3-1 down from the first leg, the Brazilians absence will no doubt be felt when Ronaldo and co come to town. However many of the players remaining have excelled on this stage before and Emery can find a formula to upset the odds.
The flood lights were gleaming, the rain was showering down from the heavens as if to add extra gloss to a victory that PSG were well on their way to in last months’ Le Classique against Marseille. The match was already at 3-0 to the Parisians and, as such is the gulf these days between them and the rest, they even dabbled in some exhibitionist football too. Flicks and tricks a plenty not only to show they’re the best but to hammer it home in ostentatious fashion. An experienced matador toying with a young bull that’s of no challenge him.
Then in a flash it happened: an injury. Neymar was clutching his leg after rolling over his ankle. He had been pushed and kicked throughout the match but how ironic is it that the cause of the injury was from his body forgetting to calculate its own movements for a split second instead of the wrath of a frustrated defender. As Neymar was taken off in tears the thought occurred to me that all the money in the world still provides no guarantees in football and that even the most innocuous of incidents can affect the trajectory of even PSG’s stratospheric project.
Despite all the negative headlines attacking Neymar’s attitude and vicarious lifestyle he has produced the goods for PSG on a regular basis this season with 19 goals and 13 assists in the league and 6 goals and 3 assists in Europe. However, he wasn’t bought for this, as Adrian Rabiot stated after the 3-1 first leg lost to Real. Neymar flitted in and out at the Bernabeu doing quite a lot without effecting that much. Sensational dribbles would lead to dead ends and superb individual skill was conducted in isolated areas. After all it demands a lot to guarantee performances at this level, just ask Ronaldo. Real’s star player touched the ball 30 times and scored twice. Ronaldo doesn’t produce Neymar’s star dust but he is an apex predator with an insatiable instinct for goals. So is Neymar’s absence that much of a loss in reality? Perhaps not.
PSG will likely line up in a 4-3-3. Thiago Silva my return to the defence in place of Presnel Kimbempe, 21, who started in Madrid. Silva was on the pitch in last season’s 6-1 humiliation at Barcelona and, as a result, his big game mentality was questioned. However, in a game where they need to chase the result perhaps his influence can drive them from the back.
Thiago Motta may return to replace young Lo Celso as the sitting midfielder. His experience will be key to maintaining a balance. If the Italian is not fit in time Lassana Diarra, signed on a free agent in January, would prove a tenacious option in the middle as well. The Verratti-Rabiot partnership could be the difference against a side that may not have Modric or Kroos for Tuesday night.
Emery has a few options for his front three. Cavani is up top either way. On the left Julian Draxler can stake a claim in Neymar’s place or Kylian Mbappe could do after playing there for Monaco at times last season. The young Frenchman has competed with Angel Di Maria for the right wing spot all season and both can excel there against an out of sorts Marcelo. Let’s not forget it was a front three of Draxler, Cavani and Di Maria that beat a superior Barcelona team 4-0 at this stage last year. Any combination of the three could do real damage to Zidane’s side.
Edinson Cavani has a reputation for missing big chances at vital moments but the reality is very different. He has scored 26 goals in 43 appearances in the Champions League with 8 already this season. He scored crucial goals against Chelsea in their last two knockout ties, two against Barcelona in last season’s last 16 and slotted one past Bayern in this year’s group. He will be key against a Varane-Ramos centre back pairing that has fallen short many times of late.
Julian Draxler scored in the 4-0 win over Barca last season and has caused havoc against Madrid before. He was man of the match when his Wolfsburg side beat Madrid 2-0 in the quarter final first leg in 2016. Driving in from the left he has similar attributes to Neymar. He dribbles with great speed, is fleet footed and is lethal from range with his passing and shooting. Dani Carvajal is out for the second leg so make shift centre back Nacho will fill the slot which will favour the German.
Kylian Mbappe can play both wings and is still the world’s most talented young player. His record in the last year has been superb. He scored in five of the six knock out matches last season against Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus on Monaco’s run to the semi-final. He managed to get the better of excellent full back David Alaba in both matches against Bayern and he can repeat that again against Marcelo.
Former Real Madrid player Di Maria scored two in last year’s Barca victory including a brilliant free kick. The Argentine has replaced Mbappe since the turn of the year and can inflict the same level of damage tonight. More inclined to cut in on his left foot, he can take advantage of Casemiro’s shaky form and, given he is prone to a booking, can put the Brazilian under pressure.
Real Madrid themselves have picked up form despite an underwhelming season by their own lofty standards. The defending champions have suffered in big games this season against Tottenham and Barcelona. Even with positive results against Dortmund, Atletico and PSG they displayed a real lack of structure without the ball and a lack of cohesion in the attacking third. Zidane’s big decision is whether to play Isco behind a front two or stick with the BBC now that Gareth Bale is back. Given the return to form of the later in recent weeks, a 4-3-3 with the BBC up top will be likely. Kroos and Modric may both miss out and that will go a long way to determining who advances.
With a two goal cushion Madrid are still favourites. However, the issues they have could help PSG upset the odds. Emery can still line up a side with players who have done it at this stage before. They can do it without Neymar.
This piece was first published over at Football Diet.