Eden Hazard must be Chelsea's difference-maker against PSG
Chelsea's 2015-16 season has been plagued with deficiencies. Plummeting individual form, a worrying lack of cohesion, poor fitness and questionable attitudes have all troubled the squad at some point this campaign. But another more intangible or solvable problem has also been ever-present: bad luck.
It is often said that teams make their own luck, and it is hard to argue with that. Although Chelsea suffered early on in the campaign with a series of marginal calls all going against them -- the denial of a perfectly good equalising goal and neither Fernandinho or Yaya Toure being justifiably sent off during the 3-0 loss at Manchester City being one such example -- their general play was so poor that it made it hard to be too indignant about the standard of officiating. That said, every team needs to get the rub of the green at some point, so with Chelsea experiencing an upturn in fortune lately and with the most important few days of their season coming up, it would have been tempting to think that Lady Luck was starting to smile on the Blues.
Unfortunately, the season-ending injury that Kurt Zouma suffered in the 1-1 draw with Manchester United and John Terry's first-half withdrawal in the 5-1 evisceration of Newcastle due to a muscular problem has seen Chelsea shorn of both their first choice centre-backs at just the wrong moment. They might now have to negotiate the first leg of their Champions League tie and their FA Cup fifth-round clash with Manchester City with Gary Cahill pairing with Branislav Ivanovic at the heart of defence. As both are experienced international defenders, it has hardly left manager Guus Hiddink with a couple of untried youngsters, though it will still be a tough ask for them to keep out the likes of PSG's Zlatan Ibrahimovic and City striker Sergio Aguero.
PSG, in particular, have been in devastating form in front of goal. The French champions have found the net 63 times in 26 Ligue 1 games this season, an astonishing amount that is put further into context with it being almost a goal a game more than the next most prolific club, Nice (39). They have an equally impressive record in the Champions League this season with 12 strikes from their six group games. With Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria all in the goals, it goes without saying that they present a formidable attacking threat.
With the form of both Terry and Zouma being exceptional of late and their partnership forming the defensive foundation of Chelsea's recent resurgence, confidence was growing that they might be able to handle such esteemed company. Now, following their injuries, that confidence has understandably dissipated slightly.
Thankfully, Chelsea have few concerns at the other end of the pitch. Diego Costa has swapped his aimless aggression for pinpoint finishing and will present just as much threat on Tuesday night as anybody in PSG's team. Equally, Willian is in the form of his life and put in another stellar display against Newcastle in which he scored one and made another. Even more encouragingly, it was great to see Pedro Rodriguez recapture some of his early season promise with a performance full of drive, dynamism and end product. The two goals might have taken the headlines, but it was his overall work rate at both ends of the pitch and his intelligent decision-making that were particularly impressive. And if PSG grant Cesc Fabregas as much time and space as Newcastle did, he will pick apart their defence with his exquisite distribution.
The one question mark surrounds Eden Hazard. The Belgian has been well below par this season, and despite some more positive signs of late, there remain some concerns. Against Newcastle, he produced more backheels than one could count, though it is hard to remember him actually trying to beat a defender, an act that used to be his trademark. Although he kept the ball moving well enough, his close-range trickery and ability to carve a situation out of nothing is his reason for being in the team. Without that, he is just another player. His total lack of confidence in front of goal is now almost getting silly. Having been played in with an inch-perfect pass by Fabregas on Saturday, Hazard dithered with ball rather than taking a shot and the chance was spurned to leave him once again with his head in his hands.
All of this would not be so frustrating if he hadn't just given an interview to Le Parisien in which he admitted that "it would difficult to say no to PSG." Now this might just be a classic case of trying to destabilise the opposition in the build-up to a big match, but one would hope that at 25 he was old and wise enough not be drawn into creating such headlines. It would also help if his mind was focused on remedying his current form rather than considering his next move.
The perfect answer to his critics and for his own malaise would be for the old Eden Hazard to make an appearance on Tuesday night. The genius has been seen in glimpses this season, and he retains the ability to win a game on his own. If Chelsea are to get through this tie, they will need their superstar to finally start playing like one.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.