Real Madrid tie sets stage for Neymar to launch Ballon d'Or claim

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This is why Neymar left Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain.

Sure, the money undoubtedly was a factor, but the biggest motivation to leave the Catalonia paradise and eject himself from potentially one of the greatest ever attacking triumvirates, was to step out of Lionel Messi’s shadow and assume a starring role.

Seeing as he dominates the narratives ahead of PSG’s trip to Real Madrid — mission accomplished … well, sort of.

Taking centre stage was never going to be a problem following his high-profile €222 million transfer that made him the most expensive player of all-time.

The second and third phases of his mission are slightly more daunting — win the Champions League and his first Ballon d’Or. Failing to do so would render his move to the French capital redundant.

Despite the fact that he’s been given every privilege at PSG, including jetting off for a week to celebrate his 26th birthday, the transition hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Neymar.

And that started with a transfer saga that turned into a rather ugly affair with him storming off during a training session and Barcelona’s lawyers attempting to block the deal by pulling out every technicality in the book.

Having successfully made the switch, French football – predictably – hasn’t proved to be a very challenging landscape for the Brazilian who has nonchalantly cruised to 22 goals in 21 games in the domestic scene this season without breaking a sweat.

A strained relationship with Edinson Cavani, which often boils over on the pitch, hasn’t helped matters. After their initial clash over penalty-taking duties back in September, tensions ran high again last month in a fixture against Dijon.

Neymar, who scored four goals on the day, was jeered by his own fans when he refused to let the Uruguayan take a penalty in the 8-0 win which would’ve seen him become the club’s all-time leading goal-scorer.

PSG may not feel like home for the prodigious talent but he must keep his eye on the prize and remember why he’s there in the first place.

Facing Real Madrid and going toe-to-toe with five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo in the pursuit of European glory is just the kind of challenge that Neymar would have coveted.

Who will come out on top?

Who will come out on top?

This is the sort of game that has the potential to exalt him to the pinnacle of world football alongside Messi and Ronaldo and Madrid’s interest in the Brazilian has only raised the stakes.

Despite his recent upturn in form in La Liga, the Portuguese has had a difficult season with the team struggling to find their rhythm. At 33, whispers of Los Blancos being in the hunt for an heir to Ronaldo’s Bernabeu throne are steadily rising in decibels.

Neymar is the latest to emerge as a potential target exclusively for that purpose and it’s no surprise given that they lost out to Barcelona for the Brazilian’s signature when he first landed in Spain.

Florentino Perez has recently reiterated his desire to sign Neymar and a return to La Liga would seem like an appealing next chapter in his career but not before closing this one on the right note.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic put PSG on the map and Neymar has been entrusted with elevating them to the next level, one where they’re capable of rubbing shoulders with the biggest European powerhouses, and not just in the transfer market.

Neymar moved to Paris for a purpose and this game, against the reigning European champions led by the Ballon d’Or winner, represents everything he needs to beat to fulfill it.

He spent four years as Messi’s deputy at Barcelona but did he pick up any new tricks along the way? He’s already proved that he is capable of delivering on the big stage when he inspired that remarkable comeback against his current employers in last season’s competition.

But can he hit those heights like Messi has, and still does, time and time again? A starring performance to help PSG past Madrid would be a good start to answering just that.

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Jurgen Klopp has questions to answer ahead of Liverpool's Champions League trip to Porto

Alex Broun 13/02/2018
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With Liverpool recording a morale-boosting 2-0 win over Southampton on the weekend, the Reds now head to the imposing Estadio do Dragao to face Porto, who are unbeaten in 20 Primeira Liga games so far this season – 16 wins and four draws.

Here are our talking points ahead of the crucial Round of 16 Champions League clash:

Klopp has midfield issues as Can can’t

With Emre Can suspended due to too many yellow cards in the group stages Jurgen Klopp has some tricky decisions to make in the midfield.

A fit-again Jordan Henderson was rested against Southampton and should start in the centre of the midfield but who will be alongside him?

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was poor on his return to St Mary’s and was withdrawn on the hour mark so unless Klopp was resting him as well, expect Gini Wijnaldum to start on the right with the ever-reliable James Milner on the left.

Both Wijnaldum and Milner have their flaws, the former tending to go missing when the battle heats up in midfield and the latter looking a few yards off the pace several times this year, but the only other option is injury-prone Adam Lallana and that is a risk Klopp is unlikely to take from the start.

Dejan Lovren may come in for Joel Matip

Dejan Lovren may come in for Joel Matip in defence.

Who partners VVD at the back?

No Liverpool fan needs reminding that defence remains the Reds Achilles’ heel this season, and no sooner have they put one good performance together (such as Southampton) than they have fallen in a heap (such as the last ten minutes against Spurs).

Reds supporters will meet with great trepidation talk that Klopp plans to partner the improving Virgil van Dijk against Porto with Mr Air-swing himself, Dejan Lovren.

Lovren’s mistakes have been spectacular this season – even more so than last season – with his regular gaffes leading to Liverpool giving up crucial points in the Premier League though he can’t be blamed for either the FA Cup exit against West Brom or the Carabao Cup demise against Leicester as he didn’t start in either match.

Joel Matip, it can be argued, was not much better against Southampton and for Klopp it really is a choice between the lesser of two evils – Lovren or Matip – with Ragnar Klavan being usurped by Van Dijk in the left centre-half role.

The thought of Alberto Moreno making an appearance on the left of the back four is a terrifying thought, especially after his personal calamity against WBA, but surely Klopp can not make that mistake again of starting the haphazard Spaniard in such a crucial tie.

Andrew Robertson has made nearly every post a winner in his first season at Liverpool and is arguably the in-form left full-back in the Premier league.

The Scot must start with probably Joe Gomez (20) getting the nod on the right ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold (19) as Klopp rotates his young defenders.

Roberto Firmino love to play in orange.

Roberto Firmino loves to play in orange.

All in orange

Odd as it may sound, Reds fans will be happy not to see Liverpool wearing red on Wednesday night. Rather they will prefer the bright orange third strip which has been decidedly lucky for Liverpool this season.

The Reds have worn it five times without defeat this term: four wins – 7-0 v Maribor, 4-1 v West Ham, 3-0 Stoke and 2-0 Southampton – and one draw, the  3-3 thriller with Arsenal.

Wijnaldum and Van Dijk already know orange well as they play in it for their national team, the Netherlands, but the way the team plays when they are wearing it – Klopp, the rest of the squad (and supporters) are no doubt warming to it as well.

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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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