The Champions League resumes with a mouthwatering meeting of the aristocrats and the disruptors of European soccer.
The hosts: Real Madrid, the indisputable kings of the continent with 12 titles led by five-time world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo.
The visitors: Paris Saint-Germain, the upstarts who bulldozed soccer’s transfer record to hitch Neymar to the Qatari-funded mission to join soccer’s elite.
The Santiago Bernabeu is the stage on Wednesday for Neymar’s return to Spain six months after the heir to Ronaldo’s throne was prized away from Barcelona for 222 million euros.
“(Neymar and Ronaldo) are both quick, very strong one-on-one, they play quickly and put a lot of intensity into their games,” said PSG winger Angel Di Maria, a Champions League winner alongside Ronaldo at Madrid in 2014. “Ney is smaller, and that’s perhaps his advantage. But they are both capable of turning games.”
Only one of the superstars can advance from the round of 16 games in Madrid and Paris over the next month.
The 26-year-old Neymar is chasing the supreme status already attained by Ronaldo.
“He lives and breathes goals,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said of Ronaldo, underscoring the 33-year-old Portuguese forward’s enduring influence on the team. Ronaldo has helped Madrid win three of the last four Champions League titles, with two goals in last season’s final victory over Juventus.
Juventus helps to open the knockout phase this week against Tottenham on Tuesday when Manchester City travels to Basel. Liverpool is away against Porto on Wednesday but it will take something special to seize the spotlight from the Spanish capital.
“This tie,” Ronaldo said, “could define the whole season.”
It’s not just a place in the quarterfinals at stake for PSG and Madrid. The losing coach is likely to find himself out of work by the end of the season.
Only two months ago, Zidane lifted the Club World Cup for a second successive year but his job prospects could be dependent on winning a third successive Champions League title.
So much has gone wrong domestically. Madrid languishes in fourth place and 17 points behind Barcelona in La Liga and is out of the Copa del Rey.
In Paris, Unai Emery is still haunted by last season’s failures. He clung to power despite being deposed as French champions and an astonishing collapse at this stage to Barcelona.
“We’re stronger than last season,” Di Maria said.
Certainly in France where PSG has pulled 12 points clear of defending champion Monaco.
But while PSG can bully most teams, it is vulnerable against those playing with aggression and closing down high up the pitch. That was evident in a loss to Lyon last month when PSG panicked in defense and conceded a stoppage-time goal.
PSG will be hoping the decision to invest so much of its resources in securing Neymar and Kylian Mbappe does not backfire against Madrid.
Di Maria has been in stronger form than Mbappe recently, scoring four times in the last month compared to the 19-year-old forward’s solitary effort.
Might it have been wiser to spend on protecting the shaky defense? For the trip to Spain, 32-year-old Lassana Diarra could be deployed as the holding midfielder even though Emery accepts he can’t last a full game.
But Madrid has concerns in defense after conceding eight goals in its last five games, and Dani Carvajal is suspended after a yellow-card ploy backfired. While Carvajal had experience taking on Neymar in games against Barcelona, Zidane could be left relying on 19-year-old Achraf Hakimi.
Madrid is protecting a formidable home record in Europe, having gone 17 matches unbeaten. But as Karim Benzema has been discovering, playing at home has its pitfalls.
“I don’t know why there’s a section of our supporters that jeer Benzema,” Zidane said. “His fortunes will change.”