Karim Benzema is part of the Real Madrid problem as PSG's prince Neymar prepares to become king

Matt Jones 13/02/2018
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Real Madrid will be raring to go as they prepare to welcome Paris Saint-Germain to the Bernabeu on Wednesday as the Champions League resumes for the knockout stages.

A few weeks ago, Los Blancos may not have been looking forward to this tussle as they’ve fallen off the pace dramatically domestically, while not enough of their star players have shone.

But four straight wins in the league plus the return to form of talisman Cristiano Ronaldo will have boosted them.

PSG, meanwhile, will travel to the Spanish capital in high spirits, having lost just once in 15 games in all competitions since their final group game in December.

Here are some of the key tactical talking points ahead of the encounter…

WILL ZIDANE FINALLY BENCH BENZEMA?

Karim Benzema has come under-fire from critics.

Real boss Zinedine Zidane has stuck by fellow Frenchman Karim Benzema, so a massive question is will he continue to do so despite a drastic loss of form in front of goal?

The former Lyon man offers more than a goal threat, this is clear. He’s industrious and his link up play is underrated, but with the wealth of talent Madrid have in their attacking midfield ranks, it would surely pay for Zidane to drop Benzema and add a midfielder to the mix, like Isco or Marco Asensio.

Real don’t really rely on their strikers, with Benzema one of a few out-and-out striking options they possess, Borja Mayoral the only other centre-forward.

But whereas Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos and Isco have found form in front of goal in recent weeks, Benzema is on course for his worst goalscoring season in a white shirt.

He’s scored just once in his last 11 games and has found the net only six times in 25 games. He scored nine in 33 during his debut 2009/10 campaign, but his strikes have steadily risen since. Only last term did he start to decline, with 19 goals the first time in seven seasons he’d dipped under 20.

He wasted three clear chances in Saturday’s 5-2 defeat of Real Sociedad where even amid some flowing football, Benzema was jeered by some in the crowd.

WILL EMERY THROW CAUTION TO THE WIND AND ATTACK MADRID?

Unai Emery 1

PSG manager Unai Emery will still have the memory of Barcelona’s thrilling comeback at this stage last year in the front of his mind. After a scintillating display in the first leg in Paris, in which the hosts thrashed Barca 4-0, they were undone in the Camp Nou by an extraordinary Blaugrana revival as they stormed back to win 6-1.

What will Emery’s approach be this time? With the second leg in Paris, the French side will come in as slight favourites. It just depends whether they have the mental fortitude to keep thoughts of last year’s exit out of their minds.

Although Madrid have steadied the ship in recent weeks, they still appear all at sea and a rampant, free-scoring PSG could cause them all sorts of problems. With the likes of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe let loose on a suspect defence, Emery should opt for a bold, attacking approach in the first leg to put Madrid on the back foot.

PSG might play in a weaker league but they possess few weaknesses on paper. However, in the seven years since their money-spinning takeover, the French giants are still yet to go beyond the quarter-finals. Dumping out the reigning champions would provide a real statement to the rest of the competition.

BOTH BOSS’S SEASONS WILL BE DEFINED BY EUROPE

The pressure is building on Real boss Zinedine Zidane.

After an abysmal start to the defence of their La Liga title, the Champions League represents the last opportunity for Real Madrid to salvage their season.

Woefully out of contention in the league – Real are a dismal fourth and 17 points adrift of leaders Barcelona – they were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by lowly Leganes.

Zinedine Zidane needs to win an unprecedented third successive European title to have any hope of remaining Madrid boss beyond the end of this season.

Unai Emery, meanwhile, has no such concerns domestically. PSG are sitting pretty atop Ligue 1, 12 points ahead of reigning champions Monaco, and comfortably through to the quarter-finals of the Coupe de France.

However, Emery will largely be judged on his performances in Europe this season. PSG are expected to complete a clean sweep of all domestic trophies in France but the season will still be deemed a disappointment if they do not go far in the Champions League.

A PASSING OF THE TORCH

video-birthday-battle-spain-la-liga-real-madrid-barcelona-neymar-cristiano-ronaldo-copa-90-sport360

Neymar is by no means a kid anymore but he is still one of the most exciting talents in the game. And there’s plenty to suggest by his decision to leave Barcelona last summer that we haven’t seen the best of the brilliant Brazilian yet, not by a long shot.

