Real Madrid host Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of what is perhaps the marquee tie of the last 16 of the Champions League soccer on Wednesday (2.45pm ET).
It is also a tie whose result could have a big impact on the future of the two competing coaches. There are doubts over the work of both PSG’s Unai Emery and Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane. Both really need a strong run in Europe to justify their positions.
Zidane did little wrong in the first season and a half at Madrid, delivering two Champions League triumphs and last season’s league title, but things have unravelled during the current campaign. His side are well off the pace in La Liga, having dropped points in 10 of their 22 fixtures to date. They are also out of the Copa del Rey and have problems at both ends of the pitch.
In defence, there is structural vulnerability to quick transitions, made clear by their 1-3 defeat away to Tottenham Hotspur during the Champions League group stage but also on various other occasions this season. They have conceded over a goal per match in league play and twice or more in four of their last seven.
That has required their forwards to be in top form in order to outscore opponents, and that hasn’t been the case for much of the campaign. Chances are coming, but both Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema are finishing at below-average levels in league competition. A few recent thrashings, including Saturday’s 5-2 demolition of Real Sociedad, do, however, suggest that could be a result of variance rather than terminal regression.
It would be foolish to write Madrid off. They are the most successful team in the history of the Champions League (previously known as the European Cup) and have lifted the trophy in each of the last two seasons and three of the last four. They have reached at least the final four in each of the last seven seasons and there is something about European competition that seems to enliven and focus the minds and bodies of players and staff.
Paris Saint-Germain have designs on becoming this era’s Real Madrid and they are not shy about throwing money at it. Since their takeover by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011, they have spent around €950 million on transfers and a concomitant fortune on salaries. Last summer saw the arrival of Neymar from Barcelona for a world-record €222 million, while they will also have to pay Monaco €150 million to make Kylian Mbappe’s move permanent.
But all that investment has still not yielded European success or anything close to it. PSG have failed to go further than the last eight in any of their five Champions League campaigns since the takeover. Last season, they threw away a four-goal advantage to lose 6-5 on aggregate to Barcelona in the last 16, having previously lost twice to them at the quarter-final stage.
They were therefore hoping to avoid Spanish opposition at the same juncture this time around, but they were not so rewarded for topping a group that also featured Bayern Munich. Emery, with doubts over his authority and internal dressing room tensions hanging over him, must this time find a way of progressing past his Spanish compatriots.
On offensive power alone, PSG are probably a marginally stronger side than they were last year, but it is difficult to get a true handle on their standing when their domestic opponents are so underpowered. PSG will win the French league at a canter. It is Champions League progress that will determine whether or not this season is viewed as a successful one.
Both PSG and Real Madrid look better going forward than they do defensively and Wednesday’s match is therefore likely to be a largely open and attractive one, even if the two coaches would perhaps like to exert a little more control over proceedings. There is not much between the two sides, and if one or the other emerges victorious, the margin is unlikely to prevent the possibility of a second-leg comeback.
Home advantage and a strong European record give Madrid the slight edge but this matchup could be a high-scoring draw, so our recommended wager with the USA online betting companies is as below.