Paris Saint-Germain have travelled to the Santiago Bernabeu to face Real Madrid tonight in what could be defined as the biggest tie in the 48-year history of the club. With huge sums of money spent last summer to further bolster an already star-studded squad, failure at the round of 16 for the second successive year in Europe’s premier competition is simply not an option for the capital club.
A defeat to the record 12-time winners over the two legs would raise serious questions, not to mention, the exit door for Unai Emery’s as PSG manager.
Although Paris boast an abundance of their own threats to Real Madrid’s stranglehold on the Champions League trophy, Emery’s men also display some weaknesses that Los Blancos may look to exploit.
I analyse five of Paris Saint-Germain’s potential flaws ahead of this week’s first leg in Madrid.
1 | Lack of Clean Sheets
After a solid start to the season, PSG began to show signs of defensive fragility during the autumn months stemming from errors and lapses in concentration. This peaked over the festive period when PSG went seven games without a clean sheet in all competitions. Undoubtedly, PSG have tightened up a leaky defence since the turn of the year in domestic competition, but when analysing the performances of the defence and goalkeeper, PSG have been lucky at times that they have not been punished far more severely by their opponents.
A potential reason, is that Unai Emery has regularly rotated his centre backs and full backs. Maybe a little too much, in truth, which seemed to have had an adverse effect on the team’s defensive chemistry. Presumably and when fit, Emery’s first-choice back four based on reputation is Dani Alves, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva and Layvin Kurzawa; however, they have started together just once in PSG’s last 15 games in all competitions dating back to the defeat at Bayern Munich in early December. Unmistakably, this is not an ideal scenario for Emery if he is to start with the quartet in Madrid and one Los Blancos may look to exploit, even though it appears as if the understatedly excellent Yuri might pip the French international left-back to the post tonight.
2 | Midfield Imbalance
PSG’s midfield options have been a topic of discussion since the summer with the club preferring to bolster their forward line in the transfer window rather than to invest in a midfield area that was in dire need of upgrade. To rely on the 35-year-old Thiago Motta to fill the role in the defensive midfield role without sufficient cover was a careless and nonsensical move by the club. This has been highlighted by the Italian’s injury haul this term resulting in just 10 appearances in 37 outings to date.
With Giovani Lo Celso, Julian Draxler and Marco Verratti taking in turns to fill the void left by Motta, it is clear that all three players are not completely comfortable in that role. Although PSG have been able to manage domestically, the same scenario may not be so easy to cope with in the Champions League. The free transfer of Lassana Diarra in January was enough proof that Emery was not entirely happy with his midfield options ahead of a crucial period in the season. With Emery all but ruling out Thiago Motta for Wednesday’s first leg, it looks increasingly likely that Diarra or Lo Celso will get the nod alongside Rabiot and Verratti.
To start with, either of the two will be a bold move from Emery as Diarra has played no football at this level for six years and with just a few appearances under his belt at PSG, his own physical conditioning may potentially be called into question. What is apparent is that Diarra will be able to deal with the magnitude of the occasion having starred for Real Madrid between 2009 and 2012. Lo Celso on the other hand, who is a natural attacking midfielder will have to sacrifice much of his own game to protect his backline and thwart the threats in central areas offered by Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. If selected, it will be fascinating to see how the ex-Rosario Central man copes with such a disciplined task.
3 | Big games and big atmospheres
PSG have struggled this season when they have played away from home in hostile and atmospheric environments and if PSG are to put themselves in the driving seat ahead of the second leg at the Parc des Princes then they must overcome this at the Bernabeu.
PSG’s defeats this campaign have come at Strasbourg, Bayern Munich and Lyon; full stadiums with noisy, antagonistic support and Emery’s men were unable to gain control of the game on each occasion. The capital club were also moments away from defeat in Marseille last October in another unwelcoming environment and once again showcased difficulties in adapting to the high-pressured surroundings. Frustrations boiled, and Les Parisiens finished the game with 10 men as they did in Lyon.