On the opposite side on Wednesday will be Cristiano Ronaldo, the old master. With his career reaching its twilight years, the stage is perfectly set for the young pretender to usurp the king of his throne.

While Real are struggling domestically, in Europe they’ve been much more impressive on the continent with Ronaldo setting a new record for scoring in every single group game, the first player to ever do so.

He’s also leading the way with nine goals. On top of that, Real have undoubtedly been kings of this competition in recent years, winning three of the last four titles.

If Neymar can lead his side to victory over the two legs and topple the holders, it would go some way to cementing his reputation as the best player in the world.

PSG need a deep run in the competition and if Neymar was to lead them to glory, it might just push him from out of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s shadow.

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Cristiano Ronaldo back to sit on his Champions League throne as Real Madrid take on Neymar's PSG

Matt Jones 13/02/2018
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Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain take centre stage on Wednesday night as the two juggernauts battle it out in the heavyweight tie of the Champions League last 16.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar will likely be centre of attention, but both sides possess a wealth of talent capable of changing the match in a blink of an eye.

Here, we look at the key battles which will form the basis of what we all hope will be a thrilling spectacle in Madrid.

STRIKING TALENT

CRISTIANO RONALDO V NEYMAR

Basic Stats

Goals: 9-6

Assists: 1-3

Shot accuracy: 46%-50%

Key passes: 1-20

It’s a case of the present meeting the future as veteran marksman Ronaldo comes up against one of the game’s brightest young talents in Neymar.

It could also provide a glimpse into Real Madrid’s own future with the brilliant Brazilian supposedly being fitted for a bright white shirt in the Spanish capital.

Ronaldo has always had his detractors, critics who claim he’ll never be remembered as a true equal to Lionel Messi, but this season his form in front of goal has dropped.

The 33-year-old has returned to his best in recent weeks, scoring seven goals in his last four La Liga outings, including a hat-trick in Saturday’s 5-2 defeat of Real Sociedad.

Two braces against Deportivo and Valencia confirm Real’s talisman is hotting up when it matters most.

While Real have struggled in the face of Barca’s brilliance domestically this season, Ronaldo has driven them and himself on in Europe, where he broke yet another record before Christmas, becoming the first player to score in every single Champions League group game.

He’s also the competition’s highest scorer ever with 115 – 18 more than Messi.

On the other side of the pitch will be Neymar, who surprisingly left Spain last summer after failing to really shine in Messi’s shadow. He’s predictably been purring in Paris, even if his talent appears wasted in an inferior league.

The Samba sensation has netted 28 times in 27 games for PSG in all competitions this term, including 11 in his last eight appearances.

He’s joint second in this season’s goalscoring charts – behind Ronaldo’s nine – on six, while only James Milner (yes, James Miler) – has more assists (5) than Neymar’s four.

Ronaldo v Neymar

CHIEF CREATORS

LUKA MODRIC V MARCO VERRATTI

Basic Stats

Goals: 1-2

Assists: 1-2

Key passes: 5-7

Pass completion: 89%-94%

While Ronaldo is very much the centre of attention at Los Blancos, the real star at Real in recent years has been Luka Modric, who has been one of Europe’s best creative sparks.

The crafty Croat dictates the Madrid tempo in midfield alongside Toni Kroos, with the marauding Casemiro providing the freedom for Modric and Kroos to set up attacks and feed the frontmen.

While he doesn’t possess lung-busting pace or power, he is rarely dispossessed, although he has lost some of his consistency this season and if rumours are to be believed, the 32-year-old is one of the players under threat of the axe this summer.

He only has one assist and one goal in the Champions League this season while his 89 percent pass success rate is only good enough for 10th place among midfielders who’ve made 380 passes or more, and just five key passes made. Although he still has the guile to make things happen, it appears his powers are waning.

While Modric may be on the move this summer, the only place Verratti seems to be going is closer towards the standards set by the ex-Tottenham man. The Italian is one of the best performing midfielders in the Champions League this season, having made 573 passes at an average of 97.2 per game – only Ever Banega (711) has made more.

