Are you scared? I’m not scared. I promise I’m not
In what is potentially the saddest thing about the near future of Real Madrid, the iconic success and achievements of Zinedine Zidane in his time at the helm could all be forgotten in a few weeks or months time. While that is brutally unfair, so is the world of managing at the highest level in Europe and Real Madrid.
Although some power rankings don’t agree, PSG are the most dangerous team on the continent. The statistics back this up, and regardless of a slight cooling off since their blistering first-half form and Group Stage form, the Parisians are still the last club Madrid wanted to draw in the Round of 16. That’s punishment for losing the group to Tottenham.
If you missed it, PSG set the all-time European goals record for Group Stage competition with an insane 25 goals through the six matches. Scoring over 4 goals a game in Champions League competition, they are cruising to yet another Ligue 1 title. Given they’re averaging almost eight shots on target per game and play possession based football, they are Madrid’s worst nightmare.
Not to be cynical or anything, but don’t forget Carvajal is suspended for this one. Normally, Nacho or Achraf would step up and put in a productive and reliable performance. Unfortunately, this is going to be a much bigger problem with the likes of Neymar and Kurzawa assaulting the left flank.
Now, PSG are certainly not infallible. And yes, they are miles ahead of their competition in France, for the most part, but the notion that they aren’t tested by quality clubs is simply rubbish. Their complacent performances against Monaco and Lyon are sufficient proof that they’re definitely beatable. The one shining section of their 2017-18 curriculum vitae is the Gameweek Two three to nil victory over Bayern.
PSG are most deadly on the counter, which is where Madrid are exposed and exploited. With our eagerness to high press and Modric/Kroos/Casemiro to push forward, Paris has the uncanny ability to slice open the team with one or two well-placed passes. We have been susceptible to collapsing late in games, and in general have been pretty porous defensively- we’ve given up more goals than 12th place Leganes.
PSG have proved this year they can score against anybody. They’ve been preparing for this game since 11 December, and have a real chance of securing more than one critical away goals tomorrow. Although Paris’ greatest strength could capitalize against our biggest weakness, the sides surprisingly share a lot in common.
Both clubs have a deep and creative midfield with three powerful spearheads rounding out a 4-3-3, and both garner offensive and positional success through two-way attacking-minded wingbacks. As mentioned before, Carvajal is out but his recent form might not mean his absence is as painful as usual. Last season, Carvajal and Marcelo combined for 25 assists. So far this year, they’ve got just five. On the preview podcast, Kiyan spoke with Jonathan Johnson of ESPNFC about the tactical matchup and I concur that the usual BBC-led 4-3-3 from Zidane is a huge mistake.
I think we proved in Sunday’s match against Sociedad that the 4-4-2 gives the side stronger defensive organization and less weakness against the deep ball in behind the midfield. Casemiro has incredible ability and two-way potential, but also lacks technical finesse. However, since both sides are keen to press up the field, Madrid have the ability to get in behind. If there is any good news for Los Blancos, it’s that Thiago Motta won’t be in the squad Wednesday night.
However, we all know the deal: if Bale/Benzema/Ronaldo are healthy, they all play. I think this could be a problem for a couple of reasons. Benzema is still one of the world’s best strikers, but has been a liability recently. He’s got just 2 goals in 29 attempts, and against PSG costs the formation a critical holding and structurally-minded midfielder required to fend off counterattacks and long balls to Neymar/Cavani/Mbappe. (Isco, Kovacic)
Marco Asensio is the future of the club and has been proving it for two seasons, and the necessity for him to be in the starting XI has never been greater. He provides so much pace and fluidity going forward, and recent reports linking him with Chelsea and United suggest he might be unhappy riding the bench. Madrid would be foolish to sell him, and he needs to be on the pitch. Also, outside of the usual Modric-wizardry and occasional Kroos setup ball, Ronaldo and Bale have really suffered when polarized up top without positive support from the attacking midfield. This isn’t made easier with the Brazilian wall that is PSG’s backline.
We could go on all day about stats and tactics, but the reality is that Zidane will mirror Emery and employ the 4-3-3 tomorrow, and Isco and Asensio will ride the bench for most of the match. Against a team that likes to dominate possession and also has the ability to catch an out-of-position midfield (as Madrid have often been) sleeping with deadly counters, the only chance to hold off the world’s best attacking trio is with Isco’s two-way stability in the 4-4-2.
I’d see an ideal XI as Navas, Marcelo, Ramos, Varane, Nacho, Modric, Kroos, Isco, Asensio, Bale, Ronaldo. In the 4-3-3 we will almost certainly see Benzema instead of Asensio and Casemiro rather than Isco, but they should be the first two off the bench. If anyone comes on before, it could be Kovacic.
Roberto Palomar of MARCA thinks a Simeone-esque tactical shutdown and goalless draw is probably the best outcome for the first leg, and I dishearteningly couldn’t agree more. In terms of madridista culture, a simply blasphemous- but necessary- approach to this one. If the Parisians score two or more goals in Madrid on Wednesday night, there’s a huge chance they will easily wrap it up in the return leg at the Parc des Princes.
I’ve never rated the stance that European experience is the most critical factor when considering powerhouse matchups. Rather, the better gauge is present form, collective confidence and game-changing individual ability when it matters. In a tilt that pits the financial heavyweights of the world with the added connotation of both managers’ futures on the line, there couldn’t be much more to play for. Oh, except for that European silverware is literally all Madrid can hope of achieving at this point. No pressure.
Paris are hungry and vengeful after their humiliating collapse in Barcelona last year, a moment that stands as potentially the greatest comeback of all time. They have been flushed with cash and come back unbelievably stronger, deeper, more prepared, and with the taste of blood in their mouths.
The confusing and conflicting odds have PSG as slight underdogs through both legs, but as heavy favorites on outrights to win it all. Currently, they sit at 11/2 as second overall favorites behind 9/2 Manchester City. Real Madrid sit sixth at 17/2, tied with Juve.
Luckily, Ronaldo is hitting a return to form just in time, and after a hat-trick on Sunday is the hottest forward in Spain. Gareth Bale has 6 goals in 11 games since returning from a long string of injuries. If Madrid hold PSG to a goal or less in two days time at the Bernabeu, I’ll hold out hope they can manufacture an away goal or two in the French capital.
If we’re being realistic though, the most likely way we survive this is by fighting fire with fire. If the attacking schemes and movements can produce at a level in which they are capable of and the defense can prove stable and organized like it rarely has this season, Madrid can pull this one out. Both of these clubs are world class, and it will almost certainly come down to the wire. I think the Parisians have the clear edge and their front three (or five) are too powerful, but I certainly hope I’m wrong. In fact, I’d be ecstatic to make an inaugural appearance on @OldTakesExposed.
So, to madridistas around the world: may God be with us all.