Whilst the Santiago Bernabeu is not usually renowned for its thunderous atmosphere, the tie with PSG is all Zinedine Zidane’s side have left to salvage something from a somewhat disappointing season. Therefore the 80,000 fans in attendance on Wednesday evening may just crank up the noise a little more than usual.
4 | Mental Fragility
The cataclysmic collapse at the Camp Nou last March was not the first time PSG have squandered a big lead in a Champions’ League game. In fact, PSG have a history of this dating back to March 2001 when after 55 minutes Luis Fernandez’s men were 3-0 up against Deportivo La Coruna at the Riazor. Amazingly PSG capitulated and were beaten 4-3 on the night resulting the biggest comeback in the Champions League since Werder Bremen’s feat against Anderlecht in 1993. Whilst still in the memory of long-serving PSG supporters, nothing could have prepared them for that night in Catalonia when Barcelona broke another record at the expense of PSG, with the biggest comeback in Champions’ league history.
With PSG finding qualification for the semi-finals a huge stumbling block over the last 5 years, it appears that mental preparation and a deficiency in coping with pressure, particularly away from home, is still a problem despite the revamping of the squad. Undeniably PSG have been handed some difficult ties, but at times, they have given themselves more than a fighting chance in the first leg, only to choke in the second leg as displayed against Chelsea in 2014, Manchester City in 2016 and Barcelona in 2017.
Paris are however also capable of delivering in dealing in adversity, when the underdog label is slapped upon them, such as in the 2015 and 2016 victories at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. The first occasion when their talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sent off in the first half and Laurent Blanc’s side battled to go through on away goals. But not seemingly when they have to protect a strong position.
PSG will need to show this kind of mental strength against the reigning Champions of Europe on Wednesday night but the difference this time round might be that the rouge et bleu will play the second leg of a knockout tie at home. This will be the first time this has happened since the round of 16 in 2014 when PSG overcame Bayer Leverkusen. PSG will fancy their chances against any team at the Parc des Princes but they must not capitulate on Wednesday night, leaving themselves too much to do in Paris.
5 | Full Backs/Goalkeeper
These two key areas have been PSG’s biggest weakness this season. If truth be told, the goalkeeper position has been a problem at the club for three years. A mixture of Unai Emery mismanaging the goalkeeping situation at the club and PSG boasting two shot-stoppers that simply do not match the standard of quality elsewhere on the pitch, has led to a number of avoidable errors.
First choice centre-back pairing Thiago Silva and Marquinhos appear to be unconvinced by both Kevin Trapp and Alphonse Areola and it often feels as though PSG are constantly a moment away from another goalkeeping clanger. Areola will likely start in Madrid but there will be no room for one of his ludicrous moments of madness with so much of the line in this tie.
Increasingly worrying is PSG’s full-back situation with questions growing of Layvin Kurzawa, who is capable of both moments of magic and madness as displayed recently in the defeat at Lyon. Many of PSG’s supporters have lost faith in the ex-Monaco man as he struggles to overcome prolonged indifferent form. Like Areola, Kurzawa has a comical moment in him and often gets caught out of position. With a fit Gareth Bale to contend with, Kurzawa will have to put in his best performance to date to nullify the Welshman’s threat.
After a strong start in Paris, Dani Alves has started to show signs of age in a PSG shirt particularly when faced with a tricky, pacy opponent. Whilst Alves still possesses wonderful ability as an attacking full-back, he has struggled at times with his positional play which then exposes his on-field frustration. Dani Alves was signed for his experience and winning mentality which was severely lacking in the squad. His team mates will call upon his professionalism and know-how, but he will also need to be on his guard as he comes up against the pace and trickery of Cristiano Ronaldo. Either Alves will roll back the years with a wonderful performance or it could be a hard-to-watch mis-match.