Real Madrid vs. PSG subplots make for a fascinating encounter

In a strange way, Kylian Mbappe’s injury and potential absence from Wednesday night’s Champions League last 16 second leg at the Santiago Bernabéu is bad news for everybody, including Real Madrid. While the Frenchman is the reason they are behind at half time in the tie, and their chances of a reprieve increase immeasurably without having to worry about him, there was a sense that the night would act as a sort of precession to a summer move.

As open secrets go, Mbappe’s desire to join the Spanish giants, the club he supported as a boy, is undeniable. With his contract in Paris expiring at the end of the season, Madrid have manoeuvred into a position of strength; still able to offer the highest wages, along with the prestige and everything else that comes with playing for them, they have levelled the playing field despite openly struggling to cope with the changing face of transfers.

With the number of state-owned clubs, like PSG, growing, the battle between new money and the traditional elite rages on. In terms of affording the best players, Madrid, who up until recently had a monopoly on the very biggest markets, have fallen behind. When it comes to free transfers, though, there is a sense that they can still pull rank; seeing this sort of deal may just become more common, and that suits them just fine.

There is a reason excitement ahead of this tie was so high; of all the games, this one promised the greatest collection of individuals. The tide is turning; despite Lionel Messi getting ready to return to the stage where he tormented Los Blancos for Barcelona over the course of more than a decade, Mbappe was the biggest threat. He is the man everybody, most notably Florentino Pérez, Madrid’s president, fears and wants, who the tie balanced on. PSG will have been supremely confident of taking over the Bernabéu like they did the Camp Nou last season, when Mbappe scored a hat-trick in a 4-1 win to end Barcelona’s hopes last season. Without him, perhaps it isn’t that straightforward.

Forgive the tired cliché, but this game will showcase the proverbial ‘galaxy of stars’; there will be world class battles across the pitch, with or without Mbappe. It is easy to talk about the need for team work and gelling together in order to trump the individual quality, and that remains incredibly pertinent here, but there is so much ability on the pitch that one piece of magic can make the difference, from Messi, Neymar, Karim Benzema or Luka Modric. In that regard, Mbappe missing would not change the course of things.

There are so many strands to the narrative, too; Mbappe facing a potential future employer would be one, Messi returning another, while Sergio Ramos’ chances of an emotional reunion with his former club seem remote at this stage. This game is so likely to be tipped by small moments and nuance, but there are grander pictures to study too. Mauricio Pochettino has never truly got to grips with life at PSG, predominantly because his team-centric approach jars so heavily with the chauvinistic nature of their Qatari-funded project, but coming through this game without arguably his most important player, would be a key moment.

He has long been linked with the Madrid job, currently held by a former PSG boss Carlo Ancelotti, but would likely face similar issues there. There has to be an affable ability to take a back seat, implementing tactical philosophies with more subtlety; that is Ancelotti’s success, he guides, he doesn’t drive. Although Pochettino’s ideas are great, he needs to find the right place to implement them; could that be back in the Premier League?

For all the talk of Mbappe and the attacking stars, Achraf Hakimi could be a crucial player for PSG. There will be a point to prove there, too; his career began in Madrid but took off elsewhere, first with Borussia Dortmund, then Inter and latterly in Paris. Few right-backs in the world can match him for attacking prowess, speed and general tactical impact, and he is a player who slipped through the net. Chances are, there will be interest in re-signing him, but there will be a threat coming from him on Wednesday.

With so many connotations to this game and every one of them potentially balance-tipping, it promises to be an extremely entertaining encounter. It also represents old vs new and traditionalists vs gate crashes. PSG are desperate to win the Chanmpions League for the first time, and there is hardly a better test of their credentials than the record 13-time winners. Yet, both of these teams could create more cohesion; a collective mentality that helps put egos aside. If they don’t, whoever wins here may face difficulty in the future.

Author: Lucas Carlson