It’s time for us to gather around our television sets and sing that song all football fans love. We don’t know many of the words in it but the collective “The Champions” is enough to satisfy our needs.
If your team is walking onto the pitch with that anthem blaring out in February then you know you’ve made it. This is the business end of the biggest tournament in European football. No more second chances, do or die, win or lose.
For Real Madrid they don’t need anyone to explain the finer details of the competition. They are head and shoulders above their nearest rivals when it comes to European Cup wins.
Their 12 triumphs are more than double that of Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Barcelona (five each). It’s part of the DNA at the club, they need to be Europe’s kings.
Failure to achieve this immediately calls into question your ability to coach this team. There is no room for sentiment as second best isn’t good enough. Zinedine Zidane knows this all too well.
Only two trophies truly matter at Real Madrid
It’s hard to really grade Real Madrid’s season. Early season SuperCup victories over Manchester United and Barcelona was followed by Club World Cup success. Three more titles to add to an already overflowing trophy cabinet. This makes it eight trophies in a little over two years in charge of Real Madrid for Zidane. An incredible record and one few could have predicted yet this season feels rather underwhelming.
The harsh reality of the modern game is that minor trophies are fine but only two truly matter: the league and Champions League. This attitude isn’t one I personally subscribe to but it’s a growing trend amongst the biggest teams in Europe. Domestic cup competitions mean less every year and aside from bragging rights, don’t make a huge difference to your club’s image or standing. Be the best in your country or the best in Europe. That’s it.
This is the first real test of Zidane’s brief stint in management. Last season he was being put in many ‘Top 3 Coaches in the World’ lists. This novice, with very little previous coaching experience, was a natural at the job. How could you question a man with such a phenomenal record? Some even put him alongside the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. In two years, the footballing world was at his feet.
However a humbling experience in the league sees them 17 points adrift of Barcelona and this causes greater pain than the joy of those three ‘minor’ successes. In the Copa del Rey they lost to Leganes. And not in a one-off, anything can happen tie but over two legs. That’s another joy of modern football. Winning a lesser competition isn’t enough but failure in them won’t be tolerated either.
Can a Champions League triumph rescue Zidane and Real Madrid’s season?
Away from domestic failures, Real Madrid are still in the mix for the Champions League. A poor group showing saw them finish below Tottenham Hotspur and as such land a much more difficult tie. Paris Saint Germain, a team broken by Barcelona last season, are desperate to oust the current European kings and announce their arrival on the biggest stage. Similarly to Real Madrid, European success is arguably more important than winning their own league.
One area where Real Madrid command a huge advantage over PSG is in experience. They were crowned European champions in three of the last four seasons and will be determined to prove people wrong. For some of their major stars, who are coming under heavy criticism, this is the perfect time to remind the world of their quality.
If Madrid manage to get past PSG and go onto win the competition then this season is salvageable. It probably secures Zidane another season at the club and a chance to correct his mistakes from the previous 12 months. Finishing second in the league won’t be enough to earn a pardon. It’s the Champions League or nada.
Pochettino demonstrates his credentials with a strong performance in Turin
One of the most popular names in football at the moment is that of Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentine coach is garnering a reputation for getting the most out of the teams he coaches. After strong results with Espanyol and Southampton, the move to Tottenham is providing him with a bigger platform to perform. But as is often the case, the better you do, the more interest you attract.
Real Madrid are admirers of Pochettino and his success to date. The lack of trophies is a concern but there are reasons behind that too. Southampton and Espanyol weren’t expected to lift silverware anyway. At Spurs the demands are higher but no one can question their improvement. Pochettino is ambitious and knows to cement Spurs as a ‘big team’ in the eyes of neutrals he must win either the Premier League or Champions League. Deja vu?
Spurs humbling of Real Madrid at Wembley didn’t go unnoticed by Madrid’s top brass, notably Florentino Perez. Madrid’s president is always planning his next move and Pochettino could be the man to lead their young squad forward. That very ambition which saw Pochettino go from Southampton to Spurs means you can’t rule out a move to Madrid either.
Is it the last chance saloon for the ‘BBC’?
Zidane is a huge admirer of his attacking trident and not having them all available is part of the reason for this season’s disruption. There are other factors to consider as well, but the ‘BBC’ were key to his many successes. Due to injuries, he’s looked at alternative systems and personnel but neither has fully convinced.
It seems inevitable that Zidane will turn to all three to save his season tonight. Gareth Bale was rested against Real Sociedad with this game in mind. Cristiano Ronaldo is finding his best form again and Karim Benzema plays better when alongside his two usual teammates. PSG are maybe guilty of being too top heavy so there will be chances for Real Madrid to punish them on the counter.
The reemergence of Marco Asensio is a nice problem for Zidane to have. The same goes for Isco who was unlucky to pay the price for the Frenchman’s experiment with 4-4-2 not working out. There are alternatives available but Zidane will back the BBC to deliver, as they have in recent years. If they don’t produce the goods, then at least one of them will be following Zidane out of the door this summer.
If the BBC do fail, will they be coming up against their replacement in Neymar?
This evening – and tie – is a wonderful opportunity for Neymar to demonstrate why he joined PSG. The decision to swap Barcelona for Paris was a strange one but can be justified if he goes on to lift the European trophy. And what better way to do that than by knocking out his former club’s fiercest rivals?
For many, this might even be an audition of sorts for Neymar. Quite how PSG would react to a potential bid from Real Madrid this summer is another matter but Los Blancos are big fans of the Samba star. Neymar joining Madrid would see them strengthen their squad whilst also delivering a blow to Barcelona. The perfect deal?
Neymar loves the big stage and the focus being on him. PSG are banking on the Brazilian being the catalyst to them enjoying greater success on the European stage. The price tag won’t matter if they knock out the reigning champions over two legs and banish the ghosts of season’s past. If you want to truly step out of Lionel Messi’s shadow, now is the time to show why you are deserving the spotlight instead.
Someone’s European dream will come to an end over these two legs. The losers are likely to part way with their coach and see an inquest into the squad they have built. The only way to avoid that is to land the killing blow on your rival. Who is the most cold-hearted of the two sides?