Chelsea vs PSG: Diego Costa plays the villain but his exit is Chelsea’s final act

'The Fraud', as he was called by PSG's Twitter feed, was very much the Real Thing

There was not much entente cordiale at Stamford Bridge last night, on or off the pitch. Two criticisms of a European Super League is that such an artificial concept will not produce the rivalries competitive sport thrives upon and, perhaps contradictorily, that fans will be bored with playing the same teams each year. 

Last night’s match suggested otherwise. This was the third successive season Chelsea and Paris St Germain have been drawn together in a Champions League knock-out tie and atmosphere at Stamford Bridge confirmed familiarity has bred not ennui but enmity.

While some way short of the levels of aggression likely to be seen at Anfield tomorrow night this cross-channel conflict of arrivistes still fizzed with friction. Fans traded insults while players, allowed free rein by a German referee who clearly believed football is ‘a man’s game’, exchanged ankle taps, shoulder barges and worse.

This approach was doubtless savoured both by the Chelsea fan who kept shouting ‘hit ‘im’ whenever Zlatan Ibrahimovic was on the ball, and by Diego Costa. The ‘Fraud’, as he was called on PSG’s official twitter feed pre-match, was very much the Real Thing last night. 

The devilry was there –notably in a sly kick that felled Ibrahimovic –  but it was controlled. He focussed most of his energy in unsettling the visitors legally. Together with Willian, cleverly switched to the centre to curtail Thiago Motta’s influence, he harried the French champions, seeking to punish a confidence that, after Adrien Rabiot’s goal, spilled over into arrogant complacency.

That was punctured by Costa’s equaliser, swept home after beautifully turning Thiago Silva.

The way the striker took the goal underlined his renewed self-belief. This is the player who, in the dog days of Jose Mourinho’s reign, could be seen trying to avoid the penalty area for fear he would be put into a position where he was expected to score. Now he eagerly seeks the forward’s coal face.

Gloved like a burglar, with a desperado’s beard and trim, Costa is a villain from central casting and relishes it. That he is one of those players opposition fans hate and home ones love was underlined by the ovation he received when had to depart early, left lame by the tendon injury he carried into the game. For all the pre-match taunting Silva and David Luiz were pleased to see him go. With the villain out of the way the stage was set for the leading man to justify top billing.  

Ibrahimovic has the build, deportment and stature of a matinee idol. He is the star and he knows it. There is an elegance and insouciance about his play borne of a dozen league titles and a decade being idolised. 

His first involvement last night was a clattering by Branislav Ivanovic which brought a look that suggested Ibrahimovic felt the Serb was being disrespectful. His second involved him spinning away from a confused Gary Cahill to lay on Rabiot’s goal. Thereafter he was frequently, and always classily, involved in the build-up play, but less often at the sharp end, spurning one chance around the hour mark due to a rare bad touch.

There was, however, nothing wrong with his touch when Angel Di Maria whipped over a left-wing cross after 68 minutes. The conversion was deadly, the celebration joyous. With a 4-2 advantage only PSG knew they could only be undone by their own complacency.

So Paris march on, hoping to break new ground and reach the semi-finals, and beyond. For Chelsea next season looks likely to be their first without Champions League football since 2003 – the season before Roman Abramovich arrived. Indeed, if they do not win the FA Cup it will be their first out of Europe in 20 years.

The shock of missing out on Champions League football is what has led the likes of Milan to begin agitating for a closed super league. There will be some in the court of Abramovich who might suggest supporting such a development because as the new TV deal takes effect it will become increasingly hard for the ‘big’ English club to qualify for the Champions League. Indeed, by 2020 it may become harder to qualify than to win it.

That may seem fanciful given the Champions League struggles of English clubs this season but football economics dictates that, in the short term at least, this competition will be between a cluster of domestically dominant superclubs from the Continent and the exhausted, but monied English. 

From Europe will come Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Paris St Germain, occasionally supplemented due to shrewd management by Juventus, Milan or Atletico Madrid plus, eventually, the wealthy Russians.

From these shores will come Chelsea, the Manchester clubs, Arsenal and, once their rebuilt stadia are paid for, Tottenham and Liverpool. Plus whoever is the next club acquired by an ambitious multi-millionaire (and Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha has the funds to put Leicester into this bracket if he wants). 

 The challenge for the English clubs, amid the constant combat of the Premier League, is keeping their players fresh to compete in Europe. Until they do that nights like this will continue.

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