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Real Madrid Vs PSG: How Zidane’s tactical brinkmanship outwitted Emery’s gung-ho approach

Written by: Mrunal Nakashe

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Los Blancos may have had a season to forget but against the Parisians, they showed why they are the only team in the Champions League era to retain the title.

Well before the draw for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 was made, this was the game that most neutrals and maybe even some partisans on both sides wanted to see. Real Madrid Vs PSG was more than just a battle between two of Europe’s richest clubs. It was a clash of the par-excellence holders of the crown against arguably one of the most fancied pretenders seeking to dethrone them.

However, Both teams could not have come into the game on the back of more contrasting fortunes. On the one hand, PSG were sitting pretty atop Ligue 1 with the title all but wrapped up and heavily banked upon to win both the Cups.

On the other, the Spaniards had endured a retched campaign that has seen them fall 17 points off the title pace to bitter rivals Barcelona and already dumped out of the Copa del Rey. It was in this context, that many widely believed this PSG team was the one to beat the Galacticos at their own game. Especially with the expensively assembled attacking troika of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe all fully fit and completely in toe. In the event though, these factors mattered little as Real ran out 3-1 winners coming from behind following a well-taken early strike from unlikely hero Adrien Rabiot.

Whether it was Sergio Ramos Vs Cavani, Marcelo Vs Mbappe, Marco Verratti Vs Casemiro and more there were superstar battles all over the pitch. But, as is usually the case in these big games, there was also another fascinating duel playing out on the touchline, this time between two most pedigreed young talents in the European game in Zinedine Zidane and Unai Emery, both facing their own pressures. A look at the result on the night will tell you who won this one.

Madrid's press allowed PSG little time on the ball (Photo Courtesy: UEFA Media)

One of the stark features of Madrid’s play right from the outset was the high-press on PSG’s midfield three with its counter, the 4-4-2 diamond. Used effectively, the approach not only stymied the visitors’ attacking potency, but also meant that the relatively inexperienced Verratti, Giovani Lo Celso and Rabiot were always hustled on the ball and rushed into more direct passes in an effort to find the front three.

Here, while the trio of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro did their jobs with aplomb, the most crucial influence was undoubtedly that of the much-maligned Isco, preferred on the night to Gareth Bale. Responsible for not only making the extra man in the midfield to win the ball back but also for feeding the front two of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, the Spaniard produced one of his finest performances of the season.

Ronaldo’s brace will hog most of the headlines. But, once again one of the unsung heroes of this latest Madrid success was Frenchman Benzema. His place in the starting lineup has been perennially questioned. But, few will tell you that one of the reasons why he and Ronaldo work so well together is because the striker does most of the Portuguese’s dirty work for him. Indeed, by dragging defenders out of position with his runs, Benzema, it could be argued, puts Ronaldo in positions to seal the deal with those trademark clinical finishes.

Mbappe failed to influence the game (Photo Courtesy: The Guardian)

At the back too, there were other subplots at play. PSG’s defense has always been considered their Achilles Heel. With the quartet already lacking experience and dogged the propensity to commit individual mistakes, Emery’s decision to start with greenhorn Presnel Kimpembe in place of veteran Thiago Silva in a game of this magnitude will be rightly questioned and in hindsight it is a call the tactician may come to rue. Elsewhere, Mbappe, up against the marauding Marcelo, faced his own quandary, stick or twist? With the French teenager caught between when to attack and how much to track back, this was another mini duel that went the way of the free-spirited Brazilian, who, relieved off much of his defensive responsibilities, also got the better of compatriot Dani Alves.


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On the flip side, with their supply from midfield effectively suffocated, Madrid’s back four coped well with PSG’s much-fabled front three. However, as expected, much of the Parisians’ threat came down the left with Nacho often in one-on-one situations with the tricky Neymar. Here, Zidane will take comfort from the likely return of Dani Carvajal for the second leg in Paris.

But, the game was actually turned on its head by those coming off the bench. In truth the second half was nowhere near as intense as the first and with the match poised at 1-1, it was in fact, the away side that looked more likely to break the deadlock. Here’s where the substitutes came into the contest. Cavani’s departure with about 25 minutes to go saw Mbappe move into the central role. This relieved him of the nuisance of Marcelo, but it also worked vice-versa in an attacking sense for the Brazilian, who went to score Real’s third. Madrid responded by bringing on Gareth Bale for Benzema.

However, the move which truly tilted the balance was the double switch which saw the arrivals of Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio for Casemiro and the tireless Isco. Now Los Blancos switched to a lopsided 4-2-4 in search of the winner, essentially trying to beat PSG at their own game. It was the most delicate of tightrope walks which paid off with Ronaldo’s second on 83 minutes. The game of chess continued as the French responded by withdrawing Rabiot for Julian Draxler. Whilst this was an attacking move in search of a leveller, it meant that their defensive shape went to pieces; the goal that came eventually through Marcelo was now a question of when not if.

Zidane's substitutions turned the game on its head (Photo Courtesy: Mirror Sport)

In contrast, Real’s changes provided fresh impetus to the hosts’ push for a late advantage. Particularly impressive was youngster Asensio. Having made rapid strides since breaking into the first team, the young midfield sensation’s star is burgeoning at the rate of knots. What’s more with a finely-balanced second leg to come, he may not be done yet.

Make no mistake, this tie is far from over. However, it will likely play right into Madrid’s hands that PSG now have to force the pace in the second meeting. Much was said about the Parisians’ calamitous capitulation against Barcelona, at the same stage last year and following last night’s mini-collapse, in a game in which they very much held their own in for large parts, those questions will naturally resurface.

It remains to be seen if having the second leg at home and that too in a game they must chase, acts as an antedate to their stage fright... But, if they do suffer from a relapse of it, Madrid are sure to exploit it to the fullest. For, as it was exemplified last night, PSG may have had all the aces up their sleeve, but they counted for little up against the modern masters of European football’s grandest stage.  

Published: Fri Feb 16, 2018 01:27 PM IST

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