Champions League: Real Madrid vs PSG – Lineup, Preview and Prediction
The most eagerly anticipated match of the Round of 16, this match sees two of the favourites for the Champions League pitched against one another.
19:45 GMT, Wednesday 14th February, Bernabeu (Madrid, Spain), BT Sport
As far as narratives go, this is one of the most generative of Champions League fixtures in this year’s edition of the competition. Old money versus old money. The old guard versus the young pretender. Cristiano Ronaldo versus Neymar.
The recent context underpinning each team also presents something of an intrigue to this game. Real Madrid, previously considered the best team in Europe, have struggled this season, already looking dead and buried in the La Liga title race.
In the group stages, a draw at the Bernabeu before a loss at Wembley to Spurs ceded the English side the top spot in the group, raising questions about whether or not this might be Zinedine Zidane’s last season at the Spanish club.
One thing is for certain: if Real Madrid fail to progress at this point in the tournament, the Frenchman could find himself looking for employment elsewhere.
In Paris, similar questions have been raised. As for Unai Emery, there is no telling at what point his contract could be ended. A disappointing first season at the club saw him lose the Ligue 1 title to a now-dismantled Monaco side managed by Leonardo Jardim.
This season has seen an upturn of form for the Parisians but their campaign has not prevented the age-old questions being levelled again: Is the French league too easy for Champions League challengers? Does the lack of stiff competition work against them in the end?
Wednesday night will give us an answer to these queries once and for all. For many, the winner over the two legs will go forward in the tournament as the favourite.
Last Time Out
Real Madrid 5-2 Real Sociedad (La Liga)
If this result looked like the sort of scoreline you might expect from Real Madrid in their pomp, then the circumstances of it certainly weren’t. Real Madrid had drawn with relegation strugglers Levante the week before and were still smarting from a 2-1 loss to Leganes in the Copa del Rey the month before.
Getting off to a perfect start, the Madrid side were up within the first minute, Lucas Vasquez heading in Ronaldo’s cross.
As the first half drew to a close, a trio of goals – two from Cristiano Ronaldo and one from Toni Kroos – helped put the game well out of Sociedad’s reach.
The away side did rally towards the end of the match, scoring a couple of goals in the last 15 minutes of the game. The only problem was that Cristiano Ronaldo completed his hat-trick in between these two goals, taking the final score to 5-2.
Toulouse FC 0-1 PSG (Ligue 1)
This was another game that ran much closer to the wire than Unai Emery might have liked.
With both teams going close in the first half, the sides went in level at the interval.
When the deadlock was finally broken it was none other than Neymar who broke it: the Brazilian twisting and turning before being fortunate to ricochet a shot in of one of the defenders and into the Toulouse goal.
If the French team cannot produce a more convincing turnout on Wednesday, they will have little hope of a result, even against an uncharacteristically poor Real Madrid.
Real Madrid Lineup
With Dani Carvajal suspended for this one, Achraf Hakimi will take his place on the right.
Jesus Vallejo is still out with a hamstring problem but, other than this, Zidane will have the rest of his squad available to choose from.
Unai Emery is only without Hatem Ben Arfa, giving him an almost full squad from which to pick from. The question will be: will he play his star-studded front three or approach the away fixture a little more pragmatically?
Key Battle: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) vs Neymar (PSG)
Who else can it be than the current Ballon d’Or holder and the future Ballon d’Or winner?
Cristiano Ronaldo, though, for all his bravura, has had a disappointing season. Yes, records were broken in the group stages with the Portuguese picking up nine goals in six games, becoming the first player to score in every group stage match in a tournament.
More worrying for him, is his form in La Liga. In spite of the fact his hat-trick at the weekend makes his figures look a lot more healthy, Real Madrid’s talisman only has 11 goals in 18 appearances.
The Brazilian, by contrast, is having a perfect season according to his goals scored stats. 18 in 18 in Ligue 1, he also has six in six in the Champions League.
Whilst he has shown that he can perform in the Champions League, Neymar still needs to show that he can carry a team to a Champions League win. Until he does that, he will remain in the shadow of Lionel Messi and Ronaldo.
How do Real Madrid deal with underdog status?
The Real Madrid side are not used to being in this position. Regardless of how you swing it, it is hard to see them going into this match as anything less than underdogs.
Although PSG still need to prove their credentials on the European stage, Real Madrid have scarcely proved their credentials in the league and what better chance for them to redeem themselves than here.
Of course, there is a case to be made that Real Madrid will enjoy their underdog status: Ronaldo could thrive on the occasion, dragging his teammates with him. But there is also the sense here that this could be the moment that the giants are slain.
Front three? Or not front three? That is the question.
Going into this one, Unai Emery is faced with a difficult decision. With a front three of Neymar, Edison Cavani and Kylian Mbappe, it would be a tough call to drop any one of them.
However, the defensive frailties that this invites are enough to make him think again. With none of the three being disciplined to drop into deeper areas and help out the team, we could see Emery prefer a more traditional wide player like Angel Di Maria ahead of Mbappe.
Will Emery be able to balance the fragile egos of his side though? If he cannot then it could simply be a case of playing all three and hoping for the best.
Prediction: Real Madrid 2-2 PSG
There will be few games this season in which both sides operate with the principle of ‘attack is the best form of defence’ but this is certainly one of them.
Expect lots of goals but expect them to cancel one another out leading to a thrilling fixture in the Parc des Princes next month.