“The best players want to play in the best competition. It’s not simple to get back in. You think every year is the next year. Any club will suffer the same when they’re not in there.” – Brendan Rodgers, March 2014.
Chelsea loss leaves team feeling blue
On the face of it, Chelsea’s Champions League defeat against Paris Saint-Germain wasn’t a great shock. In a season of many ‘downs’ and few ’ups’, it was expected that the Blues would struggle to progress to the next stage of the competition past the runaway leaders of the French top flight.
At times during the first leg in Paris, the gap in class threatened to allow PSG to open up a big lead in the tie. As it was, a bright defensive performance from Chelsea’s back four meant the Londoners headed into the decisive second-leg with only a 2-1 deficit to overturn.
The second leg started as much as the first with the Parisians holding the majority of possession. The Stamford Bridge faithful were in fine voice, spurring on the team and willing them to press and pressurise the opposing players when in possession. Whether by design, or, as Guus Hiddink suggested afterwards, by showing the visitors too much respect, Chelsea continually ceded possession and played a basketball style half-court press.
The returning Diego Costa, isolated by his peers as the lines between attack, midfield and defence found themselves stretched, cut a lone figure up front; the Spaniard effectively reduced to performing shuttle runs between defenders, trying in vain to chase the ball and pressure the triumvirate of Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Thiago Motta into a mistake.
The time and space afforded to the PSG midfield allowed them to stroke the ball around at will and it wasn’t long before they had the ball in the net. A tap in at the far post by the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimović was a sign of things to come. It was correctly called offside but Chelsea did not heed the warning. Minutes later, an incisive slide rule pass was played inside Chelsea’s left full-back channel, this time to release the Swede. As Gary Cahill retreated to cover the central area, Ibrahimović crossed low for the on-rushing Adrien Rabiot to convert.
This finally woke up the Chelsea team who moved higher up the pitch to reduce the distance between the lines of play. This paid dividends when Pedro robbed the ball in the centre circle and fed Costa. The matador-like striker played a one-two with Hazard and finished smartly into the corner of Kevin Trapp’s net.
Chelsea, ignited by the spark of recovery, fired themselves forward for the rest of the half. The French team were pleased to get into the dressing room at half-time. Instead of continuing this momentum after the break, Chelsea retreated.
Costa’s withdrawal through injury in the 60th minute took the remaining wind out of Chelsea’s collective sails and seven minutes later it was tie over. Angel Di Maria and Motta played a give-and-go around full-back Cesar Azpilicueta with the Argentine squaring the ball to Ibrahimović to finish first-time into the roof of the Chelsea net. A big celebration followed, and from there on it was a training session. Eden Hazard finally left the pitch with fifteen minutes to go after sustaining a groin injury, the Belgian initially having pulled up some twenty minutes prior.
In the post-match interview Guus Hiddink intimated that this period was a transitional one for Chelsea. The fact that this could be the last Champions League game to be played at this version of Stamford Bridge was not lost on the thousands of disappointed yet realistic fans come full-time.
It won’t be the immediate aftermath that causes the most damage. As with a ripple in a still pond, the waves will travel father and wider than just the primary source of the droplet. This game for Chelsea may have been one individual loss to an ultimately superior opponent, but the ramifications come the end of the season could be felt more severely by some members of the squad who have failed to back up their reputations.
Abramovich is unlikely to take next year’s Champions League-free season in good spirits, with any prospective new manager already facing a difficult recruitment challenge in the close season. Chelsea will be keen to avoid the harsh lessons learned by Manchester United and Liverpool who have suffered to regain their top four statuses since missing out on Champions League qualification.