Paris, France, Mar 6 – Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid meet on Tuesday in a huge Champions League clash that will make or break both clubs’ seasons, with severe consequences for the loser.
Two-time reigning European champions Real are in the box seat coming into the round of 16, second leg match at the Parc des Princes, having won 3-1 when the clubs met in Spain last month when Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice.
PSG are up against it, all the more so with Neymar, the world’s most expensive player missing as he recovers in Brazil following a foot operation.
But the lavish spending of the Paris club’s Qatari owners in recent years means there is enough quality in their squad for them to maintain hope of turning the tie around even without their 222-million-euro ($275 million) talisman.
“This club has had its limits in this competition in the past and now we need to go beyond them to keep on progressing as a club,” warned PSG defender Dani Alves, a former Champions League winner with Barcelona.
“We have a unique opportunity to change the history of the club. We need to believe we can do it,” the 34-year-old Brazilian said.
Elimination, after PSG had taken the lead in the first leg, would surely hasten the departure of Spanish coach Unai Emery.
He has never completely won over the doubters and has never previously made it past the last 16 in this competition, with the 6-1 humiliation in Barcelona a year ago still fresh in the memory.
– End of a cycle? –
Out of contract at the end of this season, Emery is relying on big performances from players like Thiago Silva and Angel Di Maria, who were both left out in the first leg.
A victory for the hosts in the French capital would be the most significant result for PSG since the Qatari takeover in 2011, after four straight quarter-final eliminations and the collapse in Barcelona in the last 16 a year ago.
But another premature exit would raise questions as to the long-term viability of the Qatar project — the money spent on Neymar, the 180 million euros committed to signing French starlet Kylian Mbappe and a host of other big transfer fees, was meant to fast-track the club to European glory.
An exit would also see PSG lose out on extra millions on offer for further progress in Europe, money which would help them meet UEFA’s financial fair play rules.
“Certain narrow-minded people will no doubt take great pleasure from going back over the investments of last summer,” former PSG player David Ginola told Le Parisien newspaper when asked what the reaction would be to a defeat.
“But for now let’s leave open the possibility that PSG will make us dream.”
There is a precedent for the Parisians overturning a 3-1 deficit against Real, and Ginola remembers it well — he scored as the French side beat the Spanish giants 4-1 in their UEFA Cup quarter-final second leg in 1993.
It was with a nod to that game that the headline on the cover of sports daily L’Equipe on Tuesday screamed: “To Be Repeated”.
Such an exploit would be bad news for Real coach Zinedine Zidane, with the Spanish giants throwing everything into their quest to win a third consecutive Champions League.
They are currently third in La Liga, 15 points behind leaders Barcelona, and are long since out of the Copa del Rey.
Without continued progress in the Champions League, it will be a long couple of months until the end of the season for Real.
“After the game, it’s going to be difficult for one of the two teams, but that is football,” admitted Zidane, one of France’s most celebrated players.
His remarkable record in his first two years in charge at the Bernabeu means sacking him would not be easy for club president Florentino Perez.
However, a first last-16 exit for Madrid since 2010 may signal the end of a cycle.
Ronaldo, who scored his 100th Champions League goal for Real in the first leg, is 33 now and Perez is likely to step up the search for a new megastar signing in the summer, win or lose on Tuesday.