After suffering a humbling 3-0 loss against Paris Saint-Germain in September, Real Madrid will seek revenge when the two teams meet again at the Bernabeu on Tuesday.
It’s a vitally important fixture at the top of Group A, with PSG only needing one point to secure first place and Los Blancos knowing a defeat could leave their qualification in jeopardy.
Home team boss Zinedine Zidane has seen his team return to form since their awful performance in Paris a few weeks ago, but he is still heading into the game with several questions marks both tactically and in terms of personnel…starting with a certain Welshman.
BALE BACK IN BUSINESS?
Although he was not particularly decisive to the result, the post-match headlines were dominated by just one man after Real’s 3-1 league victory over Real Sociedad at the weekend: Gareth Bale.
Four days after courting controversy by dancing around an infamous flag which teasingly suggested he prioritises his country and his hobby before his day job, Bale was subjected to a torrent of abuse from the Bernabeu fans when he was introduced from the bench for teen winger Rodrygo.
Gradually, though, the Welsh star was able to convert at least some of those venomous jeers into begrudging cheers by delivering an impactful 20 minute cameo, including a good run and cross in the build-up to the third goal, crashed home by Luka Modric after a knockdown by Karim Benzema.
Now the question facing Zidane is whether his reconciliation with Bale should stretch as far as elevating the winger into the starting line-up. Logically, Bale should probably start: inexperienced Rodrygo has suffered an understandable dip in form in the last couple of games, while Vinicius Junior is out of favour and Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio are both injured.
So it would be no surprise to see Bale back in the team for a must-win game…and to see him silence the critics with another decisive display.
CAN VALVERDE BE LEFT OUT?
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Bale’s place in the starting eleven is not Rodrygo, but the outstanding form of young midfielder Federico Valverde.
Saturday’s meeting with Real Sociedad saw the Uruguayan international cap an outstanding night by getting onto the scoresheet for the second consecutive game, and the extra elements of dynamism, energy and penetration provided by Valverde are making it difficult for Zidane to leave him out.
Casemiro is another certain midfield starter to protect the back four, and Zidane can also call upon the tried and trusted pairing of Modric and Toni Kroos – both of whom he would be extremely reluctant to omit for such a big game.
Perhaps the solution, then, will be for Zidane to veer away from his usual 4-3-3 and employ a narrow midfield in a 4-4-2, with Kroos and Modric respectively positioned to the left and right to the central duo of Casemiro and Valverde, who would be given the freedom to break forward in support of Benzema and Eden Hazard.
That would allow Zidane to simultaneously solve the ‘problem’ of Valverde’s meteoric rise and the question of Bale’s place in the starting line-up, as well as giving PSG a tactical twist to contend with. So the question, perhaps, is not Bale or Rodrygo, but Bale or Valverde.
WILL PSG RESIST THE PRESS?
A key element in Real’s recent return to form, which has seen them go six games unbeaten with 19 goals scored and just one conceded, has been their ability and willingness to press high up the pitch and deny their opponents an easy passing route out of defence.
But whereas Real’s recent opponents have struggled to resist the relentless pressure of the energetic high line implemented by Zidane, employing the same approach against a team containing the quality of PSG is a different matter.
The obvious danger with a high press is that it leaves a lot of space for the opposition to exploit if they can break through the initial wave of pressure. And whereas the likes of Eibar and Leganes struggled to achieve that task, the ball-playing quality of PSG players like Thiago Silva, Marquinhos and Marco Verratti – who is expected to return from injury to start – is a different proposition.
And if the French side do succeed in escaping their own penalty box to feed their forwards in space around the halfway line, the capacity of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar to wreak havoc on the break is considerable.
So will Zidane dare to press high and force PSG back, or take a more cautious approach? For a game the hosts have to win, the balance between attack and defence will be crucial.
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