European masters Zinedine Zidane and Unai Emery must pull off another feat in Champions League

Chris Bailey 14/02/2018
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Zinedine Zidane was humming to the tune of The Winner Takes It All last year. As he prepares to pit his wits against a sympathetic Unai Emery, it’s now the winner that saves his job.

It is quite remarkable that Zidane needs to do what no coach has done before and win the Champions League three times in a row, after doing what no coach has done before and winning it back-to-back last year. That’s just how badly Real Madrid’s season has gone.

Staring up at Barcelona in La Liga from 17 points behind, losing to little old Leganes over two legs in the Copa del Rey and qualifying from the Champions League group stages behind Tottenham. It’s not a good look for any big club, let alone arguably the biggest of them all.

They are a team in dire need of competition of a freshening up – but no-one was accusing Real of complacency in the transfer market this summer.

The narrative was that no matter what anyone else did, they had the best players in the world in virtually every position and some of the finest young talent around in Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos.

Least of all whom were questioning Florentino Perez’s inactivity was Zidane himself. He has staunchly defended his players and, refreshingly, has not made any excuses for their downfall. Nor has he come up with any answers.

Consequently, for the best part of two months, Real have existed for this moment and this moment alone – the Champions League’s return. It’s a feeling that Emery knows all too well.

Many like to believe that the tea lady could guide PSG to the Ligue 1 title but it’s not that simple as Monaco, Marseille and Lyon are all fine sides that could compete in any top-flight league in Europe.

But Ligue 1 simply does not have the prestige to save Emery, a man who was brought to the French capital in the first place because he won three Europa League titles in a row with Sevilla and was a good bet to conquer the grandest stage of them all with an all-star team.

As delighted as he may have been to watch Neymar and Kylian Mbappe walk through the doors of the Parc Des Princes it has left him with no wriggle room to fail.

So the two coaches who have won five of the last eight European trophies between them must again head to the continent – not only in search of success, but succour.

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Kevin de Bruyne the assist king, Tottenham come of age in Turin: Seven Deadly Stats from Tuesday's Champions League games

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Kevin de Bruyne racked up another assist, but this was Tottenham's night.

The first matchday of the Champions League knockout stages has left two Premier League sides in the ascendancy heading into the second leg of their ties.

Manchester City steamrollered Basel for a 4-0 away win, but the result of the night was Tottenham getting a 2-2 draw at Juventus, coming back from 2-0 down at the home of last year’s runners up. That tie could still go either way, but Spurs are in the driver’s seat thanks to their two away goals.

Here are Seven Deadly Stats from Tuesday night’s games.

HIGUAIN’S SURPRISE SALVO

Gonzalo Higuain has been much maligned, unfairly, for failing to turn up in the big games. But he went some way to restoring his reputation during last year’s Champions League semi-final, scoring two goals in the first leg, and then he took to the pitch on Tuesday and played like a man possessed in staking Juventus to a two-goal lead.

He and Juventus may end up rueing his missed penalty, as well as one other glorious chance he missed when the home side were still 2-0 up, but his opening salvo was a reminder of his quality.

KANE EQUALS ENGLAND RECORD

Steven Gerrard scored seven goals in the 2008-09 Champions League campaign for Liverpool. Nine years later, and someone else has finally managed to equal that mark, as Harry Kane scored his seventh for this campaign on Tuesday night.

His next one could be vital. If he were to hit his eighth in the second leg of this tie, it would go a long way to ensuring Tottenham can complete their win over Juventus.

BETTER THAN THE BEST?

Not only did he equal Gerrard’s scoring record, Kane also put himself in exalted company with his goal. 

Actually, to be more accurate, he put himself above an esteemed list of players – no player in Champions League history can match Kane’s goal tally after nine matches. 

SPURS ATTACK PASSES JUVENTUS TEST

Spurs being drawn against Juventus had shades of last year’s Champions League semi-final, which pit Juventus against Monaco. Back then, the Serie A champions handed a youthful, thrilling attacking side a lesson, giving Monaco’s youngsters a dose of reality as the French side’s vaunted attack was left looking rather toothless.

This Spurs side is a little more grizzled than last year’s Monaco, but the similarities are there, and many predicted Tottenham would have similar struggles against Juventus. So coming back from 2-0 down at the home of the Italian giants is a truly special feat.

YOU’RE A WIZARD, KEVIN

It’s only February, and Kevin de Bruyne is now one assist away from 20 across all competitions. He’s already gunning for the Premier League record – incidentally, also 20; De Bruyne is on 14 – but his brilliance is being put on display wherever the Belgian graces the pitch. 

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A SEASON MAKES

Everyone knew Manchester City underperformed last season, but just how stark is the difference? Having gotten used to his surroundings, Pep Guardiola has galvanised his side, and they look completely different to the erratic, disorganised team that took to the pitch last year.

The results are there for all to see.

KYLE DRIBBLER

Crucial to City’s success this season has been the play of their full-backs, especially Kyle Walker. Guardiola has taken a player who was already known for his speed and attacking talent and maximised those abilities, without compromising City’s defence. 

