Picture courtesy of AS English
Twitter was awash with Adrien Rabiot’s comments after PSG’s 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the first leg of their Round of 16 tie at the Bernabeu. “It’s all well and good putting 8 goals past Dijon, but it’s in matches like this that you have to stand up and be counted”, he told reporters just after the game, his words tinged with more than a dose of frustration. On a night that Real Madrid barely turned up, PSG managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of, well, not-defeat. The collapse wasn’t of Camp Nou proportions, and one could point to a couple of unfortunate breaks in the concession of both goals, but the manner and timing of Real Madrid’s second and third goals has done nothing to convince critics that the oil-fuelled PSG machine is ready to win the Grand Prix.
How they lined up…
Real Madrid, except for Carvajal (suspended for getting himself suspended – brilliant), lined up with their Gala XI. Nacho, who has quietly been excellent this season, whether filling in for Ramos or Varane, was given the nod at right back. Isco, in and out of the side in the last couple of months as his form has gone off the boil, was included in what seemed like a Real Madrid bid to control the midfield area.
Unai Emery, for PSG, preferred the greater security of Yuri Berchiche to the buccaneering Layvin Kurzawa. Loanee, Kylian Mbappe, got the nod over the unfortunate Angel Di Maria (who has been flying in 2018). However, the biggest surprise (?) was the exclusion of Thiago Silva, with the 22-year-old Presnel Kimpembe favoured. Kimpembe was superb in PSG’s 4-0 trouncing of Barcelona but didn’t play in the 6-1 thrashing that was the second leg (Thiago Silva did!). He acquitted himself well on the whole and few can point to his selection being a cause of the defeat.
The Damp Squib of a Midfield Battle
PSG played a triangle in midfield, with Verratti and Giovanni Lo Celso playing in a line at the base, and Rabiot at the tip, just in behind Cavani. Against a different team, say Barcelona, Rabiot would have been tasked with shutting down Busquets, but Casemiro does not pose as much a playmaking threat. This left Rabiot free to roam in midfield, although he was very diligent in dropping back to prevent easy passes into Real’s midfield.
The main problem PSG faced all night was how Lo Celso and Verratti interpreted their roles. The Argentine youngster is an attacking midfielder, used to playing higher up the pitch. At the Bernabeu, with Motta not match fit and Emery paying respect to Real’s reputation, he was instructed to play deeper, forming a dual shield in front of PSG’s defence. While his passing was accurate for the most part, it was generally cautious and safe, with his positional movement in the same vein – he rarely ventured forward in or out of possession. Marco Verratti, essentially chaperoning an inexperienced Lo Celso, could not afford to abandon him to shielding duties on his own, so was more conservative in his positioning (he did play a couple of excellent forward balls for Neymar to run onto, but these were few and far between). PSG’s midfield structure and personnel lacked balance, an issue exacerbated by Emery’s tactical safety which, particularly in the first half, often left only four men attacking. While it resulted in a goal when Mbappe’s cross was deflected into the path of an onrushing Rabiot, it meant that PSG struggled to really seize the initiative Real Madrid left up for grabs.
Real’s midfield was standard – however, it never took control of the game. Isco, particularly in the first half, struggled to make his mark on the game. Toni Kroos’ brightest moments were precisely that – moments. He burst into the box in the second minute and nearly won a penalty, tested Areola with a shot from outside the box, and finally won a penalty when an idling Lo Celso pulled him back as he broke into the box. Luke Modric, except for a couple of nifty bursts between the lines, had a pretty average game by his standards. This wasn’t a game where he needed to be spectacular, and he wasn’t.
Cross the Ball and Hope You Die
Even with Carvajal missing, and a midfield diamond in place, Real Madrid’s football is all about width – it’s how Cristiano Ronaldo thrives. This match was no different. One of the reasons the midfield battle was so uninspiring was because both midfields were set up, even with the sparkling individuals in both, to serve a basic function. PSG’s was to stop Real’s which was superfluous because Real’s was never particularly interested in trying to play through PSG’s – it’s job was to funnel the ball wide and pump in crosses. Real Madrid, over the last two years, has cemented its status as perhaps the greatest crossing side in the history of the game – if it ain’t spoilt, why fix it? While Neymar’s dribbling infield is a key part of PSG’s attacking strategy (on his own, he attempted as many dribbles as the whole Real Madrid side), Real Madrid focus on creating overloads in wide areas and swinging crosses into the box for Ronaldo to feast on. It’s interesting to watch them and see how often their midfielders drift into advanced positions on the wings and in the channels to facilitate crossing opportunities. Ronaldo’s second and Marcelo’s goal both came from Marco Asensio crosses (who, by the way, was brought on to provide those crosses). As Zidane sought out a way to break open the tie, he doubled down on his approach – cross the ball.
