A few months ago in Zurich, when Paris Saint Germain drew the title holders and 12-time winners Real Madrid for their last sixteen tie in the UEFA Champions League, most of us were of the opinion that it would be the end of the Zinedine Zidane luck, or charm, writes Mudassir Mustafa.
Many have labeled him a puerile coach whose tactics are frenetic or even chaotic. Real’s struggles saw them trail great rivals Barcelona by 17 points as early as January, and provided more assertion to the tactical flaws and even made grounds for the argument that ‘Zidane should be sacked.’
Conversely, PSG’s start the 2017/18 campaign was blistering to say the least. Unai Emery said the preparations for the match began right after their last year’s exit, when they fall short in Camp Nou.
Neymar, the architect of that historical comeback, left Barcelona and signed for PSG for a hefty €222 million fee. Their president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, following the path of Real’s Florentino Perez, brought together a formidable attacking trio in the form of Edinson Cavani, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappé.
The highly anticipated draw made Real the underdogs, but, they are no stranger to that, or grinding out a victory, and like to cause an upset when everyone has written them off.
Where many have feared it would be a defensive mess with attacking conundrums, Real put three past PSG. For the umpteenth time, they emerged victoriously.
It was a managerial masterclass by Zidane, if not a tactical masterclass. Real were off to a flying start, pressing high up the pitch, creating problems for PSG’s backline, and were relentless in attack.
But it was the famous trio who created the first goal for Adrien Rabiot. Madrid drew level through Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty just before the halftime whistle was blown.
Everyone was surprised when, in the 64th minute, Emery withdrew Edinson Cavani and introduced Thomas Meunier.
A few minutes later, Zidane’s first move was to replace the struggling Karim Benzema with Gareth Bale. Then he replaced Isco – who was fantastic and earned a standing ovation — with Marco Asensio, and Casemiro with Lucas Vasquez.
The change from 4-4-2 diamond to a standard 4-4-2 added a double pivot and width in the shape of the pacy Vasquez, Asensio, and Bale. It led to two more goals in the space of four minutes, and so it ended 3-1 to the Madrid side.
“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 simpered after the match.
Zidane, who was under a lot of pressure from the fans, press, and the management, delivered yet again. But the story was quite the opposite for Emery, whose errors have proved fatal. If PSG are eliminated again, it will surely mean the end for the Spaniard’s reign in Paris.
Since then Madrid have faced Real Betis and Leganes in La Liga, both away from home, in the space of 4 days. They beat Betis 5-3 and Leganes 3-1, and the latter without Ronaldo, Bale, Luka Modric, Marcelo, and Toni Kroos in the squad.
Real have started to look like their former selves after a horrendous start to the campaign which effectively put them out of two competitions.
But, if there is anything they love, it’s the Champions League. They are a different team on European nights.
The atmosphere, the will, and most importantly the attitude to win are all there. Real care more about the Champions League than La Liga, or so it seems.
‘Madrid didn’t play, but still won. It was a game that should have ended 1-1, 2-2 or 2-1 for PSG.”
Former Barcelona midfielder Xavi labels Real Madrid’s Champions League win over PSG as ‘an injustice’
— Goal (@goal) February 18, 2018
Zidane warned that “anything can happen,” as they still have to face the Paris giant in France. To add more spice to the fixture, Real might be in Paris without Modric, Kroos and Marcelo – all of whom the standout performers in the first leg.
But, Real have coped very well without them in away matches against Betis and Leganes. Leganes, who beat them at the Bernabeu in the Copa del Rey, scored an early goal in this La Liga fixture, but it was the character of Real, something they had forgotten in recent months, which brought them back into a match they eventually ended up winning.
In two weeks’ time, Real will face PSG at Parc de Princes. Zidane has the trust of his squad and they are ready to fight for him once again, but if the injured marquee players don’t make it on time it will be a massive blow to the Spanish giants. Although, writing them off would be a mistake.