PARIS. — Two months have passed since the draw for the Champions League soccer’s last 16 was made and much has changed in that time as Paris Saint-Germain prepare to meet Chelsea in one of the headline ties tonight.
The match kicks-off at 9:45pm.
When the sides were paired together for the third successive season in December’s draw at UEFA’s Swiss headquarters, PSG appeared the undisputed favourites.
That was as much down to Chelsea’s travails as PSG’s almost flawless form, but just three days later Jose Mourinho was sacked and the English Premier League side have since begun a steady recovery under Guus Hiddink.
They remain in the bottom half of the Premier League but they have gone 12 games unbeaten, including a 5-1 thumping of Newcastle United on Saturday as Diego Costa scored his eighth goal in that time.
“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.
PSG are not exactly in bad shape, with a 1-0 loss at Real Madrid in the group stage their only defeat in 39 games this season.
They have not lost a domestic match since March last year and had won 16 games in a row before a 0-0 draw with Lille on Saturday, when coach Laurent Blanc decided to rest top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, captain Thiago Silva, Thiago Motta and Maxwell.
However, PSG’s build-up to the match has been overshadowed after defender Serge Aurier was suspended for insulting Blanc and many of his 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,” complained Blanc, whose side beat Chelsea in the last 16 a year ago after losing in the quarter-finals in 2014.
Hiddink says he will not take any risks on captain John Terry, who came off injured against Newcastle, while Kurt Zouma is out for the season with a knee injury.
Roma and Real Madrid, meanwhile, have both changed coaches since they were paired together with the first leg of their tie at the Stadio Olimpico tomorrow.
Madrid came through their group unbeaten and ahead of PSG, but Rafa Benitez was sacked at the start of January with his team lagging behind in the Spanish title race and the legendary Zinedine Zidane has since come in, overseeing five wins and a draw in La Liga. At Roma, French coach Rudi Garcia was fired last month after a run of one win in 10.
He has been replaced by Luciano Spalletti, who twice took Roma to the Champions League quarter-finals during a previous stint as coach, including in 2008 when the Giallorossi beat Real in the last 16.
Zidane, who has Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Pepe carrying injuries, of course has happy memories of the competition with Real, having starred in their 2002 final win over Bayer Leverkusen.
“I have super memories as a player and as a coach because I won it with this club as assistant manager with (Carlo) Ancelotti too, so obviously there is a particular allure,” he added.
Wolfsburg reached the last 16 at the expense of Manchester United but the Bundesliga club had gone five games without a win before beating Ingolstadt 2-0 on Saturday to set themselves up for tomorrow’s trip to Belgium to play Gent.
“The important thing for us is to have ended the negative run – we have won now and that’s all that counts. There is a lot we can take from that for the future,” said Wolves coach Dieter Hecking as his side prepare to face the team who were the surprise package of the group stage, qualifying at the expense of Valencia and Lyon.
Today’s other match sees Zenit St Petersburg and their Portuguese coach Andre Villas-Boas face Benfica in Lisbon. The long Russian mid-season break means Zenit have not played competitively since December and they have already been in Portugal for some winter training. — AFP.