“Isco Juega!”, the announcement of the starting XI prior to the start of the match sent shock-waves through the footballing community. It was not Bale nor Rodrygo in the line-up, but a certain Spanish playmaker. In all honesty, maybe we should have expected the change, it was classic Zidane, inserting Isco and bringing back the diamond, a move very few - if anybody - expected. As the game unfolded, Zidane’s tactical plan became clear: Isco was to man-mark Marquinhos and limit his distribution from the defensive midfield position, while Fede Valverde and Marcelo both pushed very high and wide to nullify the impact of the wing-backs, Meunier and Bernat. The system rolled out was one of high-risk and high-reward, the risk was the acres of space left behind Marcelo with either Mbappe or Di Maria exploiting. Despite a few close calls, including an overturned penalty for PSG after a VAR review, Madrid went into the dressing room 1-0 up and playing some of the best football the Bernabeu has seen in years. Zizou-ball was at its peak. It was so pleasing to watch; the quick interchanges, the fast transitions, the intensity – it was all there.
The battle in midfield was some of the best viewing. Casemiro and Fede Valverede each gave Gueye a taste of his own medicine from the first leg – putting in crunching, yet clean tackles to win the ball. Verrati, Marquinhos, Gueye – the same three players that dominated the first leg, couldn’t breathe in the second. We have to pinch ourselves when watching Fede Valverde and remember that he is only 21-years-old. The Uruguayan is simply a Phenom. He was not even remotely phased by the PSG midfield or test put before him in a new tactical system. He won tackles, cut off passing lanes, anticipated and intercepted countless passes, drove the team forward, and helped set-up the first goal. And what an opening goal it was. Eden Hazard picked up the ball and simultaneously, shrugged off Marquinhos, sliced past Meunier, and glided past Gueye in midfield before feeding Carvajal and Fede on the wing. Those two combined with a quick one-two, with Fede passing the ball to Isco at the top of the box. Isco unleashed a shot that hit the far post, but the goal was not lost. Karim Benzema in full poacher form, picked up the rebound and smashed the ball in the back of the net to give Madrid the lead.
Tuchel was quick to make adjustments after the break with Neymar entering for Gueye. Though it was once again Madrid who came fastest out of the blocks with, Marcelo curling an inch-perfect cross to Karim Benzema who was denied by a good save from Keylor Navas within 6 yards to goal. Neymar’s introduction did cause problems for Madrid as he constantly appeared in the between the lines, often positioning himself between Kroos and Casemiro. After the hour mark, it was still Real Madrid creating the better chances. Hazard was often at the heart of Madrid’s good play, once again gliding past defenders and setting up Varane who was once again denied by Keylor Navas. Ultimately, PSG would be forced to hacking Hazard. Meunier took a huge chunk out of his compatriot and it forced Madrid down to 10-men before Hazard was subbed for Gareth Bale. The intricate play and relentless work-ethic from the team did not stop after Hazard’s exit. Marcelo, Kroos, Isco, and Benzema combined especially well down Madrid’s left. But arguably what was most impressive was the team’s drive to hunt together. Time and time again the boys in white used their numerical superiority to win duels.
Tuchel rolled the dice and threw everything he had with the entrance of Sarabia and Draxler, but Zidane countered by changing Modric for Valverde. The Croatian had a near immediate impact by creating Madrid’s second goal. Modric curled his familiar outside of the boot pass to Marcelo who found Benzema with his cross. The header was the Frenchman’s second goal of the game. PSG then replied with a goal less than a minute later from the danger man Kylian Mbappe. Raphael Varane, who had been foot-perfect up to that point, failed to clear a low driven cross and Mbappe was there lurking behind to tap the ball into Madrid’s net. Two minutes after that, Madrid gave up another. Draxler’s initial shot deflected off of Sergio Ramos and right to the feet of Sarabia. The former Caterano curled his shot in the top corner, no chance for Courtois.
Madrid would come close to a winner, with Varane snapping a header from a corner kick and nearly converting it. Gareth Bale hit the post in the 93rd minute from a brilliant free-kick. The draw leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, as Madrid had a two-goal lead and played some of their best football of the season.
The game will be broken down further with a post-game podcast, player ratings, and tactical review still to come.