UCL: PSG test for Chelsea

Chelsea travels to Paris Saint Germain while Benfica play hosts to Zenit St. Petersburg in the round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League.

PSG players in a practice session ahead of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 clash against Chelsea.   -  AP

One team looking to make a mark on the big European stage after dominating the French league for successive years. Another team trying to save its season, after a horror start to its league defence has led to almost zero chances of playing in Europe’s top-tier tournament next season. Both united by a common plot - cash-rich owners musing on the Champions League trophy.

Two months have passed since English giant Chelsea drew French champion Paris Saint-Germain for the Champions League last 16 round. When the sides were paired together for the third successive season in December's draw at UEFA's Swiss headquarters, the team from France had appeared the undisputed favourites.

 

That was as much down to Chelsea's miserable title defence, the worst by a team in the Premier League era, as PSG's almost flawless form in Ligue 1.

But modern day football is a game of see-saw and predictions can often go for a toss. Three days after the Champions League draw Chelsea fired manager Jose Mourinho and it has since begun a steady recovery under interim manager Guus Hiddink.

Read: >Ibrahimovic disappointed not to be facing Mourinho >

It remains in the bottom half of the Premier League but has managed a 12-game unbeaten run, including a 5-1 thrashing of Newcastle United on Saturday. Last season’s influential players Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas have also started showing positive signs for the London-based club.

"Now we have more confidence to go there and to play. Paris have a great team, great players, but we go there to try to win the game," Willian told Chelsea TV in an interview.

Read: >Difficult to say no to PSG: Hazard

Also, read: >Cahill using 2012 as inspiration ahead of PSG clash

The Aurier Controversy



PSG is not exactly in bad shape, with a 1-0 loss at Real Madrid in the group stage of UCL, its only defeat in 39 games this season. It has not lost a domestic match since March last year and had won 16 games in a row before a 0-0 draw against Lille on Saturday.

Coach Laurent Blanc had decided to rest top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, captain Thiago Silva, Thiago Motta and Maxwell for that match in anticipation of the high-voltage Chelsea encounter.

However, PSG's build-up to the match has been overshadowed by controversy after defender Serge Aurier was suspended for insulting Blanc, Ibrahimovic and other team-mates in a video posted on social media.

Aurier would have started, as would highly influential midfielder Marco Verratti, who Blanc says is not fit enough, having featured sparingly in a wearying run of 12 games in the last six weeks.

"They (Chelsea) didn't have a match last midweek, unlike us. The Champions League merits more preparation than we have been able to put in as we have been playing every three days," said Blanc, whose side beat Chelsea in the last 16 a year ago after losing in the quarter-finals in 2014.



Thin line of defence



Chelsea will be expected to take a cautious approach in the first leg. Manager Hiddink has said that the > club will not risk playing injured captain John Terry while his partner, Frenchman Kurt Zouma, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Stand-in captain Branislav Ivanovic is expected to partner Gary Cahill in the centre with Cesar Azpilicueta and Baba Rahman taking up the full-back positions for Chelsea. It would be interesting to know who Hiddink selects in the midfield. A guarded approach would mean Nemanja Matic starting with Obi Mikel, but in the absence of Verratti, it might make more sense to deploy Fabregas, who was sublime at the weekend, in a deeper role.

The strength of this PSG side can be highlighted by the fact that it won’t miss the services of the injured Verratti or Javier Pastore. Former Real Madrid and Manchester United winger Angel Di Maria has been running riot in midfield along with the likes of Edison Cavani and Lucas Moura. Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta and Adrien Rabiot have been in excellent in their deeper roles in midfield as well.

To make things worse for the depleted Chelsea back-line, there is striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who will be keen to make a huge impact in what could be his last Champions league season.



Benfica test for Andre Villas-Boas’ men



Tuesday's other match sees Zenit St Petersburg and its Portuguese coach Andre Villas-Boas face Benfica in Lisbon.

Zenit have not played competitively since December, due to the Russian mid-season break, and it has already been in Portugal for some winter training.

"The main difficulty lies in the fact that we will meet with a team which is faster and more mobile, because it continues to play in a championship without interruption," said Villas-Boas last week.

Recent history in meetings between the two sides has been tense. Benfica defeated Zenit 4-3 on aggregate at this stage of the 2011-12 tournament, while the teams also met in the Champions League group stages last season, with Villas-Boas' men coming out on top.

Rui Vitoria's Benfica side saw its recent eight-match winning streak in the Primeira Liga end with a 2-1 home defeat to title rivals Porto on Friday. But the manager can call upon one of the top scorers in Europe, Jonas, who has hit 23 league goals already this season, while Konstantinos Mitroglou is also in form having netted eight goals in his last six league matches.

The match will also mark the return to Estádio da Luz for former Eagles Axel Witsel and Ezequiel Garay.



FACT FILE



PSG vs Chelsea

Leading scorers in all competitions:

Paris Saint-Germain - Zlatan Ibrahimovic (27 goals)

Chelsea - Diego Costa (12 goals)



Previous meetings

PSG 0-3 Chelsea - 2004/05 Champions League group stage

Chelsea 0-0 PSG - 2004/05 Champions League group stage

PSG 3-1 Chelsea - 2013/14 Champions League quarter-final, first leg

Chelsea 2-0 PSG - 2013/14 Champions League quarter-final, second leg

PSG 1-1 Chelsea - 2014/15 Champions League last 16, first leg

Chelsea 2-2 PSG after extra time - 2014/15 Champions League last 16, second leg



Benfica vs Zenit

Leading scorers in all competitions:

Benfica - Jonas (24 goals)

Zenit - Artem Dzyuba (16 goals)



Previous meetings

Zenit 3-2 Benfica - 2011/12 Champions League last 16, first leg

Benfica 2-0 Zenit - 2011/12 Champions League last 16, second leg

Benfica 0-2 Zenit - 2014/15 Champions League group stage

Zenit 1-0 Benfica - 2014/15 Champions League group stage