Implicit in Paris Saint-Germain’s quick ascent (and French soccer’s willingness to go along with it) is the idea that what’s good for PSG is good for Ligue 1. This doesn’t goes as far as clubs wanting the Parisians to win at their own expense, but if the aspiring super club is going to be one of the world’s big spenders, best they do as much as damage as possible in Europe while doing so.
More success in Champions League leads to more exposure, which leads to more commercial power for the French league – something that will helps the whole circuit in the long run. As PSG grows and can buy up players like Blaise Matuidi, Lucas Digne, and the since departed Kevin Gameiro, the money can trickle down. If Ligue 1 is every going to close the gap between itself and Europe’s biggest leagues, it would have to be on the back of PSG.
“It’s very exciting for a manager to be involved in this kind of project – just as it is for any player,” PSG head coach Laurent Blanc said on Tuesday, the day before the first-year boss hosts Chelsea in UEFA Champions League’s quarterfinals. “Everything about our development is going very fast …”
That rapid rise helps explain France’s fixation on the Champions League semifinals. Since the season’s onset, French soccer has had that landmark in mind. After the Parisians forced away goals to be used to see them out of the quarterfinals last season, progress for the PSG project — and, by extension, French soccer — means making the final four. With PSG winning every other competition, Europe is now the only measuring stick.
“[I]n European competition we are among the least experienced clubs remaining,” Blanc cautions. “We will need time to be a regular player at the top level.”
But having drawn Chelsea (and not Bayern Munich, and to a certain extent Real Madrid), the Parisians are being expected to take the next step now, even if people like Zlatan Ibrahimovic (pictured) are also being cautious. But in light of last year’s result, the measured tones of PSG’s stars and staff can’t temper expectations. Whereas last year the French champions were within inches of knocking out Barcelona, this year a stronger team faces a Blues squad that’s perceived to be an easier challenge. With players like Edinson Cavani, Marquinhos, and Yohan Cabaye added to a squad already build around Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, and Batuidi, why shouldn’t people expect the semifinals?
The most common answer to that question: José Mourinho. The Champions League winning coach with Porto and Inter Milan has also made the semifinals with Chelsea (during this first stint) and Real Madrid. His teams are not used to exiting the competition this early, and while that’s largely because Mourinho tends to have one the tournament’s most talented teams, the manager’s part can’t be overlooked. Each time Mourinho’s won Champions League, he did so with a team that wasn’t the tournament’s most talented.
“Paris has a team full of fantastic attacking players, not to mention the other ones,” Mourinho (right) explained. “I could speak for hours about Thiago [Motta]. The offensive players are what really make the difference at this level.”
In this matchup, there may be little question which team has more talent. Chelsea, certainly one of the most gifted teams in England, don’t have the depth of stars that PSG possesses. While they can claim Eden Hazard among the world’s elite, the Parisians have Ibrahimovic, Silva, and Edinson Cavani. A player like Matuidi would walk into Chelsea’s Wednesday XI, particularly considering winter signing Nemanja Matic is cup-tied. Throughout the rest of Laurent Blanc’s squad, Mourinho might also find the likes of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Thiago Motta of use. Whereas Mourinho’s first spell at Chelsea would have never met a French team that could outclass his talent, his return to Stamford Bridge comes within a much-changed Champions League world.
But to the extent there even is one, the talent gap isn’t so big that Mourinho couldn’t traverse it, particularly given the experience Chelsea’s core carries from their 2011-12 Champions League-winning campaign. Against a Paris Saint-Germain team likely to have a big possession advantage, those veterans can stay in their more comfortable, counter attacking posture, relying on the likes of Hazard, Óscar, and Willian to execute in transition against the PSG defense.
“I watch a lot of Paris matches, and Laurent Blanc has a clear philosophy,” Mourinho explained. “They keep the same philosophy, even when they change three midfielders, like against Bayer Leverkusen in the [round of 16] second leg. Same goes for us; we have a philosophy and we won’t change it. And we have faith in what we do.”
“Chelsea and Paris have very different styles of play,” Blanc agreed, “they’re more inclined to counterattack while we like to keep possession. Which is more effective? We’ll see after the two legs, but we’ll stay true to our beliefs.”
Particularly on the road, in leg one, Mourinho will have his team embrace that less expansive approach, remaining conservative while looking for a quick but crucial away goal. The question is whether Blanc, making his second trip to this level of the competition, can identify his own team’s weaknesses and protect them against that Blues’ assault.