Rise of the Mercenaries

Thiago Silva’s moment of glory only underlined his great performance.

It happened. After two years of narrowly failed attempts, PSG finally managed to eliminate a strong team from the Champions League. The results – two draws – are not convincing, but one thing cannot be denied: this team has made a lot of progress. Not long ago, they gave Barcelona good run for their money but despite Blaugrana mediocre form and inability to crush the opponents without Messi, Les Parisiens still could not seal the deal, eventually losing on away goal rule. During the last season, it was even worse; PSG went to London with a task of defending two-goal lead from the first leg – and were unable to do so, when Demba Ba capitalized on one over-the-top ball to send Chelsea through just couple minutes away from the end of that tie. On these two occasions, French millionaires have shown a stern resistance against bigger clubs, yet in the end, it was always  a single goal conceded near the end of the second leg game that would leave them with empty hands. Until yesterday: yesterday, it was PSG who had the final word; it was them, who went there and hit their opponents where it hurt, turning an impossible situation into a win. Yesterday, PSG has matured overnight into a force to reckon with – and they’ve avenged last year’s miseries too.

When Zlatan Ibrahimović was shown a red card 32 minutes into the game at Stamford Bridge, nobody in their right mind predicted this to end so well. French Champions needed to score a goal in England in the first place and the sending off happened to a player who scored 14 times this season in all competitions; the player who, by all the means, seemed like PSGs leading attacking force – especially with impressive physical traits he’s got that allow him to fight toe-to-toe with Gary Cahill and John Terry. This time, the athleticism worked against Zlatan; in front of a completely awful referee, he’s made a late, reckless tackle that would’ve never been considered red-worthy if not for the impression of a Swedish giant destroying a tiny Brazilians’ leg. Björn Kuipers will undoubtedly have an easy time defending his decision; Ibra’s legs were off the ground, he almost injured the opponent, etc. etc. But – if we use Ibrahimović’s case as a principle of how poor tackles should be dealt with, we might as well switch to watching futsal, because nobody will ever dive into sliding tackles anymore if they’re going to be rewarded with instant sending off for being late to the ball once. Mr Kuipers: you screwed up, and not for the first time that night.

https://twitter.com/ArsenalsInfo/status/575755095121489921

However, PSG players were unfazed by that. From the second minute, when Verratti played a great through ball to Cavani who was barely stopped, the visitors displayed great confidence in passing the ball and absolutely unleashed the offensive creativity at the home side. If not for the blue shirts dominating the stands, nobody would really suspect that this game was played in London; tactically, the visitors were much sounder, using Marquinhos’ forward runs down the right wing as well as Verratti’s key role at distributing passes. Yesterday, the Italian has proven himself more than just a Xavi-type playmaker; despite his tiny posture, he would consistently annoy and disrupt the opposition on their own half, overshadowing Matić and Fàbregas quite easily. By the time he was subbed off in 82nd minute, Verratti took 113 touches on the ball with 92% pass accuracy, 7 tackles, 4 take-ons, 3 interceptions and 2 goalscoring chances created. Moreover, unlike Oscar and Ramires, he’s been a true link between the midfield and the attack, always popping up near either Matuidi or Pastore, who repeatedly reinforced the attacks with their presence. Chelsea’s unaggressive waiting game was exactly what MV needed – and exactly what made PSG look so good.

The Blues’ old, well-known problems were showing from very early on. To put it shortly: it’s been Hazarditis at it’s finest. With Willian benched, Ramires not really adept at playing in attacking midfielders’ role and Oscar continuing the string of his unimpressive performances, all attacks had to go through the Belgian winger. Hazard dribbled and passed on his usual, strong level, but as I mentioned many times ago: his ratio of end products to decent footballing actions is way too poor to consider him a world-class player. He’s created exactly one serious stir in the opposition’s defence in the first half; only when they were down to ten men, he’s found more chances to make an impact. Thus, Laurent Blanc’s decision to field Marquinhos in front of the most dangerous Chelsea player has proven to be correct. Without him having the options, Chelsea had no strengths down the wings anymore, so they’ve decided to try their luck through the centre. Not the best idea either; Thiago Motta, who’s returned to the squad after a long absence, has way too much experience to let the opposition through there while Blaise Matuidi – one of the hardest working players in the business these days – tracked back every single move by Chelsea’s central midfielders.

José Mourinho had to be dissatisfied with his team’s performance in the first half. After few minutes with him during the break, Chelsea finally got a grip on the game. Most of the credit for such development has to go to Willian, who replaced Oscar in the middle of the park. Thanks to him, CFC’s ball retention improved heavily, they started to pressurize the opponents more vigorously while PSG’s fatigue gradually took it’s toll. However, around this time, it became clear that the home side does not really have ambitions to even win this game; they just wanted to torture the opposition by forcing them to run and if that doesn’t result with a goal, the game ends in 0-0, still allowing the London team to advance. The only exceptions to this rule was a corner kick from 56th minute, after which Cavani managed to break away from all the defenders, run past Courtois and take a shot into an empty net. Instead of scoring, he hit the post, wasting what was a potentially decisive chance – but he also discouraged Chelsea players further from going for it and trying to win this game by the virtue of having one more player upfront. With one team too lazy to attack and the other one too outnumbered to take control itself, the game has become fairly boring.

