Chelsea Falter In Paris, Hiddink’s Unbeaten Run Ends

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Updated: February 19, 2016

In the first leg of their Round of 16 tie, Chelsea went to Paris to face Paris Saint-Germain in what has become somewhat of a Champions League tradition.  When the draw was announced, and it became clear that the Blues would face the Ligue 1 giants for a third year running, fans expected two more cagey, hard-fought, down-to-the-wire-finish matches.

Wrap-up

The away match in Paris did not disappoint.  With the exception of the win at Crystal Palace, and the recent thumping of Newcastle, it was the best Guus Hiddink’s men have looked all season.  There wasn’t the same flair and there were far fewer goals, but the performance – start to finish – was complete.  Personified by Pedro’s hustle, or the stalwart defending of Ivanovic and Cahill, this Chelsea looked determined.

It was a match that required grit and toughness, the lack of which the Blues have been derided for much of the season.  Gone was the toothless Chelsea.  Ibrahimovic’s deflected free-kick just minutes before the halftime whistle was a cruel low blow which would have knocked the wind out of this side in November, but the response showed just how much they’ve grown under Hiddink.

Within five minutes, Chelsea had righted the ship, built sustained possession into an attacking threat, and scored from a corner.  Diego Costa should have put Chelsea on the scoresheet midway through the first half, but his header was tipped onto the bar by Kevin Trapp.  So, when John Obi Mikel scored from Willian’s corner, the equalizer felt well-deserved.

Edinson Cavani’s late goal notwithstanding, Chelsea had their own chances to tip the match in their favor.  Willian’s through-ball was just an stride too long for Diego Costa, and Trapp was able to disrupt the Spaniard enough to poke the ball free.  Oscar’s run in behind was equally close to resulting in a score, but the Brazilian couldn’t get his footing right to control the ball which bounced harmlessly off of Trapp’s midriff.  Perhaps his collision with David Ospina explains his trepidation.  The diminutive midfielder received a particularly painful shoulder to the jaw (and a suspected concussion) and will likely be wary of such challenges for the rest of his career.

Analysis

Under Hiddink, Chelsea have most often lined up in a 4-2-3-1, and his approach hasn’t differed too greatly from that of his predecessor José Mourinho.  However, the full-backs occupy a more advanced role in attack, constantly overlapping and in turn forcing the opposing winger to backtrack.  The holding midfielders, rather than immediately trying to win the ball high upfield, soak up pressure and funnel the ball to the touchline or backwards.

While Mourinho had the team stationed higher up the pitch in order to disrupt teams playing out of the back, Hiddink prefers a more spread outfit which has allowed players like Pedro, Willian and Oscar to shine.  Rather than playing on the counter, which they weren’t poor at doing, the players behind the striker have arguably more freedom to express themselves, exhibiting flair largely absent for the majority of the campaign.

The loss of John Terry and Kurt Zouma had many Chelsea fans worried that a center back partnership of Gary Cahill, who has played second fiddle to both this season, and Branislav Ivanovic, long-standing starting right back, would not be sufficient to stop the PSG attack.  Instead, the pair put in an admirable performance.  Some of their interventions and blocks were absolutely crucial and kept the tie within reach.  If this is the best possible option during the absence of Terry and Zouma, it doesn’t seem to be a bad one.

Take Away

Chelsea have what Guus Hiddink is calling a ‘final’ on Sunday against Manchester City at Stamford Bridge.  The loss in Paris may sting, but the players will be invigorated by the football they played at the Parc des Princes.  PSG snapped their unbeaten run but it can only serve as motivation for the matches to come.

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