightmare” to bed with victory in the final in Milan.
What will the football hipsters be watching?
If PSG-Chelsea is all a bit mainstream for your taste, tonight also has the delights of Benfica v Zenit St Petersburg.
The Portuguese giants lost to rivals Porto on Friday, but can get a bit of vengeance-by-proxy for their fans by dealing a blow to Zenit’s former Porto boss Andre Villas-Boas.
Zenit haven’t played competitively for two months as Russia’s league has been on its winter break, while they’re seven points off the pace domestically.
Friday’s loss ended a 14-game unbeaten run (13 wins, 1 draw) for Benfica. Though they were beaten home and away in the group stage by Zenit last season, they look far more potent this term, with 60 goals in 22 league games their best attacking record for 40 years.
Zenit have regularly pillaged Benfica for players – Ezequiel Garay, Javi Garcia, Axel Witsel all swapped Lisbon for St Petersburg – and they also have former Portuguese league players Hulk, Danny and Luis Neto in their squad. With Villas-Boas at the helm, they’ll know exactly what’s in store at the Estadio da Luz.