The UEFA Champions League returns after it’s way too long winter break, with PSG hosting Chelsea standing at the center of the first knockout stage night, while Benfica will try to give themselves an advantage while hosting Zenit.
All eyes, though, will be directed at the Parc de Princes. The defending French champions have a 24-point lead in Ligue 1, have lost just one match all season (to Real Madrid in the group stage) and seem to be in deadly form, based on the front trio of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Angel di Maria and Lucas Moura, who was bound for an exit from the club before a surprising awakening and resurgence in his ability.
This is the third time in the last few years the two teams meet in this competition. PSG made it through on away goals last time, despite playing with 10 men in Stamford Bridge. Jose Mourinho is no longer the Chelsea manager; Guus Hiddink is and while Chelsea have rarely been displaying good football, they haven’t lost since the Dutchman took over.
He has some midfield and defensive questions to address, with Nemanja Matic injured and his success with the young players in the 5-1 weekend win over Newcastle tempting to rely on again. Gary Cahill is probably going to start and John Terry is questionable. Eden Hazard, who made a lot of noise by referring to a possible move to PSG in a recent interview, might not even get to start, with Oscar probably returning to the lineup.
PSG have their own problems that have less to do with football and more with club harmony and discipline. Serge Aurier went on a tirade, insulting manager Laurent Blanc and other players on the team, getting him suspended, creating some moment of discomfort for a club that’s been cruising so far this season, perhaps too comfortably.
Chelsea aren’t likely to play too open, at least in the first half and especially if they score early on, relying on the fantastic form Diego Costa is in. The most important player for Hiddink has been Jon Obi Mikel of all players, which means slowing things down and not trying to do too many creative things from the midfield. A drew would suit Chelsea just fine, especially with an away goal or two.
As for the other match this evening which obviously draws a lot less attention, Benfica will try to bounce back from a 2-1 home loss to Porto which didn’t just end their 11-match win streak, but also knocked them off the top spot in the Portuguese league. For Zenit, it’s less about their league form (haven’t played an official match in months) or their five wins in six matches during the group stage. This is once again a test for Andre Villas-Boas and Russian teams in general to show that the long winter break doesn’t necessarily mean a loss in the round of 16.