Paris Saint-Germain's brave tactics see Laurent Blanc's side oust Chelsea
LONDON -- "PSG want to be one of Europe's top clubs, we want to sit at top table -- [it's] up to you guys to decide where around that table we sit -- but this is a turning point, a reference point in the club's history."
The words of manager Laurent Blanc following Paris Saint-Germain's epic away-goals triumph vs. Chelsea in the last 16 of the Champions League echoed the unashamed ambition of the club's owners, Qatar Sport Investments, ever since they took charge in 2011.
When the club's history is rewritten, Wednesday night might become regarded as the moment they evolved from pretenders to contenders.
In recent seasons, PSG have performed feebly away from home in the Champions League and were generally eliminated immediately upon encountering one of Europe's major clubs. At Chelsea, they squeezed over the line thanks to two headed goals from their centre-back pairing but fully deserved their progression to the quarterfinals.
Often frustratingly defensive ahead of major matches, manager Laurent Blanc was bold from the outset. His initial selection of Marquinhos at right-back was the one element of caution -- designed to nullify Chelsea's main threat, Eden Hazard -- but Blanc started the playmaker Javier Pastore and gave the mercurial Argentine No. 10 license to float between the lines and attempt a succession of extravagant through balls.
More crucially, PSG were proactive in the manner they defended, pushing up and getting tight in midfield. The feisty Marco Verratti always makes somewhat rash tackles, but it was encouraging to see him doing so in the opposite half, rather than his own.
The opening 20 minutes were reasonably even, but the tie changed significantly 12 minutes before half-time when Zlatan Ibrahimovic was harshly dismissed for a challenge on Oscar.
The two players appeared to challenge for the ball with equal ferocity and what followed was a fine example of the concept of home advantage as the howls of the Matthew Harding stand, as much as the protests from the Chelsea players, encouraged referee Bjorn Kuipers to reach for his red card.
Clearly, the decision created an uphill task for the French champions. PSG had never previously scored on five visits to England and now were faced with the challenge of doing so with 10 men against a team who could play for a 0-0 draw. The scenario seemed to play perfectly into the hands of Chelsea and their manager Jose Mourinho.
Blanc, however, deserves immense credit for his tactics. He shifted Edinson Cavani up front and kept Pastore on the right flank, essentially leaving the left side bare.
In that zone, he relied on the energetic Blaise Matuidi to shuttle out to the flank relentlessly and the French midfielder's stamina was the main reason PSG never particularly seemed outnumbered -- he was effectively covering two positions simultaneously and misplaced only one pass during the whole game.
Blanc also took a calculated gamble: that the rather functional right-sided Chelsea duo of Ramires and Branislav Ivanovic wouldn't punish PSG, so they could afford to be light on that flank.
Chelsea shaded possession with 51 percent but not to the extent you'd expect with home advantage and an extra man. PSG's midfielders worked their socks off: Matuidi provided the energy and Thiago Motta the calm assertiveness in front of the back four, while Verratti buzzed around making tackles, playing clever passes and beating opponents.
One incident, shortly after half-time, showed what PSG were attempting to do. After a Chelsea corner, Verratti dribbled forward past three Chelsea players, before Pastore played a quick ball in behind the defence and Cavani raced onto the pass.
Rounding Thibaut Courtois, his shot hit the inside of the near post and ran across the face of goal. The reaction of PSG's players was one of astonishment, with Matuidi, in particular, falling to his knees and banging the turf. At the time, it seemed that was the chance for the French side.
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Blanc, however, remained entirely cool on the touchline. He didn't make a single substitution at 0-0, encouraged Pastore to keep on roaming and playing his ambitious passes and ordered his side up the pitch. Even if this match had ended in a goalless draw and PSG had been eliminated on away goals, his tactics would have been highly impressive.
Set pieces were always likely to play a big part in this contest; both teams had tall centre-forwards, dominant holding midfielders and a bonus centre-back playing at right-back, not to mention two prolific centre-backs apiece.
PSG's first-half corners had been hugely wasteful, with Courtois claiming three with ease, prompting Blanc to shout at his players for not blocking the goalkeeper. By contrast, it was Chelsea who went ahead through this route, with Gary Cahill slamming the ball into the net.
Finally, Blanc turned to his bench. Ezequiel Lavezzi and Adrien Rabiot were summoned, with the hugely impressive Matuidi and Verratti sacrificed. PSG continued to push forward, with Lavezzi heading straight at Courtois from a Maxwell cross. There were few other clear chances, but PSG continued to pile on the pressure.
With 10 men, away from home, that was extremely impressive and, as David Luiz rose to power in a superb header, it was difficult to argue parity was not merited. Against his former side, the joker in the pack was an appropriate scorer of such a crucial goal in this topsy-turvy game and there was no danger of a muted celebration as he darted across to the away support, though he did later admit he got carried away.
Now, with Lavezzi, Pastore and Cavani all on the pitch together, PSG retreated into something of a 4-2-2-1 shape as the game entered extra time. Indeed, the surprise move came from Mourinho, who introduced Didier Drogba in place of Ramires, with Diego Costa going out to the right flank. Maybe the Chelsea boss sensed set pieces would still play a huge part.
If so, he was right. First Chelsea won a penalty following a corner when Thiago Silva handled as he challenged substitute Kurt Zouma in the air and Eden Hazard converted. However, if Silva was very nearly the villain of the piece, he turned it around in the game's dying minutes.
After his powerful header forced Courtois to turn the ball around the post, he lofted another header from the resulting corner perfectly into the far corner. The PSG bench erupted in delight, with Blanc high-fiving his assistants in a manner that suggested there was some kind of method to this madness.
"They deserved to win," admitted Mourinho afterward. "When a team cannot defend two corners, concedes two goals from corners ... when a team cannot cope with the pressure of being one player [up] and play at home, and the stadium doesn't accept the team [wants] to control the game, and wants the team to win it, I think we couldn't cope with that pressure.
"The individual performances were not good enough, and when you concede two goals from corners is one more piece of evidence of what I'm saying; it's about lack of concentration, lack of responsibility to cope with the markers and the space you have to control."
Blanc admitted he was surprised how calm his players were at half-time after Ibrahimovic's red card and was adamant the right team had advanced.
"If we analyse the two legs, if we're honest and fair, than Paris Saint-Germain deserved to go through," said Blanc. "We played more football, we tried to play more football, we created more chances.
"It's not wide of the mark to say PSG deserve to go through. Going down to 10 men obviously wasn't something we planned for, but we played very ambitiously and did really well defensively, to stay in the game as long as possible."
This is hardly a fairy-tale story. PSG are a side comprised of astonishingly expensive footballers, with the two goal scorers, David Luiz and Thiago Silva, the two most expensive centre-backs in history. With Ligue 1 success expected and a European Cup semifinal place viewed as the minimum requirement, it's not unthinkable that Blanc could yet be replaced at the end of the campaign.
But as the fans in the packed PSG corner of the stadium celebrated long after the players had departed the pitch, you sensed there was something significant about this performance and result. There might be a few sore heads on the Eurostar back to Paris tomorrow morning, but with good reason, for this might be the moment PSG joined the elite.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.