Just as decent amount of possession they were allowed to have, the low tempo of the match had to suit Paris Saint-Germain players more. They were allowed to pass the ball freely on Chelsea’s half and this seriously frustrated the crowd – until the point when one could hear whistles being louder and more frequent than the applause. Pastore and Matuidi emerged first from this slump, as the Argentinian almost dribbled through all of the challenges surrounding him only to be stopped by Courtois. Immediately afterwards, Diego Costa, who’s been kept in Thiago Silva’s pocket for the entire game, lost his nerves and tackled the Brazilian from behind while his opponent was clearing the ball from the danger zone. It was far worse tackle than the one made by Zlatan; a kind of tackle that ruined Marco Van Basten’s career back in the 90’s; a kind of tackle that was severely scrutinized and eventually banished by modern rules of football. The result? One yellow card for Costa and another yellow for David Luiz, who confronted ex-Atletico striker right after the incident. Mourinho, who’s been seen laughing at the sending off in 32nd minute, this time got a sigh of relief; Kuipers evidently helped his team for the second time. Too bad for the neutrals, though: the referee acted as if he was a baby lost in the fog – again.

Meanwhile, on Wikipedia…

PSG badly needed for something to happen and it did happen – for Chelsea. Couple seconds after Ramires’ lone run was stopped cold by Sirigu, the home side played a corner towards the centre of the box, Thiago Silva header the ball poorly, Diego Costa’s shot attempt bounced awkwardly and the ball fell to Gary Cahill, who blasted it in on a half-volley. Five minutes away from the full-time, it was all but over – yet, one player had other plans. David Luiz, who used to wear The Blue Shirt for two years and five months, found himself at the end of a corner ball. It was almost a copy of Didier Drogba’s equalizer in Champions League final against Bayern; same result, same timeline, same ball towards the near post and the same, rocket-like finish. This wasn’t Luiz we used to know for defensive lapses or wonderful free kicks; this was Luiz working very hard and cleanly for 85 minutes and eventually doing John Terry’s job better than the Englishman himself – only against the London team. PSG got their first miracle: a chance in the extra time, a chance to either win this outright or force the penalties, where one-man deficit would not matter. The question was: whether they can keep running for 30 more minutes?

This time, Sideshow Bob can be proud of himself.

As it turns out: they did. Many times in the past, those players have been accused of football gold-digging; many times people doubted about their ability to form a team. But The Mercenaries played their hearts out this time. There was no choking, no excuses, no giving up under the toughest circumstances possible. Even after Eden Hazard’s penalty given for Silva’s problematic handball, French champions remained competitive. Chelsea, on the other hand, lost their focus significantly. With very limited threats PSG posed upfront, The Blues started to concede the set-pieces and one of them, taken by David Luiz, nearly punished this attitude outright. Didier Drogba, who entered the fray with some fresh legs, forced Costa to play slightly out of position, which did not work particularly well. Both the Spaniard and the Ivorian had one decent moment for each of them; once, the mess was cleared by faultless Marquinhos and the other time, Sirigu stepped up and swept a through ball. Chelsea was asking PSG what they are going to come up with again; and, to everyone’s surprise, the visitors had the answer. They waited patiently, they inched forward towards Courtois’ goal until yet another corner was awarded to them…

…and it was none other than Thiago Silva, the captain, the third-most expensive and first most-important player to make up for his previous mistake and score a decisive header. He was already close to scoring when Courtois timely parried one of his headers. Soon after that, Silva popped up again, the marking was gone with the wind one more time and the shot floated over the goalkeeper into the top corner. It would have been a fantastic goal if not for the absolute calamity the home side made of their defensive lines. After all, they have already conceded one goal from the corner and Silva almost punished them something like 100 seconds before the equalizer went in! How many more warning signs did they need? It was a horrific moment for CFC as Silva ran to the group of visitors’ fans celebrating while Costa, being the player we know, spiralled further and further into brawling – this time with Yohan Cabaye. In a post-match interview, Mourinho admitted that the set-pieces ruined Chelsea’s chances; however, he also complained about his players not being able to cope with the pressure of having one player more on the pitch. Weird explanation, to say the least – especially because it’s true.

Is this really the end of Premier League in 2014-15 Champions League? Most likely, yes.

Will France really have two clubs in quarterfinals? It seems so.

Someone give a call to Alex Ferguson to come out of the retirement while he’s still alive…

Chelsea – PSG 2-2 Goals & Highlights

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