The Champions League returned Tuesday with two very tightly poised first legs in the round of 16 ending with the home side winning narrowly, as PSG edged out Chelsea 2-1 and Benfica pipped Zenit 1-0 at the death.
Edinson Cavani supplied the heroics for PSG in Paris, scoring the winner off the bench after Zlatan Ibrahimovic opened the scoring off a deflected free kick only for John Obi Mikel, notorious for not scoring goals, tallying an equalizer at the end of the first half.
In Portugal, Benfica and Zenit appeared destined for a 0-0 draw, but a late red card and clutch goal by Jonas tipped the scales into the host's favor.
Here is what caught our eye from the day's action:
Player of the Day: Kevin Trapp (PSG)
The last time PSG conceded a goal in the Champions League this season–in fact the only time before this game–it was at Real Madrid and came as a result of a clear mistake by goalkeeper Kevin Trapp. There was no repeat at Parc des Princes, where Trapp was superb. His two stops from Diego Costa proved crucial: the first was a first-half header from point-blank range that somehow Trapp pushed onto the bar:
The other at the start of the second half came from a one-on-one chance. Sub Oscar came on and Trapp was busy again, rushing out to stop the Brazilian’s toe-poke on the edge of the area. It was a crucial intervention; one minute later, Angel di Maria had created a chance out of nothing for Cavani to score the winning goal.
Cavani’s celebration said it all.
Five minutes after coming off the bench, Cavani turned off the shoulder of his marker Branislav Ivanovic and scored from a tight angle. Cavani headed straight for the bench, his face contorted with delight, relief and anger.
Of all the possible PSG heroes, Cavani, recently described as “a lone wolf” in the team squad by L’Equipe, was the most unlikely.
PSG fans joke that the Uruguayan misses when he should score, and scores when he should miss. He had plenty to do to get past Courtois and, indeed, had missed an easier chance in the weekend draw against Lille. PSG has expected more from a player that cost the club €64 million and it was reported that he has a frosty relationship with his teammates, while coach Laurent Blanc took him aside during winter training in Doha to discuss his attitude.
Cavani made the difference in his 16 minutes on the pitch but Trapp made it possible.
Moment of the Day: Benfica scores last-gasp winner
The knock on Benfica’s top scorer Jonas was that he never scores in big games against big teams. You can scratch that now, as the Brazilian popped up in the last minute to head home Nico Gaitan’s free kick and give Benfica a big advantage before the return trip to Russia in three weeks.
Zenit boss Andre Villas-Boas had set up his side for a draw, and Benfica was the closest to scoring before Jonas’s moment of glory, which came one minute after Domenico Criscito was sent off for the visitor. Once again the host was inspired by teenage midfielder Renato Sanches, who is making a name for himself on the big stage this season. This was also a breakout game for Victor Lindelof at center back; the Swedish 21-year-old is a star of the future and was superb.
Major Takeaway of the Day: Di Maria doesn't miss Manchester
It was only in 2014 that Di Maria was man of the match in the Champions League final that Real Madrid won 4-1 after extra time. When we look back on his career, we will wonder just how Louis van Gaal managed to alienate him so much.
He was outstanding for PSG as its main creative force popping up across the front three and eventually creating the winning goal with a sumptuous pass for Cavani.
If Lucas Moura provided the direct running–which forced the foul for a free kick from which Ibrahmovic opened the scoring–Di Maria was all angles and slide-rules, playing in Maxwell three times down the left wing in a combination that Chelsea struggled to handle. As United prepares to FC Midtjylland in the Europa League on Thursday night, fans may be forgiven for wishing Di Maria was still in its ranks.
How the second legs shape up
A 2-1 home win in this format, when away goals are the tiebreaker, is the closest there is to a 50-50 call when it comes to determining which team will go through. As stats guru Mister Chip said on Twitter: “With current regulations, 584 ties started with 2-1 on first leg. 286 teams came back (49%) and 298 don’t (51%)”.
That’s why both teams ended the game feeling like it had the better result; there are enough positives for both sides. This was a second-string Chelsea defense–missing the injured John Terry and Kurt Zouma and featuring untested American Matt Miazga was in the matchday 18– and it was without Nemanja Matic in midfield.
“I felt we defended really well and dug in but it will be a different game at home,” said Gary Cahill after the game.
The away goal, coming in unlikely fashion from Mikel, gives Chelsea hope. But PSG scored twice at Stamford Bridge before, and will expect to do so again. This one has become a tight one to call.
A 1-0 win is much more likely to end in progression, which is why Benfica has the edge in the other tie. Zenit will be without Criscito in the return leg, and the fear is that Russia’s winter break makes life harder for its clubs in European competition–this was Zenit’s first competitive match Matchday Six of the group stage back in early December. Villas-Boas has enough talent in his side to reach the last eight, but as it stands, it’s advantage Benfica.