Real Madrid will host Paris St Germain on Wednesday night in a Champions League clash dripping with superstars and intrigue.
Here, are five key talking points of the last-16 first leg battle.
Zidane downplays pressure over his future
Not even Zinedine Zidane can quieten the frustrations around Real trailing Barcelona by 17 points in LaLiga. But the former Real playmaker continues to insist his own situation is no distraction for his players. “I’m not thinking about my future, I’m just focused on tomorrow’s game,” Zidane declared in Tuesday’s press conference. “We don’t feel the pressure, we like playing games like this.” Whatever the outward projections, Zidane knows a victory over the in-form PSG would go a long way to securing at least a stay of execution in the Real hotseat.
Star billing has the neutrals excited
Former Barcelona forward Neymar will be back on enemy territory in different colours on Wednesday, attempting a smash-and-grab raid on his old rivals, but this time for PSG. The Brazil star has impressed steadily since his move to France, but will know the size of the challenge awaiting in Madrid. Any neutral football fan will relish Neymar pitting his wits against the likes of Real totem Cristiano Ronaldo, but Madrid boss Zidane has been at pains to remind his players the encounter will be about so much more. “Tomorrow is a case of Real Madrid against PSG not Neymar against Cristiano,” he said.
PSG seeking vindication in Madrid
The last time PSG pitched up at the Bernabeu, they dominated the tie but lost out 1-0, in Champions League group stage action back in 2015. Now Unai Emery’s men believe they are ready to rule the continent, thanks to acquisitions like Neymar and Angel Di Maria. The Parisians still have plenty to prove, but know full well there are precious few better places to flex some title-challenging muscle than in Real’s fortress home ground.
Madrid focused on performance not systems
Balancing all their attacking talents has long proved among Real’s toughest challenges. But under-fire boss Zidane insists his side’s system and formation should not matter. Instead he has challenged his players to perform to their best whatever shape they are asked to employ.
Cavani itching to dominate biggest stage
Uruguay hitman Edinson Cavani has been blasting goals for fun in France’s Ligue 1, and now has sights set on replicating those feats at European football’s club summit. With 27 goals in all club competitions so far this term, Cavani has been in prolific form, and would dearly love to make his mark at the Bernabeu
Former France midfielder Zidane helped Real retain the Champions League crown and lift the league title in Spain last term.
But despite Real’s struggles in the league, the 45-year-old insists both he and his top stars are in buoyant mood ahead of the Champions League last 16 first leg clash with PSG.
“I’m happy to be involved in such games, I don’t think there is any real pressure at the moment,” Zidane said in press conference on the club’s official website.
“We have prepared just as we always do and it’s true that pressure will always be there in the background. I’m going to enjoy this.
“I’m not thinking about my future, I’m just focused on tomorrow’s game.
“All of the training sessions, all of the games, they play a role for us and my future is not the key thing here.
“We don’t feel the pressure, we like playing games like this.”
Former Barcelona star Neymar will grace the Bernabeu in PSG colours this week, facing off against the hosts’ glut of fellow Galacticos.
Zidane believes Wednesday’s encounter will be far more than Cristiano Ronaldo versus Neymar however – and insisted there is no comparison between the two global superstars.
“We’ve been speaking about big players but tomorrow is a case of Real Madrid against PSG not Neymar against Cristiano,” Zidane said.
“Cristiano has done some extraordinary things and won five Ballon d’Or trophies. I’m not going to make any comparisons.
“We all know what Neymar can do on the pitch. He has real quality and often makes the difference. We’re not here for a showdown between those two, we’re here to watch Real Madrid take on PSG.”
👀 Neymar had a hand in 190 more goals than Ronaldo prior to turning 26. pic.twitter.com/8mAMGRCcn4— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) February 5, 2018
Midfielder Adrien Rabiot insists however that all that stands between PSG and Champions League glory this term is self-belief.
Rabiot believes PSG should have toppled Real in Spain when losing 1-0 in the Champions League group stages in November 2015 – and has challenged Unai Emery’s men to make amends this week.
