PSG's fate vs. Real hinges on midfield, defence -- not Neymar's absence
PARIS -- Paris Saint-Germain will be without superstar Neymar against Real Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie on Tuesday, but while coach Unai Emery has a ready-made replacement in Angel Di Maria, he has three important decisions to make elsewhere.
Since the Brazil international went down and stayed down during the 3-0 Ligue 1 win over Marseille, all of the talk surrounding the French capital outfit's chances of overcoming their 3-1 deficit from the first leg against Real has centred on the problems posed by Neymar's injury. However, it is in central defence, at left-back and in defensive midfield where PSG could win or lose this tie, not in the 26-year-old's usual berth wide on the left of the attack.
Di Maria, 30, has been in exceptional form since the start of 2018 and has added four goals from four appearances since the first leg at Santiago Bernabeu -- including a double against bitter rivals Marseille in the second instalment of Le Classique in the Coupe de France last week. With Kylian Mbappe likely to start, despite a recent ankle knock, and Julian Draxler more adept at playing in central midfield than in attack this season, it would be a massive shock if Di Maria does not start at Parc des Princes on Tuesday.
That said, it was a big surprise that Emery did not give the Argentina international a single minute during the first leg in Madrid. Surely, this time, Di Maria will get the start his recent form deserves, and El Fideo will be able to show that in the absence of Neymar, he has something to offer on the biggest stage.
What is less certain is which decisions Emery will make at the heart of his defence, on the left side and in deep-lying midfield.
The Spaniard selected Presnel Kimpembe over captain Thiago Silva at Real, but with Marquinhos only just back after injury, the younger Brazilian is a risk, making a Silva-Kimpembe pairing more probable. The captain has raised his game since the Frenchman took his starting role at Santiago Bernabeu last time out, so perhaps Emery's decision in Spain has had the desired effect and the senior South American will produce the sort of monstrous display that he made his name with.
Left-back presents an interesting question for the Basque tactician because although Yuri Berchiche, who started the first leg, is a more balanced option in that role, PSG need goals and that is something that Layvin Kurzawa can help with -- without offering much, if anything, defensively.
The France international's best performances have almost exclusively come in the Champions League, and while Berchiche has done well this season and is arguably ahead of Kurzawa in Emery's pecking order, he does not possess the same instinct in front of goal as the former Monaco man.
Perhaps most crucially, the question of defensive midfield also needs solving. Giovani Lo Celso's struggles in Madrid make him unlikely to be trusted in the role again here, while Thiago Motta and Lassana Diarra's improved fitness levels since the last encounter make them more attractive options to Emery.
"Thiago and Lassana are both ready to play," said the former Sevilla boss at his pre-match news conference on Monday. "They have very different profiles, but both have the quality to play.
"They both have a lot of experience, they have both played in matches like this. For me, it is easy. I will make a choice, but it is possible that both will play.
"The central defenders is different. That is a very difficult choice, because all three are playing very well. We will see how Marquinhos is feeling before deciding."
A lack of experience was Lo Celso's undoing in Madrid, and both Motta and Diarra possess plenty, but the Frenchman's greater mobility perhaps shades it in his favour as PSG need a mobile midfield to cause Zinedine Zidane's men as much trouble as possible.
If Emery can make strong decisions in those three areas, then Les Parisiens' chances of progression are greatly improved.
Di Maria can and has already combined well with Mbappe and Edinson Cavani this season, so attack is not the big concern coming into this one. PSG could feasibly beat Real and score a couple of goals, but still go out because central defence and midfield were not as solid as they could and should have been.
Neymar might be a huge loss for PSG in terms of ability and big-match experience, but in terms of the team, his absence will not be decisive in terms of how capable the French giants are of beating and eliminating Real.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.