Chelsea’s biggest test: Closing out PSG’s midfield

All eyes will be on Chelsea’s Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain tonight, with the game essential for both teams – for different reasons.

The Stamford Bridge hosts have made their fans suffer this season with dreadful domestic form and look sure to finish outside the top four.

As such, to compete in the Champions League again next season, winning the competition in 2015-16 is necessary – something they did against the odds in 2012 after finishing sixth in the English top tier.

For PSG, progression into the final stages of Europe’s top tournament has become a prerequisite, with the French powerhouses eyeing up the continent’s biggest prize.

Laurent Blanc’s men have been the dominant force in Ligue1 over recent years and will win the French top flight again this season given their current 23-point lead at the table’s summit.

However, the capital city club’s owners have handed out an ambitious mandate that becoming European champions is the ultimate objective.

These sides know each other well given that it is the third consecutive season that they have met in the knockout rounds of the competition.

In 2013-14, Chelsea were slightly fortuitous to progress at the French club’s expense, with a late Demba Ba goal winning the tie for the West London team.

Last season PSG showed just how much they had developed with a mature display at Stamford Bridge and a never-say-die attitude to get the result they needed and eliminate the Blues in the process.

The current clash is evenly balanced after a 2-1 PSG win at the Parc des Princes last month.

However, with both of the last two ties being settled at Stamford Bridge, it will be interesting to see which side takes the initiative and has learned lessons from past clashes in England.

One area that will play a key role in dictating the eventual winner will be the midfield battle and the feud to win possession.

In last season’s meeting at Stamford Bridge Marco Verratti put in a massively mature showing and dictated the pace of the game for the visitors, with his opposite numbers unable to get close to the former Pescara schemer.

The mercurial Italian has had fitness issues of late but is expected to play tonight alongside usual partners-in-crime Blaise Matuidi and Thiago Motta.

Cesc Fàbregas and Marco VerrattiThese three comprise a stellar trident that dominate the boiler room in almost every game they feature in, with the able Adrien Rabiot ready to step in should he be needed.

Guus Hiddink will need to come up with a plan to stifle Verratti in particular and his team selection could be influenced as a result.

The experienced Dutchman will deploy his 4-2-3-1 formation as usual, but the temptation to use two enforcers in the centre of the park and deploy Cesc Fàbregas in a slightly advanced role, or on the bench, will be there.

The Spanish midfielder has been one of the victims of Chelsea’s fall from grace this season and in truth has seen his standards drop since the start of 2015. However, there have been signs that he is regaining confidence and having more of an influence over proceedings in recent weeks.

However, Fàbregas’ lack of defensive inclination and positional discipline could well dictate that partnering the returning Nemanja Matić with John Obi Mikel could be a more solid option.

The Serb was once seen as the missing piece to the Chelsea jigsaw but has not been anywhere near as commanding this season.

Matić has all the physical and footballing attributes to be one of the Europe’s best in his position and needs to remind the world of this for the English side to have a chance of rescuing the tie.

If Verratti gives the Chelsea midfield the slip and is able to dictate play for PSG, the home side’s ambition of making the quarter-finals could well be out of reach.

But, if Mikel and Matić are able to hold their own and limit the Italian’s time on the ball, this could be the catalyst to unshackle the likes of Eden Hazard and Willian.

Both of these wealthy clubs have everything at stake on tonight’s game, but don’t be surprised if it is the team that wins the midfield jostle that ensures participation in the next round.

By
I am a freelance football journalist from Northern Ireland living in Broome in Western Australia. I have worked for top media outlets such as FourFourTwo, goal.com, Soccerlens, Football Fancast and Here is the City. I am a lifelong and long-suffering Tottenham fan. Follow me on Twitter at @90MinsOnline
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