“We lost 1-0 but we really played well; I loved playing in that stadium,” Rabiot told PSG’s official club website.
“We haven’t been back since so we can’t wait to get there and we know it’s going to be a big game.
“We didn’t deserve to lose. We played really well and gave Real Madrid the runaround on their own turf, and not everyone can do that.
“We showed that day that Paris could play an important role in European football.
“The Champions League is a very different competition to Ligue 1 or the domestic cups, and the same goes for both teams.
“We approach these games differently, the pressure is different too.
“You need to be mentally strong to get the result in these Champions League matches.
“I have no doubt that is what cost us the previous years. We need to be psychologically ready.”
Arabic players are set to light up Europe’s two elite leagues as they get down to the pointy end.
v Porto (Feb 14 Estadio do Dragao, Mar 6 Anfield)
Any list of this kind has to start with the extraordinary Egyptian who has been absolutely magnificent since arriving from Roma to Liverpool in the middle of last year.
He has scored a stunning 29 goals this season, including five in the Champions League, plus a further eight assists and his partnership with Roberto Firmino gets better every match.
Yacine Brahimi (Porto)
v Liverpool (Feb 14 Estadio do Dragao, Mar 6 Anfield)
The talented Algerian has slotted in superbly on the left for Porto since his arrival from Granada in 2014.
He played all six of the group stage matches, playing 506 of a possible 540 minutes, scoring a goal and assisting another in the crucial 5-2 win over Monaco that saw Porto confirm their qualification for the knockout stages.
In all he has scored eight goals in 34 matches in all competitions for Porto this season.
Medhi Benatia (Juventus)
v Tottenham (Feb 13 Juventus Stadium, Mar 7 Wembley)
The Moroccan centre back has been ever reliable at the heart of the Juventus defence this season with 21 appearances in all competitions, including five in the Champions League.
His growing understanding with Andrea Barzagli has been vital to Juve’s defensive solidity this season and he has also popped up with a couple of goals in Serie A, the first against Crotone and the second a crucial winner against AS Roma.
Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid)
v PSG (Feb 13 Bernabeu, Mar 7 Parc de Princes)
The 19-year-old Moroccan made history last year becoming the first Arabic player ever to play for the famous Los Blancos.
Achraf, or “Arra,” as his team-mates call him played the full 90 minutes against Spurs in his Champions League debut at the Bernabeu and backed it up by also playing the full match in the return fixture at Wembley.
“He had a lot of the ball; he didn’t look out of place at any stage,” El Pais journalist Pablo Perez said after the match. “He incorporated very well in attack. He didn’t suffer much in defence.”
We’ll have to wait and see if he appears in the knockout stages but its clear he has a big future ahead of him in Madrid.
Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal)
v Ostersund (Feb 15 Ostersund Arena, Feb 22 Emirates Stadium)
Along with Salah, Elneny played a key role in Egypt’s historic qualification for the World Cup.
Since his arrival at the Emirates in 2015 he has made 33 appearances for the Gunners contributing three assists.
The jury is still out with most Arsenal supporters about just how big a role Elneny can play for the Gunners but the 25-year-old is sure to feature as they try to go deep into the Europa League.
He’s played six matches in the tournament so far, scoring a goal in the 6-0 rout of BATE Borisov.
Sofiane Hanni (Spartak Moscow)
v Athletic Bilbao (Feb 15 Stadion Spartak, Feb 22 Estadio de San Mamés)
The 27-year-old Algerian attacking midfielder began the season at Anderlecht in Belgium where he played all six group matches of their unsuccessful Champions League campaign, even scoring against Bayern Munich.
On the January deadline day he joined Spartak Moscow in a three-and-half-year deal, which will now see him turn out for them in the Europa Laegue, starting with Athletic Bilbao on Thursday.
Hanni scored 18 goals in 61 league appearances for Anderlecht and led the Purple-Whites to league triumph last season as the captain.
He gained his first cap for Algerian side in June 2016, aged 25, in an Africa Cup of Nations qualification match against Seychelles.