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That Edinson Cavani was clinical enough to poke a shot past the opposing goalkeeper and Diego Costa wasn’t is the reason why Paris St Germain have a 2-1 aggregate lead to defend when they head to Chelsea in March for the return leg of their Champions League second-round tie.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, scorer of PSG’s first goal on the night, found space and wedged a lofted pass which Cavani controlled and slipped under Thibaut Courtois for the winner. It came as a blow to Chelsea who more than held their own in the French capital, going close minutes prior to Cavani’s goal through Oscar and passing up that golden opportunity with Costa early in the second half.
Supplying Costa with that chance, which he failed to hoist over Kevin Trapp in the PSG goal, was Willian who was again his tireless self on the night Chelsea needed him to be.
One of the few players to come out of the Jose Mourinho-half of this campaign with any credit at Stamford Bridge, the Brazilian will see little competition for Chelsea’s player of the season award and in Paris, positioned behind Costa by Mourinho’s successor Guus Hiddink, he was outstanding as the spearhead of Chelsea’s counter-attacks.
Relentless and talismanic
In a defensive sense he was typically relentless in his desire to aid his rear-guard and the only blemish of Willian’s evening was his erratic set-piece delivery, out of character for a player who has scored directly from four free-kicks in this season’s Champions League, but he did whip in the corner that led to John Obi Mikel’s crucial away goal.
It was those set-piece efforts and talismanic performances that guided Chelsea through the uncertain waters of the group stages during the tumultuous latter days of Mourinho and with the 27 year-old still in fine form and immediately looking at home in a role behind the striker, Hiddink will be confident of seeing his team overcoming PSG’s slender lead when they visit Stamford Bridge in March.
That game will come in the middle of a season-defining period for Chelsea which begins with this weekend’s FA Cup fifth-round tie with Manchester City. Hiddink won that competition the last time he performed caretaker duties at Stamford Bridge and a repeat will salvage some much-needed pride after a torrid first-half of the campaign.
A Champions League spot is beyond them domestically but they will target reigning in a Europa League place having positioned themselves to within 8 points of an inconsistent Manchester United having not yet lost in the league under Hiddink.
Ever-present and crucial
Willian, who has failed to make an appearance in only one of Chelsea’s 26 league games so far and has started 23 of them, seemingly immune to the exhaustion of a gruelling English domestic season, will be a vital factor to this forthcoming pivotal run of fixtures.
It has been his galloping runs on the right side of Chelsea’s three-pronged attacking midfield that has been a consistent factor in their campaign, the driver of transition between defence and attack with his direct runs with the ball that have always been synonymous with the bushy-haired Brazilian but now come with end product that may formerly have been found lacking from his game; He has four goals and four assists in the league and is Chelsea’s most productive chance creator with 57.
Last season’s PFA player of the year Eden Hazard has travailed with a drastic drop in form while Cesc Fabregas and Costa also struggled with the expectations of a title defence, Willian has seized the mantle as Chelsea’s main man.
With Mourinho’s demands for diligent tracking back seemingly innate, the Blues can expect the same boundless industry off the ball from the Brazilian regardless of how advanced Hiddink fields him.
“To outplay their midfield one on one” was how the Dutch manager explained his decision to play Willian behind the striker in Paris and with an ability to brush past players with pace, see his lung-busting run that released Costa for the game’s pivotal moment against Arsenal at the Emirates or his incisive stride into the box to net against Newcastle, it will not be a surprise to see him there more often as the season reaches its conclusion.
The energetic box-to-box running and the freshly gained guile in the final third will be vital to Chelsea’s run-in, most significantly in the second leg against PSG.
Wherever that tie or Chelsea’s eventful season takes them next, their running-man Willian will surely get the recognition that he doesn’t attract easily but thoroughly deserves for his season-long efforts.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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