Champions League return: Paris Saint-Germain vs Chelsea talking points
As Champions League football returns to our screens this week, Chelsea are the first Premier League side to play as they travel to Paris for a repeat of last year’s last-16 tie.
Guus Hiddink’s side will look to use the Champions League as an escape from their dismal Premier League campaign, which has had a recent upturn in fortune since the Dutchman replaced Jose Mourinho.
There are three key factors which could decide how the first leg of this last-16 repeat encounter in Parc des Princes turns out:
1. Angel Di Maria vs Baba Rahman and the Chelsea defence
The former Manchester United winger has been in scintillating form for Laurent Blanc’s side, racking up four goals and an assist in 543 minutes of football. The sparkling Argentine has totalled nine goals and 10 assists in Ligue 1 overall this season, while he also netted three times in the Champions League group stage. This strike, in a 5-1 victory over Angers on January 23, is indicative of the confidence flowing through the ex-Old Trafford man:
With captain John Terry ruled out of action after sustaining a hamstring injury in Chelsea’s own 5-1 victory over Newcastle last Saturday, Branislav Ivanovic will move to centre-half. This means Cesar Azpilicueta will revert to his more natural right-back spot, with Baba Rahman taking up the left-back berth.
The 21-year-old, who has made three full Champions League appearances in which he set-up one goal, was given little opportunity under Mourinho. Two of his three European starts were in the Blues’ ties against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the 4-0 away victory the game in which he provided an assist.
Rahman has yet to be fully tested as a Chelsea player, but with Kurt Zouma’s season over and bulldog Terry’s years waning, he will have to step up to the mark if he wants to convince the club that he is a long-term option at left-back as they look to build a back four for the future. Di Maria, expected to line up on the right-hand side of the Parisiens' three-pronged attack, will provide an extremely stern test of the Ghanaian’s credentials.
2. Eden Hazard’s form against a possible suitor
Rumours have been rife this week that PSG will move for Hazard’s services in the summer, with the player seemingly open to the move if reports are to be believed. Hiddink has warned the Belgian to concentrate on his own form, having a dig at the French side in the process as he believes last year’s PFA Player of the Year is setting his standards too low.
The 25-year-old has yet to find the net in either the Premier League or the Champions League this season as he continues to be unrecognisable from the player who tore up defences in the Blues’ title-winning 2014-15 campaign. Hiddink will be hoping his comments light a fire under Hazard, as hitting his stride in a crunch Champions League outing would be the perfect time for the Belgium international to spark into life.
3. Atmosphere in the PSG camp
PSG defender Serge Aurier was suspended this week for making crude remarks about manager Blanc, as well as high-profile teammates including Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede was allegedly one of the players who demanded a transcript of the full-back’s comments as Aurier caused serious tension with Blanc’s ranks. The Ivory Coast allegedly called his manager a "faggot" in a foul-mouthed social media rant, further accusing the former Manchester United defender of favouritism towards star striker Ibrahimovic.
With his side cruising in Ligue 1, 24 points ahead of their nearest challengers Monaco, Chelsea represent the biggest competitive test of Blanc’s outfit in some time. It will be interesting to see how PSG respond, both to Aurier’s damaging comments and to what should be much sterner opposition than they are used to facing. The French champions, however, certainly have the form as they welcome the Premier League’s 12th-positioned side to their Paris fortress.