When the dust settles on this remarkable Chelsea season they’ll end up looking at December 14th 2015 as the key date.
In the morning, the Blues – then just one point and two places above the relegation zone in the Premier League – were drawn to face Paris Saint-Germain, the runaway leaders in France, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Angel Di Maria, et al in the Champions League. Thoughts quickly turned to just what damage the Ligue 1 side could do to their dispirited opponents.
In the evening, it was Leicester City doing the damage, with the fantastic Foxes inflicting a 2-1 defeat on the reigning champions, the result which caused Jose Mourinho’s infamous meltdown and paranoid accusations that he had been “betrayed” by his team. He was sacked three days later, to the sound of cheering Chelsea players greeting his ignominious exit.
And now here we are, two months on from that pivotal day in Chelsea’s season, and the Blues haven’t lost a game since December 14th.
Guus Hiddink – his kindly old uncle shtick perfected in the seven years he’d been away from Stamford Bridge – has succeeded in simply reminding Chelsea’s players who and what they are, garnering six wins and six draws from his 12 games in charge during a second spell which he wouldn’t have expected to have been this easy.
Free from Mourinho’s ego, control-freakery and, it must be said, pressure, Hiddink has done what the Portuguese wasn’t even able to do when his sides were winning. Chelsea are playing with smiles on their faces, and that is exactly why Paris Saint-Germain should be a lot more wary of them tonight than they would have been two months ago.
Alright, the notion of Diego Costa smiling is one that will have you checking under your bed before you go to sleep tonight, but the snarling, sniping striker has been terrific ever since Hiddink took over, with Newcastle his latest victims on Saturday in a team performance full of verve and purpose. He’s scored eight times since Mourinho was booted out onto the King’s Road.
Pedro, too, has started to give a passable impression of the player that we all saw at Barcelona, whilst Cesc Fabregas has appeared to stop feeling sorry for himself and start affecting football matches again, and Oscar has been terrific when fit. Willian, of course, was playing very well anyway.
The one curious element remains the form of Eden Hazard, however, but if Hiddink can find a way to get the Belgian to realise that everyone else has stepped up several gears then this Chelsea recovery will really start motoring.
You could argue that both sides are coming into this tie knowing that this competition is now their priority, with PSG having effectively wrapped up the Ligue 1 title and Chelsea’s only concern in the Premier League being a scramble for a face-saving top-half finish.
That in itself adds an intriguing element to what is the third consecutive meeting between the pair in the Champions League, fixtures which have always produced drama right until the death; Demba Ba winning it for Chelsea late on in 2014 and Thiago Silva scoring an unforgettable extra-time header for PSG to clinch a win on away goals last year.
Ever since that moment it has almost seemed as though the Parisians were on the up as a European force and Chelsea’s ageing, declining squad were on their way down, with Mourinho’s methods exhausting both his players and the man himself.
But by jettisoning him in the week that these two were paired together, and giving their players ample time to get used to the methods of their new/old manager, the Blues have given themselves a decent chance of winning this tie against opposition that they wouldn’t have stood a chance against two months ago.
They might still lose over the two legs, but at least they can approach their excellent opponents with a semblance of confidence, something which would have been unthinkable before December 14th.
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