By almost universal consensus, Real Madrid is having a disastrous season.
It’s only the middle of February, but Real is already out of both its domestic competitions. In La Liga, the defending champions linger in fourth place, trailing FC Barcelona by an unimaginable 17 points – albeit with a game in hand. In the Copa del Rey, Real was upset by Leganes in the quarterfinals.
Things just haven’t been clicking for much of this year. And urgent questions are being asked about the aging core while the band of young Spanish players assembled to push them out isn’t yet imposing itself. This has fueled speculation about the security of manager Zinedine Zidane’s position, in spite of winning the Champions League twice in his first season and a half on the job.
Yet for all this pain, Real could nevertheless win four trophies this season. It has already clinched the Supercopa de Espana, the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup. And after Wednesday’s impressive 3-1 comeback win at home against Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of the round of 16, a third straight Champions League title very much remains in play.
Real is already the only team to repeat as European champions in the current format. And with a decisive lead over one of their fellow favorites, PSG, a continuation of this run is in sight. In fact, should Real win the big trophy again, that would make it a fourth time in five years.
Perhaps it was fitting that Cristiano Ronaldo should get the equalizing and winning goals after Adrien Rabiot put PSG ahead. After all, the 33-year-old forward has seen his scoring output slump in La Liga while he has remained prolific in continental play. This season has been a frustrating one for him, but his unstoppable penalty and a fortuitous goal with his knee righted Real’s path.
They were his 100th and 101st Champions League goals for Real.
For PSG, the loss was also an unpleasant reminder of how last season’s round of 16 had gone so terribly wrong. Back then, PSG smashed another Spanish juggernaut 4-0 in the first leg, before Barca came back with a late and fairly miraculous 6-1 win in the second leg to advance. That made it five seasons in a row that the expensively-assembled PSG squad, with European glory very much in mind, had failed to make it past the quarterfinals.
This year is looking like a sixth.
In a frantic and chippy game, PSG mostly coped well with Real’s high press. While the occasional turnover gave the Parisians a scare, real chances were sparse.
It took half an hour for the first scoring opportunity to emerge. After Ronaldo popped a free kick high, the transcendent Marcelo sprung him down the field by himself on a break with a magnificent ball. But PSG goalie Alphonse Areola got big and blocked the finish with his face.
In the 33rd minute, PSG took a lead on its first real chance. Kylian Mbappe served up a low cross, deadened by Real defender Nacho as he tried to hold off Neymar. It fell kindly for Rabiot, who swept the ball home with his finish.
PSG nearly got a second a few minutes later, when Edinson Cavani got a shot off on the turn inside the box. The ball was deflected twice by Real legs before trickling just wide.
That’s when the tide began to turn. Just before halftime, Karim Benzema’s low curler was saved splendidly by Areola. And then Giovani Lo Celso stupidly pulled Toni Kroos down by his shoulders in PSG’s own box. Penalty, of course.
Ronaldo absolutely smashed the spot kick home.
Much of the second half produced end-to-end action without real chances of note. But in the 83rd, Real got a lucky break.
Marco Asensio dispatched a second low cross after a first one was cleared poorly. Areola pushed the ball away, but it bounced into Ronaldo’s knee, and back over the goal line for Real’s winner.
Three minutes thereafter, more good fortune for Real. Marcelo set up an attack and finished it by miss-hitting a pass from Asensio. But it sailed by Areola anyway.
In the end, Real could count itself lucky. It scored from an idiotically-conceded penalty, a lucky bounce and a shot that took a strange skip off Marcelo’s shin. Yet Real is now very much a favorite to advance.
And if it does so, things could look rosy. After all, there’s an upside to bowing out of your title race early. Namely, Real won’t be playing for much on the weekend – all it has to do is ensure that it doesn’t fall out of fourth place. That will give it the chance to rest and rotate those veteran starters to save them for the Champions League. The same holds true for the stillborn Copa del Rey campaign, which no longer clutters the club’s late-winter and spring schedule.
In the end, strangely, Real could come out of this difficult PSG draw having vanquished a major rival and positioned well for a 13th European title.
Source: Leander Schaerlaeckens|| Yahoo