PARIS — Struggling striker Edinson Cavani came off the bench to score the winner as Paris Saint-Germain beat Chelsea 2-1 in a pulsating first leg in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.
Cavani, who has lost his place in the side in recent weeks, latched onto a superb pass over Chelsea’s stretched defence from winger Angel Di Maria and slotted through the legs of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois from a narrow angle in the 78th minute.
MORE ON THE UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: Window closing on PSG’s old guard in Europe || Photo gallery: 10 to watch in Champions League || Photo gallery: Round of 16 matchups || Molinaro: Barca team to beat in Champions League || Sportsnet panel: Champions League picks and predictions || Does Zidane have the nous to manage Real Madrid?
"I’m happy for Eddy. I’ve said it often, because people doubt his scoring abilities, but he’s always shown he can score goals," PSG coach Laurent Blanc said. "He was going through a very difficult period and I hope that scoring this goal gives him his confidence back."
Zlatan Ibrahimovic put PSG ahead with a powerful free-kick in the 39th minute, only for Chelsea to level on the stroke of halftime with a rare goal from midfielder John Obi Mikel.
Courtois made a string of saves to keep Chelsea in contention heading into the second leg, and Spanish winger Pedro almost spoiled the home celebrations in injury time with a rasping drive into the side netting.
"This is a very strong PSG, so I think the performance of our players was very good," Chelsea coach Guus Hiddink said. "But we could have been more lethal in the four or five counters that we made."
PSG is unbeaten in domestic competition since March and in all competitions since a 1-0 reverse away to Real Madrid in the group stage on Nov. 3 — a run of 23 games.
Still, Blanc’s side could regret a host of missed chances and Chelsea will fancy its chances at Stamford Bridge in three weeks’ time.
"It’s up to us to go and score at Stamford Bridge, we will get chances and we must take them," Blanc said.
In the night’s other match, Benfica beat Zenit St. Petersburg 1-0 in Lisbon thanks to an injury-time goal from Brazilian striker Jonas.
Chelsea knocked out PSG in the quarterfinals two years ago and PSG won when they met at the same stage last season — with both ties settled on away goals.
PSG’s preparations for the match were rocked by a scandal involving right back Serge Aurier, who was suspended by the club for insulting Blanc and some teammates in an expletive-filled online video.
But Blanc’s side came out with plenty of energy, with midfielder Marco Verratti forcing a save from Courtois and Brazilian winger Lucas shooting wide.
Chelsea’s makeshift defence — missing injured centre-halves John Terry and Kurt Zouma — was often caught in two minds, whether to sit back or push up on their opponents.
Thankfully for the visitors, left back Cesar Azpilicueta cut out Di Maria’s defence-splitting pass to Lucas as he was breaking into the area.
But the visitors almost took a shock lead in the 23rd only for PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp to brilliantly push Diego Costa’s header onto the crossbar following left back Abdul Baba Rahman’s drifting cross.
PSG attacked next, but Ibrahimovic — having done well to peel off his marker — delivered a poor downward header that startled Courtois only because it was so weak.
Di Maria wasted another opportunity, but the breakthrough came after Lucas was fouled by Mikel some 25 metres out, and Ibrahimovic’s powerful free-kick clipped Mikel’s leg and wrong-footed Courtois.
Ibrahimovic’s intense joy at scoring was understandable, too, given that he was harshly sent off during the first half in the second leg last season.
But PSG’s defence, so rarely tested in the French league, paid the price for poor marking when Costa rose brilliantly above Ibrahimovic to flick on a corner, the ball fell to Mikel and he blasted past Trapp.
"I think the big regret tonight is conceding this goal right on halftime," Blanc said. "I was quite angry about that. We gave the ball away four or five times before their goal."
While Ibrahimovic scores for fun, it was Mikel’s seventh goal in 361 career club appearances.
Chelsea’s gleeful support chanted "You’re not singing anymore" and from the restart, Chelsea could have scored again when Willian played in Costa. But he opened his foot too much, allowing Trapp to guess the angle of his shot.
Courtois was much busier, stopping efforts from Di Maria and Ibrahimovic and unlocking his giant frame to superbly palm away Di Maria’s curling shot.
But Cavani pounced to hand Hiddink his first defeat since replacing Jose Mourinho in mid-December.
"Of course a defeat is never a good or nice feeling, but scoring away is always good," Hiddink said. "We are still in the race."