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The night PSG’s ‘mercenaries’ became football ‘heroes’

The front page of L'Equipe, France's leading sports daily, features a picture of PSG captain Thiago Silva with the headline "Heroic"

The extraordinary manner in which 10-man Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) dumped a sorry Chelsea out of the Champions League has won the grudging respect and admiration of football fans on both sides of the Channel.

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Neutral fans of the “beautiful game” could hardly have thought of a more unpopular match-up than the one offered at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. It was a billionaires’ affair pitting Russian petrodollars against Qatari petrodollars and featuring some of the most ridiculously well-paid and arrogant players (think PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and managers (think Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho) in the game.

Barring their own fans, there is little love for either club in their respective countries. PSG are often described as a motley band of “mercenaries” lured by big money who somehow struggle to beat French league minnows with a fraction of their budget. Chelsea’s image has also been tarnished by the riches of its Russian tycoon owner, coupled with a well-deserved reputation for playing scrappy, negative football. Nor have the fans done much to endear us to their team, as last month’s infamous racist taunts by Chelsea fans in the Paris metro showed. As the players stepped onto the pitch last night, it was hard to find a side to root for.

By most accounts what followed was an ugly, bad-tempered encounter as rich in foul play as it was lacking in goal-scoring chances. Referee Bjorn Kuipers deserves much of the blame for turning the match into a pitched battle with his reckless decision to show Ibrahimovic a straight red after 30 minutes of play – the first in a long series of refereeing blunders. It was another triumph of cunning for Chelsea’s Mourinho, whose customary mind games ahead of the match, when he slammed PSG’s supposed aggression, combined with his players’ disgraceful gesticulations after the foul, no doubt influenced the referee.

With an irate PSG down to 10 men and threatening to lose more, few would have put their money on the visitors. The home team should have run riot. Instead, they produced a limp and miserable display of negativity that was shocking even by Mourinho’s standards. Twice the Blues opened the score and twice their diehard opponents hit back, clinching a last-gasp 2-2 draw in extra time that saw the Parisians qualify for the quarter-finals on away goals. Mercifully, the better team had won.

'Night of ignominy'

British newspapers and pundits rounded on Chelsea and their manager following their elimination. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter said "there will be little sorrow for their departure outside Stamford Bridge", beneath a headline branding the evening a "night of ignominy". On Sky Sports, former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher laid the blame at Mourinho's door, accusing the Portuguese manager of instilling a negative culture at the club. "Jose Mourinho could end up being the most successful manager ever with the trophies he goes on to win in his career, but I don't think him and his teams will ever be loved because of actions like that,” he said. A comment posted on the Guardian summed up the general mood: “(it) says a lot about Chelsea football club when the majority of the neutrals are celebrating their exit”.

In contrast, British observers were full of praise for the visitors, described as “wonderful”, “spirited” and “thoroughly deserving winners”. PSG earned credit for transforming a dirty tussle into an exhilarating display of craft, muscle and sheer hunger. Italian midfielder Marco Verratti was sublime, bossing the midfield with mesmerising skill, creativity and composure. At the back, the oft-criticised David Luiz produced perhaps his finest performance to date, defending with authority and scoring from a thunderous header to push his former club into extra time. Fellow Brazilian Thiago Silva was equally impressive, his stunning winner in the 114th minute more than making up for a soft penalty conceded a little earlier.

The French press was unanimous in labeling the Parisians “heroic”, and fans of all stripes – including supporters of arch-foes Marseille – flooded the comment sections with words of praise and respect. It was the night Qatar’s star-studded PSG finally came of age. Perhaps more significantly, it was the night football fans found a good reason to applaud them.

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