While coasting so breathlessly in Ligue 1, the Champions League tie against Chelsea, a struggling one nonetheless, would be a chance to see what Paris Saint-Germain were made of. One senses as well that the stature of the tie, a knock-out as opposed to the group stages – where they already faced significant challenges against Real Madrid -, had some bearing on the sentiment around this match.
The Parisian kop, as their team entered the field, threw bundles of paper into the air, creating a confetti that, unintentionally, brought memories of that FIFA press conference and bundles of cash, amusing considering the club’s Qatari owners. It was spectacle, possibly designed to draw away from the image of the club as an oil-rich bully strolling to the league title (which will be their fourth in a row). The stage-managing was certainly present in the stadium itself, in its bones, a careful image crafted – the stand along the touch line opposite the dugouts and, more importantly, the TV cameras have new seats, bright blues and reds; in all the other stands those red seats especially are faded, the difference stark.
Leading up to the match, the prevailing idea in the media (conventional or social) had been that PSG would beat Chelsea and possibly soundly, especially with a move for Ivanovic at centre-back being the only thing preventing new American signing Matt Miazga making his first appearance for the club.
The reality was something a little different. Though during the opening stages of the match PSG put together some nice strings of passes in the centre of the pitch, Chelsea largely held firm. They were well-drilled, compact, wingers man-marking Paris full-backs in what occasionally turned into a 5 at the back formation.
It took a deflected free-kick by the one and only Zlatan (trademarked, probably) to get through, although this was cancelled out by a John Obi Mikel goal with the last kick of the first half, lashing in a corner which had fallen fortuitously straight into an easy thigh control for him. The Chelsea fans, once they had finished tearing at the mesh that separated them from the particularly vocal section of the Paris crowd, started to chant “You’re not singing anymore”.
And it was true. Not only because of the equaliser, but because PSG hadn’t even been dominating the match, even, for a spell, looking like the weakening fighter. For much of the match they were in possession, but they were slow with it, painfully so at times. Whistles rung out from the Paris faithful at one point in the second half when the ball was passed, yet again, back to the centre-backs.
Around the same time, the heart and mane of a lion David Luiz threw his arms up in the stand’s direction (it was the closest) when PSG won a corner. “Come on” was the message to them, “Allez”. The stand, of course, responded, but it was almost as much in challenge as in support, for it had been the fans themselves calling the most for their team to “Allez”, to play quicker, to use the space.
In fairness to the team, this was not a bad performance at all. They did have much of the possession and they did often win the ball back quickly once they had lost it. They were lucky at times, Diego Costa’s header in the first half could, on another day, have been a goal, and the fact that Chelsea seemed like they would be happy with a hard-fought draw allowed them some comfort.
There was also magic in the air in the many flicks and tight passes, the vision of Angel Di Maria in particular, but also Blaise Matuidi who went under-utilised in Paris’ central midfield.
But, together, the central midfield were not on top form; Zlatan did not have a happy night, partly through a lack of delivery, leading him to retreat into midfield which in turn denied PSG of a focal point; Di Maria, at times, seemed to be on a different wavelength to his teammates; and altogether they were slow, allowing Chelsea to retreat back into shape when they were in a position to be exploited more than once.
The introduction of Edinson Cavani was probably the change the team needed, tactically. He and Ibrahimovic could alternate as central striker, the other acting as an auxiliary attacking midfielder and it was his goal, from a lovely chipped ball by the aforementioned Di Maria, that won the match.
All is forgiven with a win.
The second leg, with Chelsea at home and needing a win, will be another interesting test for this Paris Saint-Germain, treading the difficult waters between being domestic goliaths and among Europe’s as yet uncrowned elites. This was the thread to which the Chelsea away support clung – “Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that”.
Paris will have to improve on Tuesday’s performance to be able to silence that chant, but they also showed that they might not be all that far away.