In the third successive year that Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea have been drawn against each other in the Champions League, the battle managed to live up to the lofty expectations set by previous meetings, producing yet another tense affair with the patented breathtaking ending.
When it comes to series between these two, it is especially true that the games themselves are done an injustice by focusing on the scoreline alone. In 2014, PSG won 3-1 in the scintillating home match, only to lose 2-nil in the away fixture -- going out thanks to the remarkably silly away goals rule. The next year saw the teams tie in both legs, first 1-1 and then 2-2, with PSG progressing. Where PSG and Chelsea are concerned, a rout in one match isn't predictive of the next and ties provide redemption in lieu of victories.
The last 2-2 draw in 2015 especially epitomized the dramatic nature of their ties. That game was marked by Zlatan Ibrahimovic's early dismissal via a straight red card. A late header from David Luiz canceled out Gary Cahill's opener and forced extra time. Then came the epic of Thiago Silva: The Captain gave away a handball penalty that Eden Hazard converted. Chelsea looked to be through. But, there was still time for more drama.
PSG won a corner a few minutes later on the right side, which was drifted in and powered toward goal by Silva, who was desperate to redeem himself. A Thibaut Courtois finger-tip save denied it from going into the bottom-left corner. But if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. The ensuing corner from the left was met again by the same man, this time he made no mistake in burying it out of the reach of the keeper, driving himself, the team and the fans into a fit of jubilance and near madness.
Which brings us to this year's edition of the matchup. Neither Gary Cahill, Eden Hazard, David Luiz nor Thiago Silva scored in this game, yet there were still redemptive stories to be told.
The match was once again dominated by the French side, who are dripping in riches in terms of quality; it seems almost insulting that a team could substitute Lucas Moura, Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi and replace them with Edinson Cavani, Adrien Rabiot and Javier Pastore. Chelsea were utterly overwhelmed to begin with, forcing them to play to the counter by design and because, they simply had no other choice. The conclusion seemed foregone: PSG would score, and score a lot.
Then Baba Rahman -- world class in name, not too much in skill -- provided an inch-perfect cross that evaded the head of David Luiz and was met by Diego Costa in the box. The forward tried to head it back across goal and out of the reach of Kevin Trapp. The keeper, wrong-footed, still managed to tip the ball into and over the crossbar to save the sterile scoreline.
All of a sudden, the narrative of a dominant PSG side winning handily was threatened by that of a resilient Chelsea team defending brilliantly and stealing a win.
Zlatan would not have it. The big Swede who had to watch his team progress last year from the locker room, was tasked with taking the resultant free kick after Lucas Moura -- who plays more like Eden Hazard than Hazard does these days -- beat and was fouled by John Obi Mikel. He took the non-traditional route, driving it low and hard toward the jumping wall. The ball takes a deflection, beats Courtois and puts Laurent Blanc's man 1-nil up. A player scorned for his ineptitude in the Champions League, at least for one match, atones for his failures.
Mikel on the other end was distraught. Long a peripheral figure at Chelsea, he had been looked at to provide calm as the club and Nemanja Matic began crumbling. And he had done well. Really well. Yet this night looked to undo him. Bad enough that he was chasing shadows in midfield, he was also responsible for the foul that led to the PSG goal. The expected abuse of his uselessness had begun to pour through the internet.
With the last attack of the half, the heavens presented him with a chance to restore his dignity. A Chelsea corner, delivered to the near-post was flicked into the middle by Diego Costa. The ball finds the thigh of the Nigerian in the crowded space. He let it drop to his right foot and, turning to face the goal, blasted it into and almost through the net. The reborn midfielder wheeled away in celebration before the whistle deemed the half to be done.
The game continued in the same fashion after the break: PSG attacking non-stop and the Chelsea defense sacrificing sense and body in order to block the constant shots on goal.
And as the clocked ticked towards the end, and the game deadlocked once again, the stage was set for a final act of redemption. Ángel di María, the scourge of Manchester United, was bought by the Parisian club for these critical moments. To push PSG beyond the realm of simple contenders and into the realistic space of winning the Champions League. He would prove his mettle by providing the assist to a man who had as much to prove as anyone else.
Edinson Cavani, misused frequently and abused even more, was the recipient. The striker, maligned for his wastefulness and inability to establish a place in the team, came into the match for Lucas Moura. And hardly five minutes on the pitch, he made a run beyond the central defenders that was spotted by the Argentine. The stringy winger then played an exquisite ball over the defense that fell into a tight angle on the right side of the box. Courtois rushed out to close down Cavani. Most of the world expected the Uruguayan to bottle the chance.
Cavani would not be the butt of anyone's jokes though, not in this match, and so he blasted a precise finish between the legs of the keeper and into the goal to give PSG the final lead of the game.
In one match alone, several players were given and had taken the chance to rewrite their own narratives -- just as they have done in the other meetings. It has become typical of these games to not only be hard-fought but in the span of 90 minutes, to provide a stage for the dramatic and the redemptive. All which can fall apart when they meet for the return leg. Because if the history of this particular matchup has taught us anything, it's that the line between heroes, villains and scapegoats is blurred by opportunity.