Wednesday 24 January 2018

Costa snarls and Ibrahimovic strolls as clash of two strikers takes centre stage in City of Light

Chelsea striker Diego Costa clashes with Paris Saint-Germain's David Luiz during their Champions League round-of-16 encounter at Parc des Princes. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Chelsea striker Diego Costa clashes with Paris Saint-Germain's David Luiz during their Champions League round-of-16 encounter at Parc des Princes. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Jim White

This was advertised as the game of the centre-forwards, the clash between two of Europe's most potent attacking forces. Though as it turned out neither were on the scoresheet.

Nor indeed were Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Diego Costa anywhere in the vicinity when the game's two goals were netted by Branislav Ivanovic and Edinson Cavani. But their presence was absolutely crucial to the action.

To allow the gaze to move from either of them was to risk missing the central part of the night's drama unfold.

This time last year, Jose Mourinho came into a Champions League tie here in Paris bemoaning his lack of a strike force.

So thin were his attacking resources, he had come here with Andre Schurrle as his front man, the falsest of false number nines. His position was not strengthened by the fact at centre-back he had David Luiz, the falsest of false number fives.

Mourinho doesn't have that issue now. Not with Costa, the Premier League's leading goalscorer, at the point of his attack. And not with Luiz sold to PSG for a hefty bundle of Qatari lucre.

Though being Mourinho, obviously he could find a thick black tinge in the most silvery of cloud linings.

He might have Costa back in his starting line up, but he insisted the player's recent FA imposed ban for stamping issues had deprived him of game time. Some players thrive on a rest, claimed the Chelsea boss, but his Spanish Brazilian isn't one of them.

You wouldn't have known it from the way Costa set about his evening's work in Parc des Princes

He was everywhere, a tireless worker for his manager. And he needed to be. Ramires starting the game ahead of Oscar was a hint that Mourinho was keen to ensure last season's embarrassment here, when they lost 3-1, was not to be repeated.

If not exactly parking the bus (which wouldn't have been easy given the Chelsea transport had managed to snag itself on the runway into the stadium's underground car park) the manager was demanding much more defensive coherence.

It meant Costa was alone up front. But his brief was clear: keep the opposition defence occupied with movement. He did that to the letter.

This is a man who can make something of the most desperate of hit and hope clearance, charging after it with a bull-like snort. He was constantly mobile, constantly available.

Which are two virtues to which his opposite number Ibrahimovic would not readily aspire.

The PSG No 10 came into this match wearing a pair of unsponsored black boots with the words "805 million" stencilled on to the side. This, he was keen to let us know, was a reference to the number of starving people there are in the world, rather than the terms of his next contract.

Anyone with binoculars would not have had much trouble reading the inscription. Let's just say the Ibrahimovic boots were not exactly a blur of movement.

While Costa buzzed and infuriated, quickly shedding his gloves as he heated up with all his work, Ibrahimovic strolled.

While PSG's centre-backs Marquinhos and Thiago Silva spent much of the game looking over the shoulder to see where the Chelsea No 19 had slipped off to, their Chelsea equivalents Gary Cahill and John Terry knew that if they stayed put, Ibrahimovic would be right alongside them.

That said, the Swede may not be quick over the turf, but his speed of thought is magnificent to watch in action.

The pace of his passes, the accuracy of his delivery meant that when he did break, and then spun the ball forward to Ezequiel Lavezzi, there was no need for him to move at Usain Bolt pace.

This is a player who lets the ball do the work. The giant Swede's power, too, is something to behold. Early in the game, Cahill attempted to haul him to the ground. His muscular presence resisted and he won a free-kick. How the crowd, chorusing 'Ibra, Ibra', were stirred by that.

And his gallop through the Chelsea defence in the second half, ending in a shot that Thibaut Courtois parried with his legs, was a perfect distillation of his ability to wreak havoc.

Costa meanwhile did not stop fizzing and boiling. And how he likes a confrontation. While Ibrahimovic seemingly wants to bring peace to the world, Costa appears to like nothing better than to fight it. When, midway through the first half Cesc Fabregas upended David Luiz, the Spaniard was all conciliatory, full of handshakes and hair ruffles.

Then Costa arrived to chuck a couple of alka seltzer into calming waters. He bundled in and said something inflammatory. Later he was to push Luiz in the chest.

Such was his effort, it was no wonder, when he made way for Loic Remy with ten minutes remaining, he looked utterly spent, his effort to leave his stamp on this game exhausting him.

Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, barely looked to have broken sweat. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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