PSG v Real Madrid

Tuesday, Mar 06 – 19:45

PSG host Real Madrid tonight in the Champions League Round of 16, and must overturn a two-goal deficit if they are to progress to the next knockout stage of the competition. Madrid’s form has been up and down since the start of the season, whilst a new-look PSG have been the dominant force in Ligue 1. The Parisians were one of the hot favourites heading into this year’s Champions League tournament, but with star forward Neymar now sidelined with a broken foot, they have the odds stacked against them in tonight’s second-leg clash.

Heading into the first-leg fixture at the Santiago Bernabeu a fortnight ago, PSG found themselves unlikely favourites. Having claimed back-to-back Champions League titles in 2016 and 2017, Real Madrid began this season’s campaign with little to prove, but a number of underwhelming domestic performances had led to huge question marks over their current squad’s capabilities, and manager Zinedine Zidane was cast under the spotlight. A disastrous first-half saw Madrid go 1-0 down after 33 minutes, but talismanic forward Cristiano Ronaldo had other ideas. What followed was a sublime second-half comeback, with the home side eventually claiming an emphatic 3-1 victory. The damning questions that surrounded Los Blancos seem to have been answered, and for now, Madrid appear to be back in the driving seat.

What’s happened since the first-leg?

Real Madrid have won four of their five matches since their clash with PSG – their only loss coming against Espanyol towards the end of February (1-0). Aside from the Espanyol game, each of Madrid’s matches have seen at least four goals, including a frantic 5-3 win over Real Betis, and a dominant 4-0 against Alaves – a team that had frustrated them earlier in the season.

Madrid’s recent run of positive results has coincided with a purple patch for Cristiano Ronaldo, who has scored 14 goals in his last eight games, including braces against recent opponents Getafe and Alaves. Gareth Bale has also hit top form for Los Blancos, scoring twice in his last three league matches.

Bale and Ronaldo’s form isn’t the only good news for Zinedine Zidane, with regular starters Toni Kroos and Luka Modric both coming back into the fold after a brief period on the sidelines. This does present something of a problem for Zidane however, as the Frenchman must now decide whether to reintroduce the veteran midfielders into his starting XI, or stick with the current rotation of Casemiro, Kovavic, and Llorente, who have all been in fine form over the last few weeks.

PSG have won each of their four matches since their trip to Madrid, including back-to-back 3-0 victories over Marseille. The big news from the Parc des Princes is of course Neymar’s injury, which could leave the Brazilian sidelined for the remainder of the season. Manager Unai Emery has opted to play former Real Madrid winger Angel di Maria as a replacement for Neymar, with second-string players Julian Draxler and Christopher Nkunku forming a formidable front three with the Argentinian international in PSG’s 2-0 win over Troyes on Saturday.

In fact, PSG’s line-up at the weekend gave a clear indication of how seriously Unai Emery is preparing for tonight’s match, with Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani both rested, and Dani Alves replacing Angel di Maria after just 57 minutes.

Can PSG do it without Neymar?

PSG have been major contenders in the Champions League over the last five seasons, but it seems to be a case of always the bridesmaid never the bride. There has definitely been something lacking from their squad, and last summer the owners clearly thought it was time to bridge the gap between themselves and the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. In terms of ability, Neymar is one of the Top 5 players in the world, but when PSG signed him they bought more than just two good feet and a flashy haircut – they bought an icon.

Barcelona and Real Madrid have reached another level because they each have a modern icon, and like Messi and Ronaldo, Neymar can provide that bit of extra magic. PSG have been fantastic this season, and whilst Neymar is not solely responsible for their success, he has certainly introduced the spark that has lit a fire under his teammates.

If Real Madrid were the side heading into tonight’s match 3-1 down, their players and their fans would be excited at the prospect of an historic comeback. They would look at the team sheet and think ‘we have Ronaldo, and anything is possible’.

Will PSG have that same belief without Neymar?

Photos: Getty