MADRID — Three quick thoughts on Real Madrid’s 3-1 Champions League round-of-16 first-leg win over Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.
1. Ronaldo does it again
Cristiano Ronaldo was again the hero as Real Madrid struggled for long periods of the game against a younger, fresher Paris Saint-Germain side, but the hosts’ greater experience told in the end. The 3-1 first-leg advantage did not really tell the story of the game, but means Zinedine Zidane’s side are now big favourites to make the quarterfinals yet again.
It looked like the nouveaux riche challengers to Europe’s old order were about to make a big statement when they went ahead after half an hour through Adrien Rabiot’s gleeful strike. But Madrid rolled with the punches, and Ronaldo’s penalty got them level by half-time.
The second period saw Neymar look the most likely matchwinner for the visitors, but Ronaldo — inadvertently perhaps — bundled home from close range, and then left-back Marcelo found himself unmarked eight yards out to show that the old champions still had plenty of punch left.
Madrid started very fast, pushing right up the pitch and looking to pressurise a potentially nervous PSG side. Toni Kroos had a penalty claim turned down within 90 seconds, and Ronaldo bounced an early sighter wide of the far post.
The visitors did take a while to settle, but bit by bit they looked more comfortable. Neymar was almost constantly involved, drifting in from the right wing, he seemed unsure of what to do, and ended up falling over.
The breakthrough just past the half-hour mark was not a big surprise. Kylian Mbappe’s superb cross was almost converted by first Edinson Cavani, then Neymar, and the loose ball fell to the unmarked Rabiot, who had all the time he needed to thrash powerfully into the net. Cavani then might have made it 2-0 but for Casemiro’s last-gasp block.
Just as PSG seemed set for a deserved half-time lead, a rookie foul on Kroos by Giovani Lo Celso, a surprise selection in holding midfield, handed Madrid a lifeline. Ronaldo thumped home the penalty and the Bernabeu was happier again.
PSG were on top again after the break, with Keylor Navas saving well low down from Mbappe, after Neymar had unselfishly teed him up. As the tension rose at the Bernabeu, both Mbappe and Dani Alves were inches from converting Yuri Berchiche’s cross. But then came Madrid’s late burst — inspired by their young substitute Marco Asensio — and Los Blancos are now big favourites to progress in March 6’s return leg.
2. Ronaldo gets the better of Neymar
Much of the buildup billed this game as Neymar against Ronaldo: the upstart contender coming to the home of the ageing champion to try to knock him off his perch. Both players were involved throughout, but the Portuguese left much the happier, again.
Neymar was centrally involved throughout, with almost all PSG’s moves going through his boots. The ex-Barcelona man was jeered constantly by the Bernabeu crowd, but there were plenty of flashes of genius though, and he provided an — inadvertent perhaps — backheel assist for Rabiot’s opener.
Ronaldo also kept getting chances through the first half, but was looking not quite at his sharpest, as he missed the target twice from inside the area, and then shot straight at Alphonse Areola when freed by Marcelo’s superb pass. But his confidently despatched penalty pulled his side back into the game.
The Brazilian was again more evident in the second half, regularly driving PSG forward with his runs, although he was perhaps lucky not to get a second yellow for a dive near the halfway line. If anything he was too unselfish, and attempts to play in teammates went astray when he might have shot himself.
Now 33, Ronaldo goes in for fewer 50-yard bursts of pace, but he knows exactly how to be in the right place at the right time. And so it was that the Portuguese’s umpteenth attempt of the night found its way to the net, and his side have one foot in the quarterfinals already.
3. Zidane’s selections ultimately win out
Both coaches sprung selection surprises, with Welsh Galactico Gareth Bale and Brazil captain Thiago Silva both benched. Bale’s replacement Isco was easily the most involved player on the pitch through the first 45 minutes — completing all of his 38 passes, more than any other player on the pitch, and also helping out in defence.
The selection of Lo Celso in holding midfield did not work for Emery, though. At 0-0, the young Argentine was lucky to get away with first losing the ball in his own half, then clumsily fouling Isco 20 yards out, when Ronaldo skied the ensuing free kick. Not the second time though, as he was out-witted by Kroos at a Madrid short corner, and his clumsiness was punished by the equaliser.
Midway through the second half, with the game balanced at 1-1, Zidane decided to twist. All of Bale, Asensio and Lucas Vazquez were sprung from the bench, shifting his team into a 4-2-4 formation.
Going so open seemed brave, maybe even foolhardy, but it paid off handsomely in the end. The Frenchman is not known for his tactical genius, but on the night he won the battle of the benches hands down.