February 15, 2018
Unai Emery said that the preparation for this game started at the Camp Nou last season but he cannot have meant like this. It was not three goals in seven minutes and it is not decisive yet but Paris Saint-Germain did concede twice in that period to leave them facing another premature European exit. They still have the Parc des Princes and Zinedine Zidane warned that “anything can happen” in three weeks’ time, but after Adrien Rabiot and Cristiano Ronaldo scored in the first half, Marco Asensio came on to create late goals for Ronaldo and Marcelo, just when PSG appeared to be exercising some control. “They scored when we were at our best,” Emery said, which is why it is Madrid who are in control of the tie now.
Real Madrid suffered at times but they will not relinquish their European title without a fight. “This club has 12 Champions Leagues and there is a reason for that,” Zidane said. “We can be very happy with what we did against a very good team tonight.”
If much of the buildup to this game focused on the trios up front, it did not follow the script exactly. Ronaldo scored twice and Neymar ran at Madrid repeatedly, as well as producing a lovely flick for the opener. But Kylian Mbappé, whose delivery helped make it for Rabiot, missed wonderful opportunities and Edinson Cavani and Karim Benzema were withdrawn early. Gareth Bale was a surprise exclusion and though he got on it was Asensio who really won the match, even if Emery was left lamenting the role of the official.
“It was a repeat,” Emery said, when the 6-1 defeat at Barcelona last season was brought up. He was not talking about the result or the collapse but refereeing which he said “damaged” PSG, his focus drawn to the penalty Madrid were given and one his side were denied, as well as an “inclination” against his side. It did not convince and will do little to reduce the pressure on him. If PSG’s elimination is confirmed, his will surely follow. Exciting though they are, the vulnerability is still clear.
Leaving Bale out was another big call and what it means for Zidane’s relationship with the Welshman remains to be seen. Under pressure, he placed his trust in those who won the double last season: if he was going down, it would be with his team. He will feel that the decision was vindicated and he was swift to praise Isco, who he called “phenomenal”. His late substitutions were even more decisive. “We changed because we knew PSG couldn’t keep it up for 90 minutes, so we put on width and directness, with Lucas, Asensio and Gareth,” Zidane said.
With the inclusion of Isco, Zidane sought to reinforce the midfield, prioritising control over the counterattack that, later, would decide it. It meant outnumbering PSG there, and applying pressure on Lo Celso, playing in the deep role which is not really his, and Madrid began on the front foot. Yet PSG’s threat was always there, especially when they found Neymar.
The breakthrough came with Mbappé on the right. His ball was let go by Cavani and, with Nacho sliding in, Neymar flicked it into the path of Rabiot to score. Next Neymar provided for Cavani, whose shot floated just over. Madrid were shaken and wanted the half-time whistle. Before it came, though, Karim Benzema drew a superb save from Alphonse Areola and from the short corner Toni Kroos tumbled under pressure from Lo Celso. PSG protested, Ronaldo smashed in the penalty.
Lo Celso and Neymar created an early second-half chance for Mbappé, saved by Keylor Navas, and Dani Alves pulled the ball back for Rabiot, whose shot hit Sergio Ramos’s arm. PSG seemed more comfortable in possession now, Madrid more inclined to break. Anything felt possible, and on the touchline the men who would tip the balance waited. The surprise was that when Emery made his first change and took Cavani off, it was the full-back Thomas Meunier who came on. Bale followed soon after, replacing Benzema at centre-forward.
Meunier’s introduction released Alves and he went at Marcelo, whose energy levels seemed to be dropping until he burst forward in the 87th minute. Before that, a scramble ended with Ramos throwing himself in to stop a shot and then Neymar’s tantalising pass just evaded Alves. PSG took a step forward again but the space that left suited Madrid and Zidane sent men streaming into it, introducing Asensio and Lucas Vázquez. Lucas found Bale with his first intervention, Areola out to block. Then suddenly Asensio was sprinting up the other side. His first ball was cut out but PSG made a mess of the clearance and Areola could only push the next delivery against Ronaldo for 2-1. Three minutes later, Asensio was running again and Marcelo joined him to finish the move.
It could still have been different but, one on one, Mbappé ignored Alves and shot at Navas. Then Neymar guided the last kick over the bar. “This is how Madrid win!” chanted the Bernabéu crowd. It is how PSG lose, too.