Champions League: Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspires PSG to victory over Chelsea

Is this the year where Zlatan Ibrahimovic finally gets his hands on the Champions League trophy?

The enigmatic Swedish striker was on form once again Tuesday as he helped Paris Saint-Germain defeat Chelsea 2-1 in the first leg of its last 16 Champions League tie.

At 34, and with his contract set to expire at the end of the season, the forward’s future is yet to be decided.

But a final crack at winning the Champions League looks a real possibility after this latest performance.

Ibrahimovic scored the opening goal of the contest, his 47th in the Champions League, with Edinson Cavani’s late winner handing the French side the advantage.

Jon Obi Mikel’s strike, just his sixth in over 350 games for Chelsea, means the tie is finely poised ahead of the return leg in London on March 9.

Friends reunited

This is the third year in succession that these two clubs have met in the knockout stages of the competition.

In 2014, it was Chelsea which prevailed on away goals after winning 2-0 at Stamford Bridge to wipe out a 3-1 defeat in the first leg.

Last season it was the French side which progressed, courtesy of a 2-2 draw in London after the first game had ended 1-1.

Throw in the fact that Ibrahimovic was sent off in that game and PSG came through courtesy of Thiago Silva’s 114th minute equalizer, it’s not difficult to see why this was such a highly anticipated clash.

Chelsea struggles

For Chelsea, winning the competition is the only hope it has of ensuring it plays Champions League football next season.

Chelsea, 12th in the Premier League, are 14 points off the final qualification spot with 12 games remaining.

Its dreadful start to the season, which came just months after it had won the domestic league title, ultimately led to Jose Mourinho losing his job as manager.

Now, under the guidance of Guus Hiddink, who enjoyed success during his previous tenure as interim manager, Chelsea are beginning to get back on track.

On Saturday it thrashed Newcastle 5-1 to stretch its unbeaten run to 12 games ahead of the trip to Paris.

PSG, with just one home defeat in its past 37 European games, is enjoying a hugely successful domestic season.

It sits top of the domestic league, unbeaten, and is 24 points clear of its nearer challenger.

PSG power

So it was little surprise that the home side started confidently with Marco Verratti, who signed a new contract earlier this week, unleashing a fierce effort which was well saved by Thibaut Courtois in the Chelsea goal.

While the home side dominated the opening exchanges, Chelsea, which secured a 1-1 draw in Paris at the same stage of the competition last year, slowly began to find its rhythm.

And it should have moved ahead in the 22nd minute too. Baba Rahman, the Chelsea defender, crossed from the left and when Diego Costa met the ball with a thumping header, Kevin Trapp, the PSG goalkeeper, somehow got a hand on the ball to turn it onto the crossbar.

It was a wonderful reaction save from Trapp and it was to prove crucial to his side’s chances of success as PSG made the breakthrough with six minutes of the half remaining.

Ibrahimovic, who had missed a relatively simple header earlier in the half, was of course the man to score it.

A foul by Mikel on Lucas Moura afforded Ibrahimovic to take aim from 25-yards and the forward obliged by unleashing an effort which took a deflection before finding its way past Courtois.

Chelsea, which had appeared fairly comfortable, kept its composure and moved level on the stroke of halftime.

Mikel, culpable for both the foul and the deflection form which PSG scored, was the man to fire home the equalizer, meeting Costa’s flick on at the near post, which had taken a touch off no other than Ibrahimovic.

That goal, just the sixth Mikel had managed in 10 years, was the first PSG had conceded in this season’s Champions League.

PSG, who had won 16 games in succession before last weekend’s goalless draw against Lille, appeared rattled.

Within minutes of the restart, Chelsea was on the front foot once again with Trapp producing a fine save to deny Costa after the forward had run clear on goal.

Any predictions of a close, tense and tight game were soon made to look foolish as PSG began to move forward at will.

First, Angel di Maria, the former Manchester United winger, forced Courtois into a fine save before Ibrahimovic was also thwarted by the Belgian.

PSG, by now playing with the same level of intensity which it had shown during the early stages of the contest, continued to threaten.

Courtois, who reached the final of this champion while at Atletico Madrid in 2014, was called into action once again to prevent Moura’s shot finding the net.

Gary Cahill, who performed admirably at the heart of the Chelsea defense, then produced a fine block to deflect Blaise Matuidi’s effort to safety with the midfielder seemingly certain to score.

PSG had thrown everything at the Chelsea defense and just as it appeared the visitors had escaped unscathed, Cavani pounced.

A delightful through ball by di Maria split the visiting defense and Cavani run through to fire the ball past Courtois.

The home side almost added a third in the final minute when Ibrahimovic stole in at the far post but his effort was smothered by Courtois.

“It was a very difficult game we needed to try to play our game and score the away goal,” Branislav Ivanovic, the Chelsea defender, told BT Sport.

“They scored which was massive for them, but we kept going. We know has to do everything to win at home and go through.”

Benfica held

Benfica left it late to see off Zenit St Petersburg in the first leg of its last 16 clash.

The Portuguese side, which last won the trophy in 1962, was unable to find a way past its Russian opponent until the final minute of the contest.

Zenit appeared set to held out before Domenico Criscito was sent off in the final minute after picking up a second yellow card.

And from the resulting free kick, Jonas found space to power home a dramatic winner.

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