Inevitably, when two squads as expensively assembled as Chelsea's and Paris Saint-Germain's are pitted against each other in the glamour of the Champions League, the focus will be on the attacking stars. Eden Hazard has a chance to prove his burgeoning quality against elite opposition, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic takes on Jose Mourinho in a thrilling battle of the egos.
But the man who may well prove the most influential in this, the most intriguing of the four quarterfinal ties, is one who will not be on the pitch. Nemanja Matic is cup-tied in Europe after turning out for Benfica earlier this season – indeed, he did so twice against PSG in the group stages (and beat the French side once) but there will be no repeat of his clash.
|MAT THEIR BEST
|2013-14 PREMIER LEAGUE STATS
|83 (7.5 p/g)
||88 (3.8 p/g)
|45.5%||KEPT CLEAN SHEET
|All statistics via Opta|
For all of PSG's mouth-watering forward line, partnering Ibrahimovic with Edinson Cavani, the club's midfield has arguably been its most impressive feature this season. The central trio of Blaise Matuidi, Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta have been superb in Laurent Blanc's possession-based game, with remarkable passing statistics illustrating the team's dominance.
All three are in the top 10 for individual pass-completion rates in Europe's top five leagues, with Motta behind only Xavi and Fiorentina's Matias Fernandez with a quite magnificent 92.6 percent accuracy. Matuidi (91.8 percent) and Verratti (91.6 percent) are not far behind – and those statistics get higher, not lower, in Champions League play.
Chelsea does not play in quite the same way. The club is among the best in employing counterattacking tactics – but, to counterattack, one does have to take the ball from one's opponent. Breaking that triangle will be a huge task and all signs point to it being much harder without Matic.
The Serbian has immediately become first choice following his return to Stamford Bridge. Since he made his debut, Jose Mourinho has handed the 25-year-old nine Premier League starts, alongside Ramires, who has only made as few as seven due to suspension. Frank Lampard (four) is the principal back-up, with Jon Obi Mikel only featuring once in the first XI in that time.
It has had a clear impact. Chelsea is demonstrably harder to beat with Matic on the pitch, keeping clean sheets in the league 45.5 percent of the time with the Serbian in the side, compared to 35.7 percent with Ramires and just 26.1 percent and 23.8 percent with Lampard and Mikel, respectively. Given the dominance of the Matic-Ramires partnership, it is safe to say that the Brazilian's numbers are likely to fall again when facing PSG with either other by his side.
Only in one game (against Manchester City in the FA Cup) have the Blues let in more than one goal with Matic in the team, and the Serbian has yet to see one conceded from outside the box, his presence forcing opponents to penetrate the back line more carefully and precisely.
At its most simple, Chelsea has conceded 0.9 goals per league game without Matic in the team and 0.63 with him.
Part of this is due to the extra dimension that the returning midfielder gives Mourinho's engine room. At 6'4", Matic is four inches taller than Lampard and five taller than Ramires, the likely pairing in his absence. While his success rate in aerial duels is, at 54.2 percent to 51.4 percent, only slightly better than the Brazilian's, he has already engaged in 59 such duels over his 11 league games, doing so 5.4 times per match compared to just 2.6 from his teammate. Lampard has won 60 percent of his duels but averages fewer than one per game. You have to be in an aerial duel to win it, after all, and Matic provides that extra barrier.
That dimension does not come at the cost of passing utility, either. Matic has a 82.7 percent pass accuracy, ahead of Lampard (82 percent) and not far behind Ramires (83.6 percent) and Mikel (89.7 percent). Yet, when the ball is lost, Matic makes 7.5 recoveries per game compared to Ramires (6.6), Lampard (3.8) and Mikel (3.4), as well as 2.4 interceptions per game to Ramires's 0.9, Lampard's 0.7 and Mikel's round one.
All in all, Matic has brought a distinct physical and defensive edge to the Chelsea midfield since his€25 million euro comeback. While the likes of Hazard may well be able to decide this game with a moment of brilliance, the Serbian's absence will likely force him to conjure such a moment from fewer chances in possession. That could prove the difference.
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