His 94 percent success rate though puts him right near the very top, with only Scott Brown (97), Steven N’Zonzi (96) and Sergio Busquets (95) above him who’ve made 300 passes or more.

Unlike many of his peers, Verratti thrives on breaking up the play of PSG’s opponents and then distributing the ball to his teammates with more flair. His awareness and positioning are both excellent. His high success rate for tackles and interceptions means he’s constantly focused throughout the 90 minutes.

Modric v Verratti

DEFENSIVE DUTY

MARCELO V DANI ALVES

Basic Stats

Pass completion: 81%-86%

Total passes: 324-445

Tackles won: 22-3

Aerial duels won: 6-1

Two fierce competitors whose chief concerns are preventing their teams from conceding goals, but whose real value arrives in how effective they are at starting and joining their attacks.

Marcelo and Alves are two modern great full-backs, equally adept at halting opposing wingers in their tracks as they are bombing forward and contributing an attacking threat.

Marcelo, who was prone to errors in his early Madrid career, has significantly cut out a lot of the mistakes which diminished his overall quality to establish himself as one of, if not the, world’s best left-back.

Going forward, he has taken huge strides in recent years, displaying significantly improved on-the-ball skills and passing creativity to help carry the weight of Madrid’s attack, recording high figures for both assists and even goals.

He will have his work cut out on Wednesday as he is likely to be tasked with shackling one of the most electrifying talents in the game, Kylian Mbappe.

As for veteran Alves, he has been a pioneer of the new, modern-day full-backs, helping to redefine the position. And despite winding down his career, he is still a ball of energy on the right flank, who shows no signs of fading.

Despite turning 35 in May, no defender has attempted more passes in the Champions League this season than the Brazilian (445) other than Man City’s Nicolas Otamendi.

Only Aleksandar Kolarov, Alex Telles and tonight’s opponent Marcelo have attempted more crosses.

Marcelo v Alves (1)

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Liverpool have history on their side ahead of Porto Champions League clash

Alex Broun 13/02/2018
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Kenny Dalglish finds the back of the net during the 1977/78 campaign.

Omens are good for Liverpool as they face Porto in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 encounter at the Estadio do Dragao on Wednesday night.

Liverpool have played Portuguese opponents ten times in European competition, starting way back with Vitoria Setubal in the 1969/70 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and going right up to S C Braga in the 2010/11 Europa League.

In the eight times the Reds have played Portuguese teams in the knockout stage Liverpool have gone through five times.

Their most regular opponent is Benfica who the Merseysiders have met five times in the knockout stages, going through on all but one occasion.

As for their opponent on Wednesday night, Porto, they have faced the Blue and Whites in two separate European competitions with the Reds coming out on top on both occasions – the quarter-final of the UEFA Cup in 2000/01 and the Group Stages of the Champions League in 2007/08.

Indeed, in four matches against Porto in Europe – Liverpool have never lost.

And in another good omen – of the eight times Liverpool have won European tournaments (European Cup/Champions League and UEFA Cup/Europa League) they have beaten Portuguese opponents in the knockout stages en-route in three instances.

Here’s the full rundown of Liverpool’s record re Portuguese opponents in European competition:

v Vitoria Setubal, Round of 16, Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, 1969-70

This competition ran from 1955 to 1971 with, as the name suggests, the aim being to promote international trade fairs.

Liverpool traveled to Setubal for the first leg on November 12th, 1969, losing 1-0.

In the second leg at Anfield, Setubal raced out to a 2-0 lead (3-0 on aggregate) after 56 minutes but the Reds came roaring back with goals from Tommy Smith, Roy Evans and Roger Hunt.

However, it wasn’t enough with Vitoria going through to the last eight on away goals.

v Benfica, Quarter-Finals, European Cup, 1977/78

A comfortable win for Liverpool on the way to their second consecutive European crown.

The Reds won the first leg in Lisbon 2-1 through goals from Jimmy Case and Emlyn Hughes and then ran riot 4-1 in the return leg with Ian Callaghan, Kenny Dalglish, Terry McDermott and Phil Neal all finding the back of the net.

