Real Valentine’s Day

Date: 14 February 2018

Venue: Santiago Bernabeu

Two superclubs! The most successful club in European history! The other a club that has just arranged the two most expensive transfers in history! Cristiano Ronaldo v Neymar, the ageing great against the rising star! Skill! Tricks! Flair! Rabonas, backheels, nutmegs, dribbles! There was plenty to watch in Real Madrid’s win over PSG on Wednesday.

Every goal was the result of basic defensive laxity. Three of them featured players looking on in weary horror having failed to take rudimentary action to prevent them. The other, the penalty that allowed Madrid back into the game stemmed from Giovani Lo Celso getting into a terrible position and then panicking, pulling back Toni Kroos. The 21-year-old Argentinian was a creator at Rosario Central but has been filling in at the back of midfield for a couple of months since the injury to Thiago Motta while Lassana Diarra recovers match fitness. Perhaps the kindest thing to say is he found this a significant step up.

But Lo Celso isn’t the reason the best team in France by a mile ended up losing to the side fourth in Spain. Rather he is a symptom of a much greater problem, something acknowledged by Adrien Rabiot. “It’s all well and good putting eight goals past Dijon,” he said, “but it’s in matches like this that you have to stand up and be counted.”

Repeatedly, PSG seemed slightly bewildered by the notion of an opponent who could actually take them on. After a bright opening, Neymar ran again and again down blind alleys, and holding possession for too long, as though the enormous pressure he is under because of his price tag and because of the expectation in this World Cup year led him to try to win the game single-handedly.

He completed 13 dribbles – three more than the rest of PSG put together, and more than twice as many as anybody on the Madrid side – but few of them went anywhere useful. He was also caught in possession six times, more than anybody else on either side. Not a single pass was completed between Neymar and Edinson Cavani, a stark indication of PSG’s lack of attacking cogency.

But Madrid were no better – and there was no completed pass between Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema either. Ronaldo will be praised because players who scored two goals always are, even when one was a penalty and the other he directed home with his knee, but his was a weirdly, if not uncharacteristically, self-involved contribution.

Madrid have kept only one clean sheet in their past 10 games. They suffered similar defensive problems at roughly this time last year as well, but got away with it because of their attacking prowess. The fact remains Zinedine Zidane’s side do not control games but function as a collective unit of great stars rather than as an interdependent, mutually supportive constellation.
PSG, seem trapped endlessly in some classical tragedy, yearning for European success and then, by spending recklessly on yet more attacking stars, creating in their desperation the very conditions that will guarantee failure.

Key stats

  1. Ronaldo is the first player to score 100 UEFA Champions League goals for one club, reaching the landmark in his 95th game.
    Ronaldo has scored in the first seven match days this season – also a record.
  2. Ronaldo has scored 21 goals in his last 12 UEFA Champions League appearances.
  3. Ronaldo’s tally of 27 round of 16 appearances is three more than any other player.
  4. This is a record 15th round of 16 tie for Real Madrid, one more than Arsenal and, as of next week, Barcelona and Bayern.
  5. Paris lost 3-1 at Madrid in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals in 1993, and won 4-1 at home.

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