Champions League

Tactical errors and a misfiring Neymar saw Ronaldo’s Real teach PSG another European lesson

The reigning European champions stunned PSG in the last 16, first-leg showdown with two goals in the final seven minutes at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Perhaps this was a glimpse of the future - of how a game with extreme star power, blessed with the overlords of the beautiful game, the corresponding supreme athletic prowess and the riches of two mega clubs was strangely disjointed as a consequence of the transfer market and the ever-changing individual quality within teams.

Paris Saint-Germain-Real Madrid game in the UEFA Champions League had little collective coherence, yet, as a game, it was hugely absorbing.

Indeed, all the pre-match hype and ballyhoo was just that. Real-PSG wasn’t puffery, but all the projected heroism and apocalyptic narratives of an end-all 90 minutes were hyperbole. There were moments of resplendent brilliance with Marcelo’s pass to Ronaldo, Neymar’s back-heel assist, and CR7’s goalscoring nous, but, albeit fascinating, this wasn’t a classic game in the vein of the delightfully mad two halves of football in Torino on Tuesday.

Yes, the pace was frenetic. Yes, there were pantomime villains - and there was plenty of drama. However, professional fouling, synchronised violence, diving and an overarching nervousness, in particular in the opening stages, overshadowed much of the game.

The multimillion dollar ballerinas showed touches of the dark side. Somehow, it all belied the glamour and glitter of this game, and the importance of the entire tie.

After all, a crackling, longing Bernabeu hosted a zero sum game: a negative result was to mean the end of Madrid’s season and the trigger for Zinedine Zidane’s exit; the same applied to PSG - an unkind scoreline would frustrate their all-consuming obsession with the Champions League and question the position of coach Unai Emery. They needed to topple Madrid’s dominion and sole ownership of the European Cup.

Madrid’s start was bright enough with a high press, but gradually PSG mastered the ball and the game. The Parisians didn’t excel, but they simply played at a different speed from their hosts. They always offered a sense of danger going forward. Adrien Rabiot broke the deadlock when he popped up in the opponent’s penalty box. The strike was a mundane goal from a mundane player.

Not that the big players had gone unnoticed. Neymar, presumably much to the dismay of Brazil coach Tite, was distinctly petulant again. For no apparent reason - or perhaps for his compulsion to be imposingly central even when not required - Neymar hacked down Nacho after fifteen minutes. It wasn’t a good dress rehearsal for the Brazilian if he were to move to the Spanish capital next season.

In the second half, he lifted the ball over and past a flabbergasted Nacho before taking a dive. The simulation should have earned him a second booking. The Brazilian’s cockiness is part of his appeal, but his sense of entitlement and petulance have a danger of spilling over. His passing was erratic and, with the last touch of the game, he skied a fine chance.

Ronaldo, on the other hand, had been in his own little world: immobile, ineffective and almost invisible, much a mirror of his game style in last season’s Champions League.

He burst into life after Rabiot’s goal, striking Alphonse Areola’s head with sincere power. In recent times, the Portuguese has often chosen power over placement, precision and finesse in his finishing. This attempt, in the 37th minute, was no different. In the current season about 75% of Ronaldo’s shots have come from inside the box, but with a tendency to strike the ball at full force.

Still, tremendous power sufficed to beat Areola from the penalty spot on the stroke of half-time. Giovanni Lo Celso, a surprise inclusion in PSG’s starting eleven, alongside Presnel Kimpembe, at the expense of Thiago Silva, and Yuri Berchiche, made Toni Kroos tumble inside the box. The German exploited Lo Celso’s immaturity and outright silliness, and from the spot Ronaldo didn’t hesitate.

After the interval, the game was back and forth, with spells for both the hosts and the visitors. Zidane fielded Isco from the start to reinforce the midfield. Still, the Frenchman, with that utterly strange sartorial combination of a puffed jacket under his blazer, seemed bereft of a game plan as Madrid had little direction or purpose for much of the second half.

At least, Zidane wasn’t undone by foolishness. Emery was - and for that matter, it was foolishness of his own design. The Basque coach wanted to settle for the draw and substituted Uruguayan striker Edison Cavani for Belgian full-back Thomas Meunier. The introduction of Meunier prompted a tactical change with Daniel Alves moving higher up to assist in attack. With Angel Di Maria also on the bench, Emery’s choice was simply baffling.

In response, Zidane introduced speed to his team with Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vázquez. He went for the killer blow, deploying a daring 4-2-4 formation.

In a thrilling finale, the glistening white-shirted Madrid ensemble, momentarily eleven Galacticos again, were all over the ‘faux Galactiques’ from Paris. The kings of the European Cup demonstrated their continental pedigree against the rising, if wobbling, nouveau riche from the French capital.

The myth and might of Madrid was trumping the economic imperatives of Qatar in four minutes of galactic superiority.

There was Ronaldo! Boom, 2-1. His movement proving superb, a trait often underrated among modern strikers.

Up popped Marcelo! Boom, 3-1! The mercurial left-back fooled PSG with his ever-lasting energy.

The Bernabeu was ecstatic, borderline euphoria: Madrid’s season isn’t over yet, PSG’s one is teetering on the edge. Still, who knows what madness the return leg to Paris will bring.

“We can afford to have a bit of euphoria tonight. We have to be satisfied, and enjoy this,” said Zidane after the game. “But there is a second leg to come where we will need to play with a lot of intensity. We know we are going to suffer.”

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