The Reds went on to beat Borussia Mönchengladbach 4-2 on aggregate in the semi-final before defeating Club Brugge 1-0 in the final at Wembley, with Dalglish scoring the winner.

v Benfica, Quarter-Finals, European Cup, 1983/84

Another quarter-final against Benfica and another comfortable victory on the way to Liverpool’s fourth European crown in just eight seasons.

Liverpool won the first leg narrowly at Anfield after a 67th minute goal by Ian Rush and there might have been a few nerves heading to Lisbon for the return leg.

But, they eased to a 4-1 success at the Estadio da Luz thanks to a brace from Ronnie Whelan, one from Craig Johnston and another Rush effort.

Playing Portuguese opponents in the quarters was another good omen for the Reds as they breezed past Dinamo Bucuresti in the semi-finals before edging past Roma on penalties in Rome in the decider.

v Benfica, Round of 16, European Cup, 1984/85

By this time Benfica were getting sick and tired of playing Liverpool in the European Cup.

Again the two sides clashed, this time in the Round of 16, and again Liverpool progressed.

Rush scored a hat-trick in the first leg as the Reds won 3-1 and although they lost the return leg 1-0 it was still enough for the Reds to reach the quarter-finals for the fifth year in a row.

This time the Reds were not able to go on and win the Cup, losing 1-0 to Juventus in the final in Brussels.

v Porto, Quarter-Final, UEFA Cup, 2000/01

The first time Liverpool and Porto met in European competition and another good omen for the Reds as they again went on to win the tournament.

The first leg in Lisbon ended 0-0 but goals from Danny Murphy and Michael Owen in the return saw Liverpool through.

The Reds then edged Barcelona in the semi-final before winning a thrilling final 5-4 after extra time against Alaves in Dortmund.

Michael Owen scored against Boavista in 2001

Michael Owen scored against Boavista in 2001.

v Boavista, Group Stages, Champions League, 2001/02

The Reds recorded a pair of 1-1 draws against The Chequered Ones in Group B with Owen scoring at Anfield and Murphy at the Estadio de Bessa in Porto.

Unfortunately, this time, it was not a good omen as Liverpool went out in the last eight to Bayer Leverkusen.

v Benfica, Quarter-Final, Champions League, 2005/06

Benfica’s revenge. After three previous failed attempts finally Lisbon’s finest made it past Liverpool in the knockout stages.

After losing the away leg of the quarter final 1-0 hopes were high for another Anfield revival but this time it was not to be with Benfica winning the second leg 2-0 thanks to goals to Simao Sabrosa and Fabrizio Miccoli.

And Liverpool’s hopes of back-to-back Champions League titles were at an end.

v Porto, Group Stage, Champions League, 2007/08

The second time Liverpool met Porto in Europe and again the Reds came out on top.

The Reds earned a 1-1 draw in Porto on Match Day 1 with Dirk Kuyt the scorer.

Needing a win in the return leg Liverpool ran riot with a double to Fernando Torres and one each to Peter Crouch and Steven Gerrard getting them home 4-1.

It was another good omen as the Reds went all the way to the semi-finals before losing in extra-time to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

v Benfica, Quarter-Final, Europa League, 2009/10

The fifth time Liverpool have met this particular Portuguese opponent in Europe, and the fourth victory for the Reds.

Benfica edged the first leg at home 2-1 with Daniel Agger scoring for the Reds but once again Liverpool ran riot at home in the second leg with a double from Torres, a single to Kuyt and a rare strike to Lucas Leiva seeing the Reds triumph 4-1 (5-2 overall).

It didn’t help the Reds this year however as they went out in the semis to Atletico Madrid on away goals.

Andy Carroll heads the ball against Braga.

Andy Carroll heads the ball against Braga.

v Braga, Round of 16, Europa League, 2010/11

The most recent time Liverpool have met Portuguese opponents in Europe and worryingly for the Reds, another loss.

Braga won the first leg at home 1-0 thanks to an 18th minute penalty from Alan and this time there wasn’t to be any Anfield heroics with the second leg ending 0-0.

Braga went on to reach the final after triumphing on away goals in both the quarter-final and semi-final but then lost the final 1-0 to Porto in an all Portuguese decider.

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