Real Madrid – Paris Saint-Germain: Uncle Benz Concocts A Crazy Comeback (3-1)
The first edition of this star ensemble had afforded the defeated just enough room in the plot for a blockbuster sequel. Indeed, Carlo Ancelotti spurned old habits in an attempt to keep up his end of the bargain, only for a familiar script to set up an epically cataclysmic conclusion.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
At a club where the optics tend to steal the limelight, Carlo Ancelotti could ill afford a repeat of the showing at the Parc des Princes. Conferring royal status to the nouveau riche, a goal deficit at the final whistle was among the more favorable outcomes Real Madrid might have earned from that contest. The aspiring LaLiga champions laid the groundwork for an aggressive reprisal on the weekend. Their guests’ hell-bent obsession with this trophy, however, would be a different challenge to handle.
PSG’s assault on the Champions League in 2022 would define their campaign more than it ever has done in the past. Supremacy in Ligue 1, where the Parisians hold a 13 point lead at the top of the table, has not relentlessly translated over to a sublime style of play on the field. But a dominant display in the first leg has wielded developments together at the perfect moment to give them the initiative. So, would magician Mauricio Pochettino mastermind another tactical triumph on the road?
Ancelotti made four changes to the starting eleven he fielded in the 4-1 win over Real Sociedad last time out. Where the fitness of Karim Benzema was in doubt before the first leg, Casemiro and Ferland Mendy now missed out in the return clash due to a suspension. Therefore, Nacho filled in on the left of the back four while David Alaba sat at the heart of central defense next to Éder Militão. Federico Valverde and Toni Kroos also came back from illness and injury to feature in the middle of the park.
In his perennial pursuit of balance, Pochettino has favored several relations. Above all, Leandro Paredes earned the trust of his compatriot once more to sit at the base of the midfield in place of Danilo Pereira or Marco Verratti, who flanked the Argentine. But, true to form, all eyes were on the front three ahead of kickoff. Kylian Mbappé, the star blazing the brightest in Paris, was nursing a sore foot. Absent on the weekend against Nice, the forward was fit to take the place of Ángel di María.
Old habits die hard
The crucial factor behind the dominance of PSG in the first leg rested in the contrasting initiative of the two teams. Although neither outfit created a glutton of great chances, PSG’s territorial dominance could wear down their visitors over time. Therefore, if Ancelotti intended to inspire a comeback, he could not let the Parisians freely impose their will on the game— as was the case three weeks ago.
It was no shock to see Real Madrid employ a higher block from the off. A central element in their pressing scheme was the outward movement of Kroos and Valverde, both keen to shut down the buildup axis of Verratti and Paredes. The Spaniards forced the issue in the opening stages but lost momentum in this department. Once they dropped off into a lower block, it was a familiar outlook. Horizontal gaps in a midfield with an athletically ailing Kroos as its anchor facilitated flashes of combination play the forwards, forcing central defenders to step out perilously from the back four.
PSG are back in their strategic element
But with the lead in the tie, Pochettino’s men were not as eager to impose themselves. Furthermore, the dynamism of Mbappé presents a unique threat from counterattacks, not least with the creativity of Neymar and Messi. Indeed, the manager’s alterations marked out an intent to strike hard on the break. Mbappé moved rightward to make way for Neymar in the first leg but returned to the left wing in this contest. Free to exploit the room behind the higher fullback, Dani Carvajal, he earned a pivotal role.
8th minute: offensive transition from PSG. Messi breaks the initial wave of counterpressure, skipping past Carvajal. Neymar then slips free from Kroos in the blindside of the midfielder. The Brazilian drives towards the halfway line as the primary playmaker before finding Mbappé in behind Militão.
In the 39th minute, Neymar hit a sweet through ball with his left boot, setting away Mbappé on the break. The forward shaped his hips to the far post, only to find the near side, where Thibaut Courtois could not parry his effort. Doubling the aggregate lead, he put Madrid on the brink of elimination.
Ancelotti entrusts the youth
Desperate times call for desperate measures. This year, Ancelotti has all too often refrained from calling on the services of his men from the bench. But, with nothing to lose, the manager brought on two new players in the 57th minute. Rodrygo replaced Asensio as the right winger, and Kroos made way for the fresh legs of Eduardo Camavinga in the middle of the park. However, for all Ancelotti’s proactivity, what transpired in the final half hour was mesmerizing— thanks to a familiar narrative.
58th minute: pressing sequence from Real Madrid. Vinícius marks Pereira while the other members of the front three shadow the central defenders. Coverage in the middle of the park forces the play out to Mendes, whose ball reception is a cue for Carvajal and Militão to shift from the back four.
Building the play out from the back, Gianluigi Donnarumma loitered on the ball. Benzema sprinted at the goalkeeper, forcing him to sell short Hakimi. Vinícius picked up the pieces, squaring to Benzema, whose shot ruthlessly punished the error. Out of nowhere, Madrid had gained a foothold in the match.
Mauricio Pochettino was so mad about Real Madrid's first goal that he declined to discuss the rest of PSG's performance 😠 pic.twitter.com/0oqiPNBOge— GOAL (@goal) March 10, 2022
Madrid’s pressing plan carried more punch in light of the substitutions. An asymmetric front three invited PSG to build the play down their left, where the right back now oriented himself more clearly to Mendes. The axis of Neymar, as the width holder on the left, and Mbappé could not make their mark on the game, while deep buildup phases were counterproductive. With a quarter of an hour left on the clock, the stage set itself for another member of the old guard to act as Benzema’s lieutenant.
It’s happened again…
Thwarting a threaded pass from Neymar into the path of Messi, Modrić showed his timeless quality. The midfielder shook off multiple markers before slipping the ball to Vinícius. His teammate chose not to go alone, returning the play to Croat. Blue shirts had fallen back into the box, but a cute slide rule pass parted the defense. Benzema was the grateful recipient, leveling the tie in the 76th minute.
Fear gripped PSG’s rearguard, giving way to a swift fatal blow. A turnover from the restart teed up Vinícius to break into the box. A frantic lunge from Marquinhos merely put the ball on a plate for Benzema, whose adroit finish sealed a hat trick. Pandemonium: 3-1 on the night, 3-2 on aggregate.
Crisis mode found its way to the dugout. Idrissa Gueye had entered the fray in place of Paredes to patrol the middle of the park, but a sudden deficit forced Pochettino to throw caution to the wind. Di María joined the front three, and Julian Draxler swapped with Hakimi. The substitutions were to no avail. PSG could not mount decisive pressure, catastrophically exiting the Round of 16. Déjà vu.
If any duel could substantiate the claim that goals change games, it was this second leg. After 150 minutes of a 180 minute tie, the Parisians were in an ideal spot to get into the last eight of the Champions League. The rest will go down in folklore: Benzema will rightly take acclaim for his protagonist role in Madrid’s exploits. Yet, amid all of the euphoria, it is not certain if this outfit can compete with the European elite. Individual quality might have bailed out Ancelotti’s first leg blunders, but far more complete units still in the competition ought not to be as forgiving.
Where do PSG go from here? For all their struggles before the Round of 16, their strengths came to the fore neatly over the two legs. A mix of control through Verratti and the potency of a front three with Mbappé as its key man should have killed the contest. Yet, an ignominious collapse forces the Parisians to confront the age old question of balancing a project where stars have taken center stage. Pochettino might be the next hapless victim of the managerial hot seat, but the circumstances of this exit should not detract from the fundamental challenge at hand.
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