The UEFA Champions league gets back underway on Tuesday, with French champions Paris Saint-Germain travelling to the BayArena in Germany to face perennial domestic bridesmaids Bayer Leverkusen.
PSG maintained their five-point lead at the top of Ligue 1 with a straightforward 3-0 home win over Valenciennes on Friday, but Sami Hyypia’s side lost 2-1 at home to Schalke 04 and were also knocked out of the DFB Pokal in the quarterfinals by second-tier Kaiserslautern.
Laurent Blanc’s team topped Group C to advance, while Leverkusen finished second to Manchester United in Group A. The Werkself are currently second to Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga and will be confident that they can be the major surprise of the last 16.
However, on paper at least, PSG are overwhelming favourites to win the tie over both legs.
With no Edinson Cavani in Germany, the current Championnat leaders are shorn of some of their regular firepower, but the presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic will still be a major concern for the hosts.
Leverkusen are also thought to be sweating over the fitness of German international midfielder Lars Bender and defender Emir Spahic ahead of the clash, while Emre Can and Eren Derdiyok have already been ruled out.
Following last season’s impressive campaign that saw them make a quarterfinal appearance, the side from the French capital will expect to at least equal that this time around. They will have been happy with the draw against the 2002 finalists.
Despite some laboured domestic performances so far this term, PSG raise their game when at full strength in Europe. The Parisians finished their group campaign with 16 goals to their name, eight of those coming from in-form talisman Ibrahimovic.
Prior to the match, there are a number of key battles to look out for during Tuesday’s game.
Fundamental to the way PSG play is the control that Blanc’s side enjoy in midfield. That is created by the dominance that a trio of Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti provide.
In Simon Rolfes, Lars Bender and possibly Stefan Reinartz, assuming he is judged fit to play after a foot injury, Leverkusen have a strong midfield threesome of their own that deserves respect.
Bender is arguably the greater talent of the trio, but Reinartz’s replacement, Emre Can, is suspended and will be a big miss. Bender’s own participation is also in question after he risked aggravating an ankle problem against Schalke on Saturday.
If the hosts can field their first-choice midfield trio, then Hyypia’s men have a good chance of preventing PSG from taking control of the game and dictating its pace.
Should the French juggernaut be allowed to take control of proceedings, Leverkusen will be at the mercy of PSG’s recently flagrant finishing in order to stay in this tie past the first leg.
There is no doubt that, heading into this game, Ibrahimovic is the most in-form player and the Swede will be instrumental to the Parisians’ hopes of an away goal or two to make early March’s home leg a more comfortable affair.
In the absence of Cavani, who has a hamstring problem, Ibrahimovic has coped well and scored three goals in the three games that the Uruguayan has been unavailable for.
A spectacular double in the Coupe de la Ligue away at FC Nantes emphasised his ability to come up big for Blanc’s side in the really important matches and Leverkusen will be no different.
Ibrahimovic will be looked to for inspiration in Germany and has the chance to build on an impressive eight-goal tally built up in just five appearances. Only Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more than the talismanic striker at present.
Emir Spahic may have left Ligue 1 side Montpellier HSC before the Swede arrived, but a number of his PSG teammates will be able to attest to the Bosnian international’s uncompromising style.
If fit enough to play after walking off with a thigh problem against Schalke on Saturday, his duel with Ibrahimovic will be important.
Absent for Saturday’s home defeat against future club Schalke, German international Sidney Sam will return to the Leverkusen side for the visit of PSG.
The 26-year-old, who has scored once so far in this season’s edition and seven times in the league, is a key component of the Werkself outfit.
Primarily based on the right wing, Sam will be up against consistent Brazilian left-back Maxwell, unless Blanc opts to spring a surprise by selecting marauding Frenchman Lucas Digne ahead of the vastly experienced Selecao star.
4 - PSG are unbeaten in their last 4 games against German clubs (W2, D2) in all competitions. Supremacy.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) February 18, 2014
Outside of the battle in the centre of midfield, the key battles of the match are likely to be fought on either flank, as Leverkusen possess such good width and the right side is also of crucial importance to PSG.
