Champions League: Re-energised Paris Saint-Germain look to move past the ghosts of Barcelona against Real Madrid
Even though the hysteria around the club has died down a bit, PSG enter the Round of 16 tie against Real Madrid as favourites.
Paris Saint-Germain’s wait ends now. Ever since FC Barcelona stunned the French club in last season's Round of 16, the UEFA Champions League has ceased to be the Parisian outfit's outright aim alone. The competition is now PSG's obsession.
On Wednesday, when Les Parisiens travel to Madrid for their first leg encounter, they will come up against a side which often exalts iteslf through the lens of the continental tournament. Much of Real Madrid's aura is drawn from their triumphs on the European stage. PSG wish that they could bask in the same glory.
Yet, the French club have never moved past the quarters. To right the wrongs on the continental front, last summer, PSG undertook the project Madrid once mastered – the unyielding pursuit of star names. Les Galactiques, if you like. The intent was swiftly transformed into performance as PSG set a new record for goals scored in the group stage – 25 in six matches. The front three of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe justified the initial hype around them.
Even though the hysteria has died down a bit, PSG enter the Round of 16 tie as the favourites. The wounds from last season's harrowing collapse are fresh but the club is convinced that the surgery over the summer has prepared the team well. But Unai Emery has never really convinced some observers in the French capital and his future at the club hinges on this tie.
Acquiring domestic trophies is considered to be a bare minimum at PSG; the Spanish coach can choose to continue his association with the team only if he takes them to the semifinals at least, according to a clause in his contract. Fortunately for Emery, he could not have chosen to play Real Madrid in a better moment.
The back-to-back Champions League triumphs have receded into the background at the Bernabeu. Zinedine Zidane, like Emery, is fighting for his job. Unlike PSG, though, the Champions League is all that Madrid have to play for this season. Such has been the drop in standards that any other manager would have probably been sacked by now.
But the accumulated silverware over the past two seasons has bought Zidane some time. Not enough, though, to override a disastrous season. It does not help Zidane that Madrid have not just played poorly; they has also regressed as a team. At a club where even stagnancy gets one punished, the side's dip this season will be viewed as nothing short of criminal.
The tactics have mirrored the shift. After discovering the key to control by employing Isco in a 4-3-1-2 setup last season, Zidane has gone back to the front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema. Consequently, familiar issues have resurfaced as Madrid once again look like the counter-attacking side of old but without adequate pace or direction to trouble opponents.
Zidane's greater problems, though, have arisen at the back. Marcelo's poor fitness level, Raphael Varane's injury-forced absences and, crucially, Sergio Ramos' disappointing form have wrought trouble as opposition sides have caught the defence cold throughout this campaign. Nacho has been the rare positive among the defenders but it seems like he will play out of position on Wednesday as right-back Daniel Carvajal is missing.
When things were rosy, Zidane could turn the bad phases around by subtle tactical or personnel shifts. But he seems to be out of his depth this season. Following the departure of Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez, the solutions from the bench have whittled down too. The simple strategies seem simplistic now.
Emery will recognise some of the criticism faced by Zidane as he has been a target of similar arguments in the past. But he has enjoyed a fruitful season as his work with young players and his preference for form over reputation has brought rewards. Adrien Rabiot has improved by leaps and bounds in his midfield role of a controller while the emergence of Presnel Kimpembe, Giovani Lo Celso and Alphonse Areola is a credit to Emery.
However, defensive midfield remains an issue for PSG and this could hurt the side against Madrid. The failure to find a permanent solution to this problem saw Emery sanction the signature of journeyman Lassana Diarra, who was a free agent, last month. Diarra may even start on Wednesday since Thiago Motta is injured and Lo Celso still lacks the experience at this level.
In fact, tactical conundrums are spread across the pitch for Emery – Laywin Kurzawa or the more defensive-minded Yuri Berchiche at left-back? Will in-form Angel Di Maria start in midfield, in attack or on the bench? Should the front three comprise of Mbappe, Cavani and Neymar?
The answers to these questions will go a long way to reveal the confidence posed by Emery in his players. On current form, Di Maria could easily slot in as one of the midfielders even if the manager chooses to pick his stellar trio of strikers. Yet, Emery has remained reluctant to play the Argentine alongside Rabiot and Marco Verratti.
If Di Maria is not positioned in the midfield, he could very well find himself on the bench. Although that would mean the famed MCN will start, it would still be a mockery of the playmaker's recent form which has seen him score nine times and assist seven goals in his previous nine appearances for the club. After starting the season on the bench, Di Maria has experienced a reawakening. To what end, one wonders.
The matchup against Madrid is going to stretch Emery's tactical imagination. Will he opt for a defensive outlook or will he show that it is PSG which holds the advantage before the kick-off? The answer from Emery may decide where this tie goes. The manager may have resolved a difficult situation earlier this season by defusing the tension between Neymar and Cavani but there are stiffer tests to come.
When PSG's players arrive in the club's own bus at the Bernabeu, they will hope to emulate the message sent out in an official statement by their bosses. "PSG have reached new dimensions. We are now at the same level as the biggest European clubs. This bus is a symbol."
The message has been obvious for a while as the bus has transported the players to their every continental destination this season. As the French club seeks to assert its credentials, what better statement of intent can there be than knocking out the side which became the first ever team to successfully defend the Champions League title last season?
PSG believes they are ready. It is now time to show that things have indeed changed in the past 12 months.
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