The abiding image following Paris Saint-Germain’s Valentine’s Day defeat in Madrid appeared on the cover of Thursday morning’s edition of Diario Sport.
After surrendering a one-goal lead to lose 3-1 to Real Madrid in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League last-16 tie, the French team’s talisman, Neymar, was pictured leaving the Santiago Bernabeu pitch in an embrace with Cristiano Ronaldo, his Real Madrid counterpart. The pair walked deep in conversation towards the Bernabeu tunnel.
In the photo, Ronaldo is towering over Neymar. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner is consoling him. In a nod towards the tie’s second leg in on March 6, the Casablanca-inspired headline alongside the picture read: “We’ll always have Paris.” This encounter isn’t over. There is a way to go yet.
“There is a feeling of happiness in the city because we won a difficult match,” says Paco Pavon, who played alongside Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane when the club won the Champions League in 2002. “But there’s also concern because, for a lot of the game, PSG dominated and could have won. Yesterday, we saw a very serious Real Madrid, but I believe they will have to improve in Paris to get to the next round. The worry is that in Paris the tie could be turned around.”
The general tone of the press reaction in Spain to Real Madrid’s fight back is one of triumphalism. “How could I not love you?!” screamed the headline across the cover of Diario AS, echoing a lyric from the schmaltzy song that Real Madrid’s hooligan brigade, the Ultras Sur, sing during Real Madrid’s Champions League matches.
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images
Even the more sober El Pais newspaper joined in the hoopla with an article entitled “The Bernabeu doesn’t respect anything,” which focused on the giant tifo that was unfurled at the south end of the stadium. “Madridismo never gives up,” it stated alongside an image of Rafael Nadal, clutching his fist in defiance.
On the Spanish tennis star’s Real Madrid-branded T-shirt are the words “until the end,” a line taken from the club’s never-say-die anthem.
The prophecy came to pass in the game, with Real Madrid scoring two late goals to pull clear—two goals that could prove decisive. Real Madrid’s self-belief on big European nights, especially after the appalling defence of their league title this season, is impressive and in marked contrast to PSG’s flaccid performances in the knockout stages of the competition.
“A crest weighs more than all the money in the world,” Ernest Folch, writing in Diario Sport, reckoned.
“One of Real Madrid’s problems is a classic syndrome,” says prize-winning journalist John Carlin, who worked as the ghostwriter on Nadal’s autobiography, Rafa, among his collection of sports books. “They’ve won so much in the last two or three years it’s very difficult to sustain that hunger game after game after game—in particular if you’re playing at home against some team like Eibar.
“If you’re not operating at 100 per cent, the nature of top-class football now is that you’re going to suffer. Real Madrid has been lacking that hunger, often operating at 85 per cent.
“But when they really want to pull the finger out, as in the Champions League, they can raise their game. While I wouldn’t rule out Paris Saint-Germain mounting a comeback, I also wouldn’t rule out Real Madrid winning the Champions League again. The overall difference between Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain is that Real Madrid have got that sense, which surfaces on the big occasions, of their own greatness, of being a truly big, big club. Somehow, it’s their destiny—like Alexander the Great’s—to win the great battles.
“Paris Saint-Germain are striving to reach that status in a similar way in which Man City are striving to break into that exclusive elite where you’ve basically got Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Clubs that feel it’s their destiny to succeed and to be heroes on the major stage. Somehow, by some strange alchemy, that sense of greatness surfaces in the decisive games. We’ve seen it so many times with Real Madrid in particular over the years.
“Heroic figures, charismatic individuals—as is the case with the few charismatic football clubs—are not pretending to be great. They’re not posing. They know they’re great. It goes beyond arrogance. Sergio Ramos is the embodiment of that. He embodies that sense of an indomitable warrior. He can make his mistakes like everyone else. He can score own goals and miss penalties, but there is something about Ramos that is the essence of that spirit.”
His defensive team-mate Marcelo—who is only nominally a defender—exuded that transformation against Paris Saint-Germain. He has been sluggish all season. Against PSG, however, he was irresistible. He was, in the words of Marca, “a dagger down the left wing,” displaying audacious ball control.
Another memorable image from the night, which was captured in several of the Spanish sports papers, is Marcelo’s knee-sliding celebration at the feet of Zidane after scoring Real Madrid’s third goal.
Zidane, too, comes alive on these epic European nights at the Bernabeu. He put it colourfully in the post-match press conference: “The Champions League is a competition that turns us on.”
PSG, who are brittle after arguably the competition’s most notorious capitulation against Barcelona in the same round of the competition last year, are still looking for that brio. Their coach, Unai Emery—who has never won in 11 games at the Bernabeu, including 10 defeats—will need to find it fast to hold on to his job.
“Emery showed himself to be excessively cautious and timorous,” Carlin says. “Maybe being Spanish, he has a residual what they call ‘miedo escenico‘—stage fright at the Bernabeu.
“In retrospect, he must regret having taken off Edinson Cavani when there was every reason to believe that, with Cavani on the pitch, PSG were going to score another goal. Instead, Emery went for the cautious option to preserve that 1-1 scoreline. Zidane did the bold thing, and fortune favoured the brave.”
Zidane poured on his flying wingers—Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio, along with Lucas Vazquez—substitutions that changed the game. Asensio, who only came on with 11 minutes remaining, pitched in with two assists. The media in Spain hailed him for his performance, with Mundo Deportivo describing him as “the best” in its player ratings.
Pavon cites Cavani’s withdrawal for Thomas Meunier as pivotal. It opened up the game, he says: “Until then, Paris Saint-Germain had totally confined Real Madrid. They could harm them with balls put into the box to Cavani.
“Emery wanted to give more freedom to Dani Alves to go forward and to get Meunier to cover the advances of Marcelo. But in doing so, they lost a reference in Cavani, who fixed Ramos and [Raphael] Varane in position and gave freedom to [Kylian] Mbappe to attack. After this switch, Real Madrid could breathe a little bit easier, and they were less overwhelmed at the back. It was one of the keys of the match.”
In Catalonia, there is a certain smugness at Neymar and his team-mates’ capitulation. The Barcelona-based newspaper Mundo Deportivo, still smarting after Neymar’s defection from Barca last summer, led with the same photo of the bereft Neymar’s comforting by Ronaldo along with the unforgiving headline: “NEYMAL.” Elsewhere on the front page, his night is summed up with the subheading: “The Brazilian and a greenhorn PSG crumpled against Madrid”.
In the newspaper’s player ratings, Neymar—who dribbled more times (17) in the match than his team-mates combined—was criticised for being “hasty.” In contrast, the 33-year-old Ronaldo—who scored his 100th and 101st goals in the Champions League for Real Madrid during the game—was lauded for his predatory instincts.
“There’s a lot of pressure on Neymar,” Carlin says. “He was bought for this huge, record-breaking amount by PSG with one purpose in mind: to win the Champions League. The truth is—as Adrien Rabiot said in so many words after the game—that playing in Ligue 1 is like playing in pre-season friendlies for a team like PSG.
“There’s Neymar, strutting away against these weak, Ligue 1 teams, scoring a whole bunch of goals and doing all the pretty pirouettes that he can perform, but that’s just circus time. The real business was on Wednesday night against Real Madrid. He showed his flashes. He’s fabulously talented, but he was unable to deliver the one or two goals that he is paid enormous amounts of money to provide.
“However, this tie is far from being a done deal for Real Madrid.”
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz.