I admit that, in the last few days, I’ve often thought of Zinedine Zidane and the current Real Madrid squad as a footballing version of the Titanic orchestra. When the season is almost lost, the director sticks to the tried and tested, refuses to make any adjustments, and plays the same songs as the ship starts to sink.
There may be something almost metaphysical in the way the French manager has dealt with a rough sequence of results right after 18 very successful months. The fact that he trusts his starters so much may fill them with pride, but is quite demotivating for a few bright players on the bench. Even worse, it does not allow them to gain the top-match form that some of them had last season.
The clearest impact of Zidane’s serene walk towards a likely General Custer finish is that tomorrow myself and another tenths of thousands of Real Madrid fans will arrive in the Bernabeu almost resigned to watch the BBC start against Paris Saint Germain. He maintains his unwavering belief in the unstoppable nature of the trio, but to many of us, weekly watchers of Real Madrid, it’s evident that they are not even close to their shape of 2015/16 season in which they combined for 98 goals. That was probably the last intimidating term of the acronym as a group.
The main target of the Bernabeu’s wrath is of course Karim Benzema, who gained some extra life with a mesmerising dribble at the Vicente Calderon last season, but who hasn’t played decently in three consecutive matches in eons. He still shows sparks of the movement and build-up, all-around game that made him untouchable next to Cristiano Ronaldo in years past, but his confidence is shattered, especially in front of goal.
Gareth Bale, still living his particular nightmare of injuries, has looked like the most threatening member of the trio when in shape this season, but feels the lack of match intensity and could well be below what’s needed for 90 minutes played at this level. Finally, Cristiano has become the thermometer of the team: he only finishes what the rest create, and if the rest aren’t inspired, he spends whole matches without scoring, a mindboggling situation when you think of his career record with Real Madrid.
What would be the alternatives to another start of the BBC? Many Madridistas would rather have Marco Asensio on the left, teaming up with Marcelo to drive Daniel Alves nuts and give Paris Saint Germain something to worry about in their own flank, leaving Gareth Bale for a second half cameo in which his speed could be fatal for the visitors. Additionally, Isco could start in Benzema’s place, strengthening the team with his ability to mix it up in the infamous hole behind the strikers, while eventually helping out midfield in defensive tasks.
Neither will happen. Even though I’d like to think that, similarly to what he’s done in previous top-level matches, Zidane will have a surprise up his sleeve, his public statements in recent days point at Asensio and Isco occupying the bench and the BBC starting in a match that has the risk of becoming their last memorable appearance as a trio.
The game is not only Real Madrid’s last opportunity to salvage their season, but also a duel between two coaches that could lose their job if their teams end up out of the competition in this tie. On one side, this PSG doesn’t look like a Unai Emery’s team, leaving their impeccable physical preparation aside. Their messy, unstructured, almost chaotic way of playing is quite entertaining thanks to a Neymar that now indeed has a team to call his own, but who does not really help to build the type of systematic offense that Emery’s teams applied in the past. In the opposite corner, Zidane, exceptionally successful in his debut as a top-level coach, has some guilt to bear in a season which has often presented a face of Real Madrid that not many imagined.
It’s obvious that Emery lacks Zidane’s ability to influence his players, especially the divas, but has a deeper tactical knowledge than the Frenchman. However, at this point is obvious that Emery’s knowledge, without the respect of his players, is bound to have little impact on the squad. Zidane can get his side committed to win, but can’t add much to an already savvy side in terms of tactics.
Zidane’s skills are key in a top-level side, Emery’s are better suited to up and coming teams without big stars and egos. Both would get astonishing results if they could improve slightly at what the other does best. However, tomorrow they’ll have to organise and motivate their respective teams with the talents they have, and that means that the result of the match will have to do with the players themselves even more than it usually does, which is a lot, except when Pep Guardiola occupies one of the benches.
In that respect, PSG have shown an amazing form in the Champions League, but failed their test in Munich, where they lost their only competitive match of the qualifying stage. The other match against Bayern, in Paris, saw the German side conspire to get their coach fired, so it’s hard to take it at face value. The fact that Neymar & co are killing French sides every week is a proof of the talent this squad has, but they need to prove that they have matured, and that they can deliver when the stakes are high.
They’re indeed favourites to qualify, especially because Zidane’s team have looked hesitant even when they played decent football this season. For a Real Madrid supporter, this is an extremely dangerous match, one that reminds too much of recent Barcelona visits to the Bernabeu. The team hasn’t played a solid 90 minutes since the pre-season, and at this stage of the Champions League, facing a hungry team loaded with talent and dying to erase their collapse at the Camp Nou last season, the risk of a traumatising defeat is not small.
Are PSG perfect? Of course not. Their goalie Areola is rarely tested, but lacks confidence of late. With Neymar on the left, his defensive reluctance could open an avenue for Bale, and Marcelo should give Alves plenty of work on PSG’s right, even if Asensio does not start. There are obvious gaps in the team built with so much cash but not enough time. And again, they have not been properly tested by top-level teams.
One of the few points of optimism for the Madridistas is Lass Diarra’s presence with PSG. One of his last cameos in a Real Madrid shirt — an abysmal performace by the French midfielder and the rest of the squad — ended up with Barcelona winning 6-2 at the Bernabeu, so it can’t hurt to have him on the opposite bench a few seasons later.
PSG may very well have a crystal jaw, and one would like to see their dynamics on the pitch if they start trailing, but the hosts will need to defend much tighter and more awake than they have all season, and their midfield has to recover the stamina of last year. Those things do not change overnight… unless it’s a European football night at the Bernabeu.