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Champions League: Composed PSG advances, leaving Chelsea at a loss

There was no need for away goals this time. It may not have been the most composed or assured performance from Paris Saint-Germain, but it was enough. More than that, it can reflect on three meetings in three seasons and see a clear sense of progress.

It’s natural for PSG to compare itself to Chelsea. Both are clubs transformed by a huge injection of cash following a takeover: Chelsea’s in 2003 and PSG’s in 2011. It took Chelsea nine years to win the Champions League after the takeover; PSG will dream of doing it sooner.

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In 2014, Chelsea beat PSG on away goals thanks to a late strike at Stamford Bridge from Demba Ba. In 2015, Chelsea contrived to concede two equalizers despite the first-half dismissal of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But in 2016, PSG, having been much the better side in winning the first leg 2-1, stood firm in the face of significant Chelsea pressure, broke intelligently and took its chances. It would be an exaggeration to speak of any sort of tactical triumph, but there was a ruthlessness about PSG that promises much.

Chelsea, puttering along in mid-table thanks to a long unbeaten domestic run under Guus Hiddink, is out of one of the two competitions it might yet have won. Saturday’s FA Cup quarterfinal against Everton could effectively end its season. In that regard, Wednesday's loss of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard to injury may end up being the greatest cost of a night on which it could legitimately feel that things didn’t have to have broken very differently for it to have won.

There is, though, a worrying sense of drift for Chelsea. For the first time since Roman Abramovich took over as Chelsea owner in 2003, there will be no Champions League football at Stamford Bridge next season. With a number of players this season failing to reach the heights of last, the squad probably requires significant investment. It’s still not clear who will be manager next season, even if Antonio Conte remains the most likely option. Whoever comes in, though, will be taking over a Chelsea side at its lowest ebb in a generation.

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And yet for periods before the second away goal that killed the game, PSG looked to be struggling to deal with Chelsea’s dynamism. From Chelsea’s point of view, the opening goal, scored after 16 minutes, was extremely preventable. Ángel Di María was given time in the center of the pitch to pick his pass and, for the third time in the game, Kenedy, a slightly surprising pick at left-back, was beaten on his inside. Ibrahimovic was able to cross low and Adrien Rabiot stole in front of Cesar Azpilicueta to score.

PSG had, slightly foolishly, used its Twitter account to mock Diego Costa as a fraud. His antics can be an irritation, but when he’s in the mood, he’s also an extremely good center forward. Pedro dispossessed Thaigo Motta, then combined with Willian to work the ball to Costa at the edge of the box. He turned by Thiago Silva and drilled a low shot past Kevin Trapp.

It was his 11th goal in 16 games under Guus Hiddink, having scored four in 21 under Jose Mourinho this season. The sulky figure who tossed his bib at his manager in frustration is now a distant memory. His revival has been remarkable. Costa very nearly added another in the final minute of the half, his deflected shot from the edge of the area drawing a low save from Trapp. 

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But then, midway through the second half, Chelsea was undone by another ball inside a full-back. This time it was on the other flank, Thiago Motta picking out Di María behind Cesar Azpilicueta, and he crossed for Ibrahimovic to turn the ball in from close range. That left Chelsea needing three, and that was always going to be beyond the realm of possibility.

The question now is whether PSG can improve on last season’s quarterfinal exit to Barcelona. The concern with a team that has effectively wrapped up its domestic title by this stage of the season—PSG leads the French league by 23 points—is always whether it has the hardness, the capacity to battle, necessary to progress in Europe. In that regard, this win bodes well.

It certainly has the personnel. Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti represent arguably the best-balanced midfield in Europe–and there must be encouragement drawn from the fact it won without Verratti here. Ibrahimovic, even at 34, is a major threat, while the energy of Lucas Moura and Angel Di Maria suggested PSG can play just as comfortably on the break as it does while dominating in France. Only about the defense are there significant doubts–it gave the ball away far too often for comfort here and slicker sides than Chelsea will take advantage.

But the trajectory, at least, is upward. For Chelsea, there is nothing but a profound sense of entropy.