In a breathless night of football, PSG came from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The match was phenomenally intense from start to finish, played more like a semi-final second leg than a group game with precious little at stake. Los Blancos started on the front foot, went 2-0 up and then stayed there for about 75 minutes. A late rally for PSG saw them pull things back to earn a draw and secure top spot in the group.
For much of the night it appeared as though Real Madrid had laid down a marker announcing their true return to the Champions League. Remember: Zinedine Zidane has never not won the Champions League. He’s managed two and a half seasons and been successful every time. The one year without him Madrid were dumped out by Ajax, but now he’s back.
Madrid started their European season in rocky form, getting blasted in Paris and held at home by Brugge. They settled their nerve with two-straight wins over Galatasaray but how would they fare in a rematch against their persecutors from matchday one? This was a genuinely elite side who would pose entirely different kinds of problem.
Well, that was the idea anyway. Instead for most of the game Los Blancos absolutely ran the Parisians ragged. This was Madrid’s best performance of the season by a distance. Zidane sprung a surprise with the team selection, including Isco as he called back to the 4-3-1-2 shape that allowed Madrid to win their two of their three consecutive Champions Leagues.
Isco instantly gave Madrid an advantage and allowed them to dominate the middle of the park. They pressed ferociously and as PSG were simply unable to pass the ball through them due to the men on the field. For reasons no one has yet to figure out, PSG are persisting with Marquinhos in defensive midfield.
The defender is fine as a stopper but he cannot move the ball there as a proper defensive midfielder could. To make matters worse, PSG also started a half-fit Marco Verratti and Idrissa Gueye. So their midfield was two guys who can’t really pass the ball quickly and one guy who can but was nowhere near fit enough.
So yes, Isco’s pressing was incredible and his movement saw him facilitate countless Madrid attacks. Eden Hazard was fizzing all over the pitch as the Belgian put in his best-ever performance in a Madrid shirt. Karim Benzema’s movement was on a whole ‘nother level as the PSG defenders tried and failed to keep a lid on him. The Frenchman scored twice, could have had a couple more but for a miracle performance from Keylor Navas (his 10 saves is a PSG record) and just terrorist the visitors all night long.
The MVP of the night was Fede Valverde, however. The young Uruguayan has added muscle to the Madrid midfield. Muscle and lungs. Muscle, lungs and drive. Muscles, lungs, drive and a fearless attitude. Basically everything you could want from a box-to-box midfielder really. He not only provides the defensive cover which allows Casemiro and Toni Kroos to play their natural game, but his forward runs add a key three-dimensionality to the Madrid midfield. It’s no accident that he made the most interceptions on the pitch (3) but also played a key role in Madrid’s first goal.
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That said, even with all of those dominance, even despite going 2-0 up, Madrid come away with only a point and PSG have secured top spot in the group. How did that happen? What went wrong? Well, the signs were actually there all game long.
PSG couldn’t break Madrid’s press because Thomas Tuchel selected the wrong side. But on the rare occasions they did get it beyond Madrid’s manic midfield? They were soaring and looked genuinely dangerous. They would have had a penalty late in the first-half but for a lucky break with VAR spotting a minor foul from Idrissa Gueye earlier in the play and calling it off. And beyond that they still looked dangerous when they moved it quickly. There was something there for them.
At half-time Thomas Tuchel introduced Neymar and that did help stem the tide even if he lost possession more times than anyone else on the pitch (18 times in total, just one more than Madrid’s two full-backs who were pelting crosses into the box all night). Neymar wasn’t at his best, but he had enough flashes to hurt Madrid’s shaky defence.
The real twist came after 75 minutes, when Tuchel brought Julian Draxler and Pablo Sarabia on. This change pushed Kylian Mbappé into a central role and put the canny Sarabia up against the marauding Marcelo and sloppy Sergio Ramos. Straight away from kick-off after going 2-0 down, Sarabia suckered Ramos towards him before casually flicking the ball behind him for the onrushing Thomas Meunier who squared it and, thanks to a comedic mix-up between Thibaut Courtois and Raphael Varane, Mbappé finished it off.
That goal showed both the structural weakness of Madrid’s defence as well as the individual errors that are all-too common. And it was only a minute later when Neymar drove right through the heart of the Madrid midfield before feeding it out wide to Juan Bernat whose cross evaded both Mbappé, Neymar before eventually finding its way to Pablo Sarabia who was naturally stood in space miles away from Ramos and Marcelo and finished superbly to draw things level.
How was Neymar able to drive through the heart of Madrid’s midfield so easily? Part of that was the presence of Julian Draxler, a player who understands the value of a simple wall pass, but a bigger issue was that just after the German and Sarabia came on, Zinedine Zidane removed Fede Valverde for Luka Modric. Removing the Uruguayan reduced the Madrid midfield, which was already as soft as wet paper beyond their high press, to being as solid as vapour. In the end the only surprise was that PSG didn’t score again.
Both sides are now through, and obviously Madrid will have confidence that they can come good in the knockout rounds as they traditionally have done under Zidane. But as good as they were in attack tonight, their defence looks very vulnerable both structurally, tactically and individually – and that is something that smart, savvy sides will be able to expose in the heat of the Champions League latter stages.