Champions League Preview : Real Madrid v PSG
Given the ambitions of both Paris Saint-Germain and their opponents at the Bernabeu this evening, Real Madrid, there are an abundance of similarities between the two sides. Ambition, wealth and world-class players are the most readily apparent, but what this tie is likely to hinge upon may not be quite so easily discerned. Despite both being realistic contenders for the Champions’ League, each enters this tie in a state of flux. For the hosts, the fitness and form of their vaunted front line means that they will likely leave behind the 4-3-1-2 which they deployed through much of the early season for the 4-3-3 which has become their hallmark over the last decade. PSG, on the other hand, are looking certain to start a player who, despite time with some of the top teams in Europe, has led a fairly itinerant career, while questions also remain over the team’s summer signings.
Today marks a year on from Lassana Diarra’s release from Marseille after the midfielder’s headstrong nature saw him clash with Rudi Garcia, despite having been named in the Ligue 1 Team of the Season in 2015-16. His subsequent move to Abu Dhabi had more than a hint of the player, at 31, riding off into the proverbial sunset, but his signing by PSG seems to have given him a new lease on life, and with Thiago Motta injured, he even looks set to start in defensive midfield this evening. Giovani Lo Celso had been playing that role in the league of late, but along with Diarra’s big-match experience, he is a more comfortable fit in the role than the Argentine, who is a more creative presence.
Unai Emery’s decision between Lo Celso and Diarra, of course, was brought about by a failure to sign a defensive midfielder in the summer. Monaco’s Fabinho had been linked, but the deal was never completed, with the team preferring to focus on the attack and fullback positions instead. There’s no doubting the success of Neymar, and while Kylian Mbappé has had some miscues, he is still a young player learning a new role and shouldn’t yet be judged too harshly, despite his sizable transfer fee. Along with the two forwards, Dani Alves and Yuri Berchiche were also brought into the fold.
Alves was imperious in last year’s Champions’ League, powering Juventus to the final with aplomb, but lately he has looked off the boil, and one might wonder whether Emery might be better off opting for Thomas Meunier in his place. The Belgian isn’t as deft with the ball at his feet, but his physical presence and intelligence may be helpful in defending against Marcelo, Real’s attack-minded left back. On the opposite flank, Yuri Berchiche looks set to start ahead of Layvin Kurzawa; the Frenchman has been dealing with niggling injuries throughout the season, but like Meunier, the former Real Sociedad player takes a composed and thorough approach to the game and would deserve his spot regardless of Kurzawa’s fitness.
Again, as PSG’s first-choice eleven has evolved, so, too, has Real Madrid’s. If, as is likely, the hosts play their archetypal 4-3-3 tonight, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, it will mark the first time in this competition this season that the three have played together. There may be something to having Isco, who had typically taken up a place behind two of those three players earlier in the season, as an option in reserve, but one can’t help but feel than Zinedine Zidane is bowing at least in part to media and board pressure to play the club’s marquee names together.
That said, even if there may be some lack of coherence as the three continue to re-acclimate to playing with each other, their individual talents are still fearsome, and PSG’s defence will have to be wary no matter their opponents’ composition. Of more pressing concern for La Real, however, will be their defence. With Dani Carvajal suspended and Pepe sold in the summer, the hosts will likely line up with Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Raphaël Varane and Nacho at the back. Varane has improved this season, but is still guilty at times of being over-reliant on his physical gifts rather than his positional intelligence. Sergio Ramos, of course, will wear the armband with all of the impetuousness for which he is known, but on the whole, the hosts will have a very vulnerable defense.
Thus, while relying on a half-fit 32 year-old who hasn’t played in this competition in close to six years may make PSG’s midfield slightly vulnerable, it’s not as if their opponents won’t have their own weaknesses as well. This match looks set to be settled on individual quality rather than tactical schemes or defensive organization (or a lack thereof). As both sides have that in spades, on all counts, we should be ready for a match with plenty of entertainment and no shortage of goals. With PSG as the visiting side, this should play into their hands, as a high-scoring draw or narrow loss would hand them the initiative ahead of the return leg, keeping alive the French side’s hopes of progressing.
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Keylor Navas; Nacho, Raphaël Varane, Marcelo; Luka Modrić, Casemiro, Toni Kroos; Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo
Paris Saint-Germain (4-3-3): Alphonse Areola; Dani Alves, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Yuri Berchiche; Adrien Rabiot, Lassana Diarra, Marco Verratti; Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappé
Predicted Score: Real Madrid 2-2 Paris Saint-Germain