Madrid, Spain, Feb 13 – Zinedine Zidane is hoping the Champions League will again bring out the best in Real Madrid as the title-holders prepare to face the formidable Paris Saint-Germain of Neymar in Wednesday’s last 16, first leg.
Real are floundering in La Liga this season, sitting in fourth place, 17 points adrift of leaders Barcelona. For them, it all comes down to what they can do in Europe, where they have enjoyed such success in the past.
Madrid are the record 12-time champions, and winners of the Champions League in each of the last two seasons.
However, their recent domestic form has called into question Zidane’s future as coach, and PSG have been feared in Spain ever since they swooped to sign Neymar from Barcelona for a world-record fee.
“I am not thinking about my future. I am only thinking about the match. I can only control what happens on the field and prepare for that,” a relaxed-looking Zidane told reporters at Real’s Valdebebas training complex on Tuesday.
“That is what is important. My future does not matter much.”
It is hard to imagine Zidane’s future not being tied to the outcome of this tie, with such an early exit from Europe unthinkable for a club who have been European champions in three of the last four seasons and reached at least the semi-finals in seven straight campaigns.
The last time Madrid fell in the last 16, it was to a French side in Lyon in 2010.
This is the first time that Zidane, a World Cup winner with France, has come up against a side from his home country as a coach.
– ‘Two great players’ –
It is impossible not to also see this tie as a confrontation between the global superstars on each side in Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.
“They are two great players. We are talking about a player (Ronaldo) who has done extraordinary things, won five Ballons d’Or, scored 500 goals. I am not going to compare them, I’m talking about my player,” said Zidane.
Ronaldo, at 33 exactly seven years Neymar’s senior, stands on 99 Champions League goals for Real.
“I am delighted to have Neymar,” responded Paris coach Unai Emery, back in his home country.
The last time the sides met at the 81,000-seat Santiago Bernabeu was in the 2015/16 group stage, with Nacho scoring the hosts’ winner.
He is set to start here in the absence of suspended right-back Dani Carvajal, with Gareth Bale also tipped to return to the line-up.
Paris have of course been in Spain since that game in 2015, and will never forget the 6-1 humiliation they suffered in Barcelona at the same stage of last year’s Champions League.
PSG fans are hoping there can be no repeat of such an embarrassing defeat, especially with Neymar — who masterminded that Barcelona comeback — now in their ranks.
“Perhaps our preparation began with that match. We have not talked about it a lot but we have spoken very clearly about what happened,” Emery told reporters at the Bernabeu.
“We have learnt a lot. I think we are better prepared now and ready to compete.”
However, one of the Qatar-owned club’s most experienced players, Thiago Motta, was left out of the squad by coach Unai Emery.
That means Lassana Diarra, the former Real player who joined PSG just last month, could well start in midfield, behind the star front three of Neymar, Cavani and Kylian Mbappe.
PSG are staying at a plush hotel in a Madrid skyscraper built on the site of Real’s old training ground near the Bernabeu, and will be backed by around 4,000 fans.
As many as 1,800 police officers will be on duty to look out for trouble on what has been classified a “high risk” occasion.