Real Madrid ready for PSG, with health improving and Ronaldo sizzling
In the midst of awards season, Sergio Ramos should be presented with the award for understatement of the year when he said "the Champions League is one of this team's favourite competitions" in the news conference before Real Madrid take on Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes on Tuesday night. They've only won it a record 12 times and three times in the past four years. Real Madrid don't just like the competition, they believe it is their competition and anyone who wins the trophy is simply borrowing it from them.
The captain of the side says they are not in the mood for gifting anything to anyone given the small margin for error, while Dani Alves says he has made a pact with Neymar to play more games in the Champions League together this year. Someone will be disappointed on Tuesday night in the capital of France, but Madrid have themselves in the driver's seat after a 3-1 win in the first leg.
The dynamic for this game is entirely different as we gear up for a definitive 90 minutes for both of these sides; the first leg at the Bernabeu was the aperitif, the game in the Parc des Princes will be the entree. Real Madrid, who have struggled through a season filled with inconsistent form and mediocre results, have called every player in their squad up for the game and welcomed the midfield pair of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric back to training as the dynamic duo have recovered significantly enough to put themselves in contention for the return leg.
Meanwhile, PSG have been rocked by Neymar's ankle injury and while the most expensive footballer that has ever lived will be watching from his house in Rio de Janeiro, his teammates' confidence in winning the game and the tie has skyrocketed without him. Diego Torres from El Pