For the opening quarter of an hour, it was as if nothing had changed. The Parc des Princes hosted a Chelsea side content to absorb pressure during a crucial match. Paris Saint-Germain dominated the opening stages on Tuesday evening, boasting 74% of the possession, with four attempts on Thibaut Courtois’ goal after just 20 minutes. The only shock was the identity of the man in the visiting dug-out. This was a performance with a flavour of Jose Mourinho, but Guus Hiddink had added his own noticeable touch.
Like his predecessor, Hiddink opted to park the bus in Paris, but the Dutchman dared to allow his players to take over the controls. He trusted them to express themselves when necessary, but know when to exercise caution. He understood that Eden Hazard and Willian are capable of worrying a defence. He realised that Diego Costa is infinitely more effective with support. Hiddink trusted his players to play, not to subdue. Chelsea were set up to accentuate their own strengths, not to suppress those of their opponents. And it showed.
Edinson Cavani’s late winner will seem devastating for Chelsea. This represents the first defeat of Hiddink’s second coming, a first loss since a 2-1 reverse to Leicester 13 games ago. Including his first reign, this was only the second loss Chelsea had endured under Hiddink in 34 games. The Blues must win at Stamford Bridge in the return leg in three weeks, and they must win well.
But the positives from such a performance are obvious. An away goal, courtesy of John Obi Mikel – who else? An excellent defensive performance tinged with two conceded goals – one unlucky, one a result of a quality striker. A fluent attack which saw Costa hit the crossbar early on, and the Spaniard, Oscar and Pedro wasting chances to deal a decisive blow in the tie. The scoreline reads 2-1, but Chelsea know they are still in this. So will PSG.
These two sides have grown accustomed to one another. Mourinho led his charges into battle against their French adversaries in the Champions League knock-out stages of both of the last two seasons. In a 3-1 first-leg defeat in 2014, Chelsea had seven shots to PSG’s 12, ceding the majority of possession. A year later, Mourinho had learnt from what he perceived as mistakes. Chelsea had just two shots in a defensive performance. Their hosts had 14. While the Blues secured a 1-1 draw, they failed to reach the next round, whereas they advanced a year previous despite defeat. The folly of Mourinho’s tactics had been exposed in full.
In this, the third instalment in the trilogy, Chelsea had more shots than in those two games combined. Ten efforts rained down on Kevin Trapp’s goal, as the French side often struggled to deal with such a potent attack. In turn, PSG had 20 efforts, but registered just three more on target. Hiddink opted to deal with the considerable threat directly, and it so very nearly paid off. The Dutchman will surely remain content with an away goal, despite the deficit. The folly of Mourinho is exposed further.
Hiddink struck a balance on Tuesday, one which Mourinho rarely entertained even investigating. Faced with the attacking talents of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Angel di Maria and Lucas Moura, any side would be forgiven for approaching with trepidation. But Chelsea have Costa. They have Willian. They have Hazard. They have Cesc Fabregas. These players – Willian aside – have undeniably underperformed this season, yet they are still among the finest attacking talents in Europe. The key is to let them prove that when possible.
When Chelsea were required to defend however, the ghost of Mourinho lingered. The Blues were without injured and influential captain John Terry, and while his contract situation remains uncertain, the search must one day commence for his replacement. On Tuesday’s evidence, he may already be at the club. Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic were impervious in Paris, making 16 clearances, three interceptions and four blocks between them. PSG’s central defensive pairing of David Luiz and Thiago Silva made four clearances, four interceptions and zero blocks combined. Terry’s influence and leadership is seen as irreplaceable at Stamford Bridge, but Ivanovic seamlessly assumed the role as stand-in captain. It turns out the central defender is better in central defence than right-back.
The performance of Baba Rahman was also a welcome surprise for the Blues. The left-back had struggled since signing from Augsburg in the summer, but no player on the pitch made more interceptions (six), and only one team-mate, Cesar Azpilicueta, completed more tackles. The 21-year-old’s performance was symptomatic of a complete team performance from Chelsea, expertly manned by the ever-improving Fabregas and the ever-trustworthy Mikel in the centre. Remember when Nemanja Matic was a thing?
“He has given us a bit more freedom and the confidence to raise our game,” Hazard said of interim manager Hiddink last week. After an effervescent 5-1 thrashing of Newcastle, it showed once again against opposition on a different level. Chelsea will chase the game in the return leg at Stamford Bridge; they have to. But this showing proves they are capable of causing significant damage to the runaway Ligue Un champions. Hiddink will be disappointed, but satisfied on reflection.
It will surprise no-one that Willian is capable of such explosive runs and incisive passing. Few will be surprised that Hazard is more effective going forward than acting as a defensive decoy. Few except Mourinho. The effect that a trusting manager has had on these players is palpable.