Picture courtesy of Daily Post
Marcelo is **STILL** Real’s best playmaker
When Dani Alves clattered Marcelo in the first ten minutes, his anguished cries could be heard on TV. Real Madrid hearts fluttered, no, billowed in the turbulence of fear. Theo Hernandez was sent out to warm up. Ultimately, the ex-Atleti man wouldn’t be needed and Marcelo went on to have a storming game. This match was meant to be his crucifixion – he’s had a difficult season, often not interested in defending, and then he was coming up against Mbappe who has been torching defenders like hot wings. Instead, it ended up being a timely reminder of the gifts he possesses: a delectable touch; brilliant crossing; and the ability to create, either through his dribbling or his passing, which all make him Madrid’s shaggy haired jack-in-the-box. In the first half, Real’s most dangerous moments either came from a PSG player gifting the ball to a Madrid player, or Marcelo’s involvement. His brilliant crossfield curling pass into Ronaldo’s path was worthy of Kevin De Bruyne (Areola made a brilliant save). He also set up Benzema for a shot, yet again brilliantly saved by Areola. In his last major contribution of the half, he played a more nuanced, yet equally intelligent pass, to Toni Kroos to put him goal-side of Lo Celso whose foul resulted in the penalty. While Dani Alves became the more prominent Brazilian fullback (midfielder?) in the second half, Marcelo had the last laugh when he connected with Asensio’s fizzed cross to give Real Madrid a two-goal cushion heading into the second leg in three weeks’ time.
Picture courtesy of Birmingham Mail
Neymar v Ronaldo
Neymar did the playing, Ronaldo did the scoring. It’s a refrain we’ve heard many times in Ronaldo’s career (particularly in the Champions League). Is Cristiano the best player in the world? It depends on how you judge it, but skill for skill, no. Has he proven himself as one of the most reliable goal-getters in history? Certainly, no question. Particularly in critical moments. Especially in the Champions League. While Neymar dribbled, slashed and dashed, and created all PSG’s moments of danger, Ronaldo converted the equalising penalty (his 100th for Real Madrid) and had the ball ricochet off his knee for the winner. Goals win games, even inadvertent ones. At 33 years old, Cristiano Ronaldo is not the dribbling winger he was ten years ago, but he continues to be effective for Real Madrid. Of course, what is required of him is different from what teams like PSG and Barcelona require of their own talismans, but the mark of a great player is, not only recognising his limitations, but serving his team maximally because of that. For players like Neymar, they carry a somewhat greater burden because the range of gifts they possess mean that there are no limitations to consider – more is expected and, unless you’re winning, it’s difficult for the cursory eye to look past the loss to see the chances created, dribbles completed, and the air of consistent danger created.
Subs I Win, Subs You Lose
Zinedine Zidane has often been accused of not being proactive with his substitutions, or not using them effectively enough. Or simply not using all of them (I’ve always thought this a weird criticism of managers, particularly when it’s used by default). That could not be said of him last night. As Emery took off the ineffective Cavani for right back, Thomas Meunier, Zidane rolled his dice and put in Gareth Bale for Benzema as the clock neared 70 minutes. Despite the change, Real struggled to really gain a foothold or pose problems because, fundamentally, their shape hadn’t changed. Also, with Dani Alves pushed into midfield, what appeared to be a conservative move by Unai Emery started to look like a positive one as PSG put pressure on Real Madrid between the 70th and 80th minutes. Zidane, recognising the game was slipping away from his side, threw on Asensio and Vazquez, thus reorganising his team into a 4-4-2 shape. As PSG’s confidence grew, Real Madrid found gaps in behind. On at least three occasions prior to Ronaldo’s second, Asensio or Bale escaped down the left only to be flagged offside. When the decisive goals did eventually come, there were no surprises. For all the criticism he gets, credit should be given to Zidane for his substitutions. I don’t want to be too harsh on Emery as his decision seemed to be working before Ronaldo scored, but it was intended to be a happy-with-what-I’ve-got move. Oh, he also used two subs.
Now for the second leg
PSG should be disappointed (see Rabiot’s comments) with how they performed, but more so with how they have nearly let the tie slip away from them by conceding those two late goals. Real Madrid’s first leg performance could either provide encouragement (they really were not great) or could indicate that they have another level to reach. Either way, PSG needs to up their game. Mbappe wasn’t involved enough – this will have to change in the second leg. Emery has no choice but to be brave – conservatism won’t save him a job he’s probably going to lose at the end of the season. The first leg promised so much yet delivered little other than four goals – let’s hope there’s better in store in the second leg.