Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain enter the Champions League clash on Valentine’s Day and there is no exiting – mentally, at least – until March 6, the return leg for the knockout Round of 16.
Few clashes of this magnitude have been as zero-sum at this stage of the campaign, ever.
For the reigning European champions, it’s real simple. This is Real Madrid’s lifeline. Fail to pull yourself to safety and the season is over on March 7, with the gut-wrenching thought of no more meaningful football for another six months.
As for PSG, in some ways, the impact could be even greater. They’ll still have trophies to play for — and win — but their battle is as much legal and financial. And there is no telling what damage defeat could bring, but it’d likely go beyond bruised egos.
Real Madrid Sometimes it can feel like the stories about Madrid signing a goalkeeper are daily, and David De Gea was barely minutes away from joining a few years ago, but somehow Keylor Navas survives. Not least because Zinedine Zidane has kept faith in him and defended him, even publicly saying he did not want Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa this winter. Navas may not be at the level of some of those Madrid pursue but he is mentally tough, quick in his movements and has a habit of rescuing them in key moments, producing often stunning saves. 7
Paris Saint-Germain Alphonse Areola has kept clean sheets in more than half of PSG’s league matches and did not concede a goal in the Champions League until matchday five of the group stage. He can be a little suspect at times, especially in his distribution, but is also capable of the spectacular. Areola is yet to prove himself at the top level but he continues to improve and although not in the class of Europe’s top keepers, no longer is he a liability. 6.5
RM On the face of it, there is not too much wrong with Madrid’s defence – Nacho, arguably their best player this season, will be alongside Raphaël Varane, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo as he replaces the suspended Dani Carvajal – but it has too often been dreadful. Marcelo has not looked fit, Varane too has missed games and Ramos has been in early-season mode. As a collective, they have been chaotic and caught out of position. The good news for them is that Ramos, who leads the back four, does have a habit of coming good when it really matters. 6
PSG Unai Emery has, like his predecessors Laurent Blanc and Carlo Ancelotti, often cut a beleaguered figure for PSG, but despite the odd disappointing result, he has made this team younger and more defensively sound. Marquinhos has evolved into one of the world’s best centre-backs at 23, with another youngster, Presnel Kimpembe, also rapidly improving. Thiago Silva is the elephant in the room but the veteran remains a potent threat in the air, especially at set pieces. 8.5
RM A four in the final months of last season, Madrid’s midfield is back to a three, conditioned by the return of Gareth Bale and with him the BBC. That means no Isco and may also see them lose some of the control that eventually defined them last season – but which they have rarely exercised this time around. The ball seems to be moving less swiftly and without the same purpose. Casemiro will underpin the midfield in front of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who has been inconsistent but look as if they may be coming back into form. 8
PSG Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot are two of the world’s best box-to-box midfielders, despite the Italian’s proclivity for bookings. Together, they are an upgrade on a midfield featuring the departed Blaise Matuidi, but serious questions remain over defensive midfield, where failure to strengthen in the summer has meant varying patchwork, stop-gaps of Thiago Motta, Giovani Lo Celso and now Lassana Diarra. None of the three are an ideal solution and this could be an Achilles heel in this tie. 7
RM When Bale, Karim Benzema, and Cristiano Ronaldo started together a fortnight ago it was the first time since April last year. In the absence of all three, Madrid did not just change personnel but formation and at times it appeared to suit them better. Zidane, though, has returned them to the team. The talent is there, without a doubt (although Benzema is under pressure, is missing chances, and was whistled again at the weekend); the question is how well it will all fit together and whether it will tilt them towards a more counterattacking approach. 9
PSG In Neymar, PSG have a player capable of changing a match on his own, a superb talent who also represents a new level of ambition for the club. His fellow summer signing Kylian Mbappé, despite the odd moment of selfishness, continues to progress, and Edinson Cavani remains dogged, if sometimes limited, presence leading the line. The recent good form of Ángel Di María could also be the difference, as the Argentinian has been superb since the start of the calendar year. 9
RM Much of Madrid’s success last season was based on the contribution of the B team, which provided relief for the starters, responded when opportunities were offered and gave variety from the bench. Although there have been far fewer rotations this season, and some doubts about the way the subs have been used, the quality is still there and can change a game. Marco Asensio and Isco would be stars almost anywhere else, although Madrid do miss Álvaro Morata and James Rodríguez, who were there last year. 9
PSG Javier Pastore, Di María, and Draxler (depending on who starts) are an impressive set of options for Emery, but each of this trio is as inconsistent as they are alluring, with none a real goalscoring threat. The options in reserve in other positions (Kimpembe, Thomas Meunier, Kevin Trapp) are a mixed bag, but the majority of teams in Europe, including many of those still in this competition, would be thrilled to have a bench of this quality. 7
RM No Madrid manager has achieved what Zidane has in his first two years in the job. Lauded for his management of the squad, he is loyal to his players, a listener and an understated leader. Some have criticised him for exactly that, arguing that his tactical analysis is limited, and at times Madrid’s approach has appeared simplistic. The question is whether that is necessarily a bad thing with players like this. 8
PSG Emery has endured an incredible rollercoaster since joining PSG in 2016, from thumping Barcelona in the Champions League to failing to hold that same advantage and losing the league title to Monaco. Although his tactics have sometimes been disappointing, he has been unafraid to drop players based on their reputation (Silva, Layvin Kurzawa) and has improved players such as Kimpembe, Julian Draxler, and Areola. 6.5
Real Madrid total 47
Paris Saint Germain total 44.5