Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain will face off once again at the Bernabeu on Tuesday in attempt to gain an edge in the battle for top spot in Champions League Group A. The two sides played out a goalless draw in the French capital two weeks ago to each move onto seven points, four points ahead of nearest challengers Malmo. A victory for either Madrid or PSG on Tuesday, combined with a defeat for Malmo at Shakhtar Donetsk would see the winner guarantee a spot in the Round of 16.
Both should make it there with a degree of comfort, but they will want to do so as group winners, and, in theory, secure a kinder draw in the first knock-out round. When the sides last met, a goalless draw as seen by many as further evidence that Real Madrid have evolved into more of a defensive side under Rafa Benitez.
Madrid have conceded just four times in their 13 matches in all competitions this season, but have also been held scoreless on three occasions. Ahead of their last encounter, PSG manager Laurent Blanc appeared to fuel the flames of accusations that Madrid are primarily a counter-attacking team. However, the former France coach has now derided talk of Madrid being defensive.
“In France I get asked about a very defensive-minded Madrid team that plays on the counter-attack and I reply that whoever sees things that way has not watched them play or simply doesn’t know what’s going on,” he said, according to Spanish sports daily AS. “They are capable of retaining possession and can play out quickly. Their players are speedy.”
A 3-1 victory over Las Palmas on Saturday kept Real Madrid top of La Liga, above Barcelona on goal difference. Yet their overall performances remain not wholly convincing. That is many ways understandable, given that Benitez has had to cope with a notable injury list that last time out included Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, James Rodríguez , Sergio Ramos, Keylor Navas and Dani Carvajal. There is good news, with Navas, Ramos, and James included in the squad for Tuesday’s encounter. And Benitez expects that there is plenty more to come from his squad.
“I hope that my best is still to come,” he said in his pre-match press conference, according to Marca. I think the team is in good shape, but I'm convinced that they'll improve. I want to make sure that the team is firing on all cylinders at the end of the season when it's time to fight for titles.”
Like Real Madrid, PSG are unbeaten this season, and they have managed to rack up a 10-point advantage at the top of Ligue Un as they seek to win a fourth consecutive title. It is the Champions League that is now the major focus of the club, however. And after three consecutive quarterfinal exits, breaking into Europe’s elite four is the undoubted aim. Victory on Tuesday would go some way to helping achieve that objective.
“Tomorrow’s game is important even though it’s a group game,” Blanc said. “For us it would be very prestigious to beat Madrid, but it doesn’t mean that we’ll reach the final. We beat Barcelona last year and then they hammered us in the quarterfinal.”
Their squad will have at least once man who knows what it takes to go all the way in the competition. Ángel di María, who was man of the match as Real Madrid triumphed in the 2014 final, will be making his first return to the Bernabeu since leaving the club later that summer. Blanc may have another Champions League winner back at his disposal, with former Chelsea man David Luiz close to a return from a knee injury.
Prediction: PSG failed to take full advantage when at home against a depleted Real Madrid side two weeks ago, and their star attacking trident of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Di María must function better if they hope to walk away from Madrid with three points. And with Real Madrid’s defense potentially back at full strength, Blanc’s side may struggle to get any joy. It should again be a tightly fought affair, but, helped by the return of James, Real Madrid may just come out on top.
Predicted score: Real Madrid 1-0 Paris Saint-Germain
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 2, ESPN Deportes