Monday’s Champions League draw threw up the worst possible scenario for Real Madrid as Zinedine Zidane’s defending champions were drawn against Paris Saint-Germain.
The side narratives to the tie run deeper than pitting the nouveau riche Ligue 1 club against the European establishment in the form of the 12-times winners. It could prove to be a very uncomfortable 180 minutes for the Madrid hierarchy, who courted Kylian Mbappe last summer in a deal scuppered when PSG pulled off a financial fair play-pending loan deal that even Real president Florentino Perez would have begrudgingly admired, and who also missed out on Neymar in 2013 despite repeated attempts to lure him to the Spanish capital.
The tie will dredge up the ghosts of failed transfer moves past and present and Perez’s recent assertion that Neymar would stand more chance of bagging the Ballon d’Or at the Bernabeu are stage-set to haunt the Real president.
“Madrid is a club that gives big players what they need,” Perez said.
It is also a club that gives big players an added incentive to shoot them down, as Neymar did to his current employers at the same stage last season, which it would be fair to assume accelerated PSG’s determination to bring the Brazilian into the fold.
The focal point of the tie rests on the respective managers: Unai Emery, the Spaniard managing the French giants and Zidane, the Frenchman at the helm of the Spanish title-holders.
It was not that long ago that Emery was being linked with Zidane’s job but the boot is firmly on the other foot now with reports suggesting that failure in Europe may exhaust PSG’s patience with the former Sevilla and Valencia coach.
Zidane will scarcely be relishing a tie of this magnitude so early in the competition, one that Real director Emilio Butragueno suggested would have been more worthy of the final in Kiev.
“It’s a final” is one of the most-chewed cliches in Spanish football, trotted out on an almost weekly basis, but in this case it is no understatement.
Zidane is playing catch-up in La Liga, where even victory in both Clasicos may not be enough, and has had to take time out from that front to honour Club World Cup commitments after his side annihilated Sevilla in 45 minutes last weekend.
When he returns, days before Barcelona visit the Bernabeu, the gap between fourth and first could stand at 11 points. Lose on Dec. 23 and the rescheduled game at Leganes in February will be a thin straw indeed.
Zidane’s position may not be as precarious as Emery’s but whichever manager is on the wrong end of defeat may be looking for work swiftly afterwards. The Real boss will last the season, and a Copa del Rey on top of the Club World Cup may sufficiently appease the Bernabeu board, but a European exit in March will raise eyebrows, particularly given the spectacular nature of PSG’s collapse in Camp Nou where Emery’s side had only to avoid conceding three times with 88 minutes on the clock.
It was a learning curve steeper than the side of the Eiffel Tower and one that Emery will not entertain again. In the group stage, PSG top-scored with 25 goals and conceded just four, even if the end result was that second-placed Bayern Munich, who accounted for three of those, were handed a much kinder tie against Besiktas. Emery described the draw as an opportunity for PSG. It is also one to rekindle his battered reputation as one of Europe’s finest tacticians.
A lot can happen between now and February, not least in the winter window where Perez’s hand may be forced. Beyond Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema is the side’s top scorer in Europe with two and those came in the 6-0 destruction of Apoel. Real have been linked with Inter Milan’s Mauro Icardi and it is not beyond Perez’s mindset to make that splash in January purely on the basis of 180 minutes that could shape the side’s season.
Real won the European Cup on five consecutive occasions in its infancy, during a period often dismissed as the “black and white” years, when competition was not as fierce as today. Perez’s obsession with joining Bayern Munich and Ajax as thrice-champions in glorious technicolour, rubber-stamping his tenure as a president to be mentioned in the same breath as Santiago Bernabeu, cannot be underestimated.
Neither can the ambition of PSG’s owners, who view the Champions League title as final acceptance into the European elite. It could have been the final. In an ideal world for UEFA and its sponsors it would have been the final. But the balls on Monday were not hot or cold, just cruelly immediate for both Real Madrid and PSG. The French club had their cake in the summer. It will be a bitter pill for Zidane and Perez to swallow if they confirm the revolution by eating it at Real’s expense.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.