The hosts also boast an abundance of speed in Sam that helps contribute towards a rapier-like counter-attacking ability. If Blanc and his players want to take a healthy lead back to Paris, then keeping Sam quiet and limiting his space will be of paramount importance.
On the opposite flank to Sam is South Korean international Heung-Min Son. He is another player that PSG will have be extremely wary of.
The 21-year-old creator will primarily be up against Dutch international right-back Gregory van der Wiel and will fancy his chances of exploiting the spaces left by the French champions’ attack-minded full-back.
Unfortunately for Blanc, he has little option but to play Van der Wiel for this one, with no alternative option in that position while Christophe Jallet is unavailable following surgery.
It is possible that Le President could opt to play 19-year-old central defender Marquinhos on the right, as he did in the Coupe de la Ligue victory over Girondins de Bordeaux recently, but that is unlikely considering the lack of options available in the middle too.
5 - Bayer Leverkusen have lost their last five games in the Champions League knockout stages (5 goals for, 18 against). Pressure.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) February 18, 2014
Son is the creative, goalscoring winger, less pace-oriented than Sam, but far cleverer and in many ways a greater danger.
The biggest worry for Leverkusen will be that the South Korean will see little of the ball if PSG take control of the game and orchestrate the majority of their attacks from the right.
The reason that Blanc may well advise his players to try to exploit the right side as often as possible is that Sebastian Boenisch could have recovered from a back problem in time to feature.
If he does, then Lucas Moura, who is likely to start on the right side of the front three, will be expected to run riot against the cumbersome Polish left-back. Roberto Hilbert or Giulio Donati will be the players that PSG’s left-sided starter will be up against.
Both of Leverkusen’s full-backs are arguably weaknesses and Blanc will likely opt for speed over style by selecting Ezequiel Lavezzi to play on the left at the expense of Javier Pastore. El Pocho scored the opening goal against Valenciennes on Friday before forcing the own goal.
14 - Paris SG have scored in each of their last 14 Champions League games. Streak.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) February 18, 2014
With Van der Wiel and Maxwell providing additional attacking threats from the full-back positions, service for Ibrahimovic should not be a problem. Conversely, it might be for Leverkusen's central defensive pairing of Spahic, Omer Toprak or Philipp Wollschied.
An interesting aside from a PSG point of view will be that Ibrahimovic and Andres Guardado’s paths will cross for a second consecutive season in the Champions League.
While playing for Valencia CF last term, Guardado was responsible for luring the Swede into getting sent off in the first leg of the last 16 encounter at the Mestalla.
Ibrahimovic eventually escaped a longer ban, enabling him to face former side Barcelona in the quarterfinals, but the Mexican international aggravated him and will have no doubt enlightened his teammates as to how to get under the towering striker’s skin.
Overall, as it does in every game that PSG play now, the deciding factor in this two-legged affair will be how Leverkusen cope with the control of possession that the French side are capable of exercising.
If Hyypia’s men can prevent the Parisians from taking over the game and dictating possession, then they will fancy that they can beat them for pace and exploit PSG’s recent weakness from set pieces.
56 - @bayer04fussball have scored 56% of their goals from set-pieces, the highest ratio among the 16 remaining teams in the CL. Method.— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) February 18, 2014
Free-kicks and corners are a key feature in Leverkusen’s repertoire of tricks, although Blanc’s team is equally as potent attacking with them or scoring directly through Ibrahimovic.
If PSG do assume control their usual continental dominance of the ball, though, Bayer’s hopes of progressing will rapidly dissipate as PSG pick them off. Win it, though, and they can bring Sidney Sam and Heung-Min Son into the game which will also bring striker Stefan Kiessling into it.
The Germans do not play well against teams that like to sit deep, as evidenced by Saturday's home defeat to Schalke. Although the French champions do not necessarily play deep, Motta’s deployment in midfield is so far back that he can double as an extra centre-back.
PSG to win the midfield battle and emerge with a narrow victory, but also a crucial clean sheet.