As Chelsea went into Wednesday's game against Paris Saint-Germain, there was a certain expectation from José Mourinho, one backed up by much of the English press: the match might be tricky because PSG possessed players who can win games out of nothing, and that made them dangerous. The absence of any further discussion implied that PSG had a flimsiness to them, that they lacked the robustness of the likes of Bayern Munich, or Juventus, or even Real Madrid. They would be, in effect, similar to the Madrid of old, back before Mourinho injected pragmatism into the side. But that assumption was a long, long way from the truth.
Obviously, the Parisians' raw quality was not in doubt, but they were nevertheless thoroughly underestimated in England. Ligue 1 does not possess the popularity of any of Europe's big four leagues, and to the English watcher PSG were by far the least familiar of the quarter-finalists. That's despite possessing household names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani, on top of other well-known talents like Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva and Marco Verratti.
Their transfer dealings might have been glitzy — buying Cavani to reinforce their strongest position is hard to describe as anything but a vanity purchase — but looking at transfers alone belies a discipline and steadfastness in the heart of the team that Laurent Blanc has done well to instill. PSG's cohesiveness can at times take on a negative tone; Blanc's been rivaling Mourinho in his knack for suffocating games this season, but thanks to Thiago Silva's silly challenge on Oscar, PSG weren't able to sit comfortably on their 1-0 lead, which would have been their preferred strategy.
Instead they used the full extent of their attacking prowess to seal a 3-1 first leg advantage. The also did it with Ibrahimovic going off injured and Cavani having one of his worst games in years. Blanc has chosen to use the Uruguayan, one of the greatest strikers in the world, as a hard-working winger rather than attempt to fit him and Ibrahimovic into the same team as center forwards. That decision could be perceived as a weakness or narrow-mindedness of management, or needless negativity, but at the moment it seems to be working well, with the obvious alternatives a no-go (Verratti in a two-man midfield? Gregory van der Wiel and Maxwell being asked to cover entire flanks? Not likely).
The idea of PSG being based around individuals is not entirely false. Ibrahimovic is perhaps the most unpredictable world-class talent in football at the moment. He attempts things that most elite players have coached out of them in favour of the ruthless efficiency that marks the modern game. They also have Lucas Moura, an inconsistent attacker but one blessed with the ability to genuinely stretch the boundaries of what is possible in a big game, as evidenced by his mindblowing run which ought to have teed up Cavani on Wednesday. Javier Pastore can — and did — conjure up magic from nowhere. And while it is true that these talents do exist partly in lieu of a more coherent, structured attacking force, the real danger for PSG's opponents comes from the fact that they are simply a very solid, organised outfit.
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Blaise Matuidi is often thought of as a purely defensive midfielder, but his excellent runs from deep and range of passing have allowed his other strengths — tackling, strength, awareness, and stamina — to be an extra luxury, another defensively aware player on the pitch. The same is true of Thiago Motta, and the robust centre ahead of veteran centre-backs and solid-but-unspectacular fullbacks makes the team incredibly hard to break down under Blanc.
Despite settling in as one of the most dangerous sides in Europe, the club appeared to have a touch of the Manchester Citys at the conclusion of Wednesday's match, with hordes of cars loudly tooting horns as they drove away from the Parc des Princes down the various boulevards and avenues of the city. "You're celebrating like a third-tier club that just beat Lorient in the Round of 16 of the French Cup", sniped one tweeter. It's unbecoming of a club that would be among the elite to be behaving in such a manner after gaining an impressive, but not decisive, first-leg victory against a flawed side.
Yet that sort of reaction belies the fact that PSG are already, with great justification, seen as being at that level already in France. It was not a celebration tinged with shock and surprise, but rather one an exuberant exhalation; half-relief and half-smugness at having what was already known confirmed on the big stage. Most clubs that punch above their weight and get to this level will usually suffer a fairly comprehensive destruction in the second leg, but it would be a major shock were that to happen to the Parisians. They may still go out, of course, but they will be favourites to progress, and if they do, their riches and their solid squad means that they must be considered contenders for a long time to come.
Although the likes of AC Milan, Dortmund, Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid have passed into and out of the very top in recent years, PSG will feel that their time among the company of Europe's most prestigious clubs will last for a very long time. They are now just one game away from making that final step.