It was actually Guus Hiddink who had best summed up the pressure on the Parisians. “A big club has to win a Champions League,” he had offered on the eve of this tie, his soundbite lost amid a rather rambling assessment of the contest ahead even if his words still struck a chord with the locals. It is on occasions such as these when Paris Saint-Germain’s progress can properly be gauged, and when credence is given to their reputation as one of Europe’s rising powerhouses. This might have been a night of frustration. It ended as one of elation.
Life in Ligue 1 has become a mismatch for PSG. Laurent Blanc’s team sweep all before them every week, their dominance utterly uncompetitive to the tune of 35 unbeaten league matches and a fourth successive title sure to be secured before March is out. Their goal difference already stands at plus 51 for all that Lille halted a run of 16 successive victories with a goalless draw on Saturday. Even then the hosts had given Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Motta, Maxwell and Thiago Silva a breather, and second-placed Monaco still failed to trim the champions’ 24-point advantage at the top of the table.
It has all become rather mundane, the monopoly of domestic silverware now taken for granted. So, as Blanc begrudgingly acknowledged, judgement is only passed on the mark this club makes on Europe. The millions poured into PSG by Qatar Sports Investments have purchased a team of stellar talents but, aside from building a brand, their target has always been that first European Cup. It is as if they need that even to convince France they boast the pedigree once enjoyed by Saint-Etienne or Marseille on the global stage. Nights like these reinforce the belief that their ambition is not folly.
The manner in which Blanc’s team tore into Chelsea reflected an expectation to progress. Two years ago they had been squeezed out by these opponents on away goals, succumbing almost naively in the second leg in London. Last year they were already more streetwise, returning the compliment with a blend of resilience and brilliance at Stamford Bridge. This time around they had hoped to stampede a team languishing 12th in the Premier League, their intent demonstrated by Lucas Moura’s dispossession of Cesc Fàbregas within 40 seconds.
There is class in PSG’s attacking ranks. Lucas was a livewire, all swerving skill and searing pace from flank to centre, and the Brazilian would eventually eke out the free-kick from which Ibrahimovic opened the scoring. The Swede is their talisman, a player of proper presence, even if that deflected reward was only his eighth goal in 37 Champions League knockout ties. With 38 in 79 group games, he tends to plunder prior to Christmas.
In midfield there is snarl and energy, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti, the 23-year-old Italian now secured to terms until 2020, a busy and clever combination buzzing around Thiago Motta’s steadying influence. Then there is Ángel di María. The recruitment of the Argentinian, despite that rather incongruous year of feeling awkward and unloved at Manchester United, was a key step in the Qatari strategy: a player whose willingness to come to Paris with his best years still potentially ahead of him had changed a mindset. “With Di María’s arrival we moved from ‘PSG can’t win the Champions League’ to ‘With him PSG can win it’,” said Blanc.
The 28-year-old, true to recent resurgent form, was more recognisable as the creator-in-chief voted man of the match as Real Madrid claimed La Decima back in 2014, his feet a blur as he made space and spread panic. There had been one exquisite pass slid for Lucas to collect beyond Gary Cahill, with César Azpilicueta forced to muster a recovery. When he drifted infield to influence, the overworked Thibaut Courtois was forced to tip over swerving shots from distance. It would be his assist for Edinson Cavani which edged his side back in front. Di María will be as potent a threat in next month’s return, and a figure who will want to remind English football of his capabilities.
Yet, for all that Courtois’ heroics kept Chelsea afloat, there were also reminders this competition can drive to distraction those who consider themselves contenders. If PSG were the more imposing team, the visitors retained the capabilities to knock them from their perch. Kevin Trapp had already saved astoundingly from Diego Costa when Mikel John Obi forced Chelsea level. Indeed, there were too many flashes of indecision across a backline not used to being tested and, where Oscar could not capitalise, those mouth-watering attacking talents at Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Barcelona might have made hay.
Therein lay the warning, not least ahead of the rematch in London. It took Roman Abramovich nine years to realise his dream in Munich and the small band of travelling fans here had delighted for a while in a taunted chorus of “Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.” Paris, for all their progress, may have to remain patient a while longer.