UEFA Champions League: For Unai Emery and PSG, the road to redemption starts at Santiago Bernabeu

Real Madrid host PSG at the Santiago Bernabeu in the first leg of the Round of 16 clash in the UEFA Champions League. The blockbuster clash puts Ronaldo vs Neymar and Zidane vs Emery.

Written by Karan Prashant Saxena | Updated: February 13, 2018 7:30:32 am
Neymar will be the headline act in trip to Bernabeu. This time he would not be in Barcelona colours but PSG’s attire. (Source: Reuters)

Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-0 rout of Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 fixture last year at Parc des Princes was one of the most memorable games of the competition. The reverse fixture, on the other hand, was even better when Barcelona scored three goals in injury time to eliminate the Ligue 1 club. PSG’s chance of advancing further just slipped within their fingers, with Sergio Roberto’s terrific volley that went into the goal and gave a historic 6-5 win to Barca on aggregate.

PSG boss Unai Emery’s goal of lifting first Champions League Trophy was shattered with one of the most unexpected and incredible comebacks in the history of the competition. “The truth is we have let a huge opportunity get away and we are aware of that. In the first half it was more our fault than them playing well,” Emery had said after the match.

The club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi called it a “nightmare”. “When you win 4-0, then lose 6-1, it’s very hard to accept. Everyone knows that the quarter-finals were an objective and after winning the first leg 4-0 that aim was confirmed. This is a nightmare for everybody.”

PSG further suffered another shock later in the year when they lost the Ligue 1 title for the first time in five years, with Monaco stealing the trophy. The French footballing giants knew they had to bounce back, no matter what the cost.

No matter what the cost – that was precisely the mantra the club owners employed in the summer transfer window. The club set the world record by paying €222 million release clause for Barcelona’s Neymar. If that was not enough, they stole Monaco’s rising young forward Kylian Mbappe, who joined the club on an initial loan deal, which will be converted into a permanent signing for €180 million over the summer.

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The message was clear – we are coming for the Champions Trophy. “When I was in Spain, I watched the big clubs — Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, the Manchester clubs, Juventus — and I saw that every year they would buy the best players in the world,” Emery said last year. “Today, in sporting terms, we have more enemies. They see that we are a serious team with the players we have bought in the past and also this year, and now we can also be among the candidates to win the Champions League.”

Now, in Champions League Round of 16 this season, for PSG, the challenge is once again in the form of a Spanish giant- the defending Champions Real Madrid, who are looking to make it three Champions League trophies in a row.

Kylian Mbappe could also play a crucial factor against a shaky Real Madrid defence.

It is true that the Zinedine Zidane’s side has not looked their best this season. Madrid are currently trailing at the fourth position in la Liga table – 17 points behind leaders Barcelona. The lack of consistency and poor defensive strategies has cost Zidane easy points against clubs such as Levante, Celta Vigo and Girona. The ouster from Copa del Rey at the hands of Leganes has further questioned his managerial tactics and many are considering the encounter against PSG as Zidane’s penultimate litmus test.

But, Emery knows he cannot make the mistake of taking another Spanish club lightly once again. Cristiano Ronaldo’s perfect hat-trick against Real Sociedad are signs of him returning to form. For PSG, the onus will be once again on Neymar, who has already scored 6 goals and made 3 assists in 6 appearances in the tournament this season to vitalise the attack against a struggling Real Madrid defence that has become prone to leaking goals.

Neymar’s partner-in-crime Edinson Cavani has been equally brilliant this season, and has also scored 6 goals in 6 UCL appearances and can pose problems for Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane at central defence. Angel di Maria’s return to form is another big boost for the club.

Madrid will hope they can cause another massive upset for PSG in Champions League this year and advance further in the tournament. But PSG, who defeated Bayern Munich 3-0 last year, will hope they can embark on the road to redemption at Santiago Bernabeu. Who knows, the match may lead to another shocking managerial exit, much like Bayern’s Carlo Ancelotti, earlier in the season.

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