On nights like Tuesday, when Walker doesn’t have to defend much as City dominated an overmatched opponent, the right-back gets to have some fun. 

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Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo feature in Real Madrid and PSG combined XI but no room for Gareth Bale or Kylian Mbappe

Chris Bailey 14/02/2018
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In a true clash of titans, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain will do battle in the Champions League on Wednesday night in a meeting that would make for a mouth-watering final – let alone a round-of-16 tie.

Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, Gareth Bale, Edinson Cavani, Luka Modric, Marco Verratti – the superstars just roll off the tongue.

But if push comes to shove, who would make the cut in a combined XI with the right balance? It’s not easy – and some controversial choices had to be made, but we’ve given it a crack …

GK – Alphonse Areola

An interesting selection to be made here as, if reports are to be believed, both clubs want bigger names between the sticks in the summer.

But Alphonse Areola deserves to get the nod over Keylor Navas simply for the fact that he conceded just four times during the group stage, and has the fifth-most clean sheets in all of Europe this season.

He has cost PSG occasionally with some questionable decision-making – but can also come up big.

RB – Dani Carvajal

Dani Carvajal is banned for the first leg at the Bernabeu and is a huge miss to the hosts, who may have to play Nacho on the flank given teenage right-back Achraf Hakimi’s loss of form.

Ultimately it is his ill-discipline that cost him – suspended for deliberately seeking a booking against APOEL – but at his very best the Spaniard has no peers in his position.

Dani Alves certainly gives him a run for his money, and, at 34 plays like he is five years younger while bombing down that right flank, but Carvajal has the edge defensively.

CB – Sergio Ramos

There is evidence that Sergio Ramos’ powers are waning as he tries to hold together a shaky Madrid defence that have conceded more times than mid-table outfits Getafe and Leganes in La Liga this season.

On the other hand, he has been tested far more times this term than PSG captain Thiago Silva, who has definitely seen better days and has not been a regular starter for Brazil for more than two years.

Nacho deserves an honourable mention as arguably Real’s best defender on form so far this year.

CB – Marquinhos

Marquinhos is the key factor in why Silva is on the outside looking in for the Selecao. He’s not just the heir apparent – he’s already taken the throne.

The 23-year-old has moved his game on again this year and is a captain-in-waiting for the Parisians, having looked authoritative when taking the armband in the recent past.

LB – Marcelo

Layvin Kurzawa hit the back of the net three times during the Champions League group stages but still the nod has to go to Marcelo here.

Kurzawa is not even guaranteed of his place at PSG due to the presence of summer signing Yuri Berchiche while Marcelo has had the left flank locked down in Madrid for years.

At his best, he is the most lethal left-back in the world and his defending came on leaps and bounds last season – it’s time to rediscover that magic for when his team needs it the most.

CM – Marco Verratti

Ask most managers who they’d plump for from PSG sans Neymar and they’d go for Marco Verratti.

His skillset is very rare in the modern game, someone who could dictate play from the base of midfield with crisp passing, an eye for a goal and a keen defensive mind.

He bagged two goals and two assists during the Champions League group stages – this was the easiest pick of the lot.

CM – Thiago Motta

Given Toni Kroos’ poor form and Casemiro’s similarly up-and-down season at Real, a trusted, no-frills veteran gets the nod here.

Thiago Motta has not returned from injury in time to take on Real and don’t underestimate how severe a blow that is.

The Brazilian, even at 35, has fended off glamour names time and time again to line up alongside the more heralded Verratti. Don’t forget – he played no part in PSG’s 6-1 hammering at the hands of Barcelona last year. Coincidence? Perhaps not.

CM – Luka Modric

Luka Modric has not succumbed to the ravages of 2017/18 like his midfield partners Kroos and Casemiro.

Yes, it’s not been a banner year for the Croatian so far, but his work in tight spaces and superglue dribbling is still a sight to behold.

FW – Cristiano Ronaldo

You thought Cristiano Ronaldo was past it? Forget that following his recent hat-trick against Real Sociedad.

The Champions League group stages only ended two months ago and lest it slip your mind, he scored an outrageous nine goals. For a ‘struggling’ team no less.

At 33 he may be getting old in football terms, but he’s still producing at a rate of knots.

ST – Edinson Cavani

Edinson Cavani belongs in an elite group with Harry Kane and Robert Lewadownski as the very best strikers in the world – how Real would love swapping out Karim Benzema’s services for the Uruguayan.

And the quality of competition rebuttal won’t wash, either. The man is averaging a goal a game over his last two Champions League campaigns, and he’s hitting the back of the net just as frequently even if Neymar keeps taking goals away from him …

FW – Neymar

Ronaldo, Cavani and Neymar – that’s some battle of egos making up the front three. However, though their rivalry would undoubtedly spill over onto the pitch, there would still be plenty of goals to share.

Neymar has plundered 19 and 11 assists from just 18 games in Ligue 1 this season and regardless of what you think of the French league, that’s astounding. Kylian Mbappe and Gareth Bale are great – but just not that great.

1302 real and psg XI

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