After a chastening experience last season, where PSG humbled Real Madrid by an aggregate score of 6-0, Madridistas can be forgiven for treading with caution and lowering expectations as we approach our UWCL tie with PSG this Wednesday.
But a lot has changed since the two teams last met a year ago; believe it or not, we have actually made up some ground between us and the French side this season.
PSG are at the weakest they’ve been in a long time — largely caused by losing their biggest star, Marie-Antoinette Katoto, and defensive stalwart, Paulina Dudek, to serious injuries, while letting Sara Däbritz — their most important midfielder last season — leave. That’s despite bringing in the likes of Lieke Martens, Jackie Groenen, and Oriane Jean-François.
On the other hand, Madrid have signed two of the most talented midfielders from the WSL and Liga F in Caroline Weir and Sandie Toletti, respectively, and have retained most of their core players, including Real Madrid’s all-time top goal scorer, Esther González, and 2021/22 Player of the Season, Claudia Zornoza (in addition to Teresa Abelleira, Olga Carmona, Athenea del Castillo and Maite Oroz).
Wednesday’s match will most definitely be a more intriguing and closely-contested affair as opposed to last season.
What to Expect From PSG
PSG normally roll out in a 4-3-3 formation, with Bouhaddi in goal; Ashley Lawrence, Amanda Ilestedt, Élisa de Almeida, and Sakina Karchaoui in defense; Groenen, Grace Geyoro and Jan-François in midfield; and Kadidiatou Diani, Ramona Bachmann, and Martens in attack.
The biggest threat will come from their two wingers and fullbacks, who are quick, excellent defensively, and extremely attacking going forward. Their biggest weakness is the center-forward role, as Bachmann isn’t really prolific and is not a natural striker, so a lot of the goal-scoring burden has fallen on Geyoro and Diani (the latter of whom, to be fair, has stepped up massively since Katoto’s injury).
PSG’s midfield is also relatively new, as two players are still being incorporated into the squad and haven’t really gelled yet. In the last game against Chelsea, they had a lot of possession (60%) but barely created any opportunities or dangerous situations. They only had 6 shots (1 on target) and created 0 clear-cut chances compared to Chelsea’s 3.
Furthermore, PSG have huge shortcomings in defense, especially at center-back, with de Almeida being a particular weak point.
PSG could surprise us and use the system they tried vs. Chelsea, where Fazer played the “Valverde role,” operating on the left wing while offering support in midfield. However, this is highly unlikely, given Martens will be back from illness and Bachmann has played almost all the games so far. Furthermore, this would limit the offensive capabilities of Lawrence and Karchaouai, who will not have anyone to help them defensively.
PSG’s two wingers (Diani and Martens) and fullbacks are their biggest threat and our fullbacks (hopefully Kenti & Olga) will have to be on high alert. Madrid must also worry about Bachmann, who likes to drop deep and play combinations to suck opposition center-backs out of position, thereby allowing the likes of Geyoro and Groenen to take advantage with late runs from midfield.
What Real Madrid Should Do
Last season, ex-coach David Aznar played into PSG’s hands by deploying an ultra-defensive 5-4-1 with no out-ball, no creativity in midfield, and Esther completely isolated up. This resulted in a lack of pressure on PSG’s midfield and absent attacking threat. Madrid just sat back and waited for PSG to pick them apart.
In the return leg, we were much braver and we caused all sorts of problems in the first 20 minutes through our pressing (this was despite our comparatively inferior squad and while missing our two best players: Kosovare Asllani and Marta Cardona). But, ultimately, PSG’s overall quality was much superior and they prevailed.
The best blueprint Alberto Toril can use for this game is the high press we implemented vs. Barcelona in the first leg of the UWCL quarter-finals, where we targeted the Catalan side’s three midfielders and never gave them time on the ball. We also pressed their CB’s every time they tried to play out from the back.
From an in-possession perspective, Weir operating in the #10 role could unbalance PSG’s already-weakened defensive pairing.
It will be interesting to see what Toril does with the right-wing position; will he put Weir as an inverted RW, go with Zornoza/Maite on the left, start Naomie Feller, or utilize Olga and Athenea in attack?
On a different note, I feel that Tere must start this match with Toleti in the double pivot, as the former offers control and is press resistant.
The key for us in this game is to press them, be aggressive and on the front foot, and take advantage of their soft underbelly, which is their center-back pairing.
KEY BATTLE: Geyoro vs. Toletti
This is going to be an interesting battle in midfield between the two box-to-box French midfielders. Both are powerful, have energy to burn, and are a treat to watch in the opposition box. Hopefully Toletti will be fully fit and raring to go.
4-2-3-1: Misa; Kenti, Kathellen, Ivana, Olga; Teresa, Toletti; Athenea, Weir, Zornoza; Esther
4-3-3: Bouhaddi; Lawrence, Ilestedt, de Almedia, Karchaoui; Geyoro, Jean-François, Groenen; Diani, Bachmann, Martens
1-0 to Real Madrid. Weir scores, of course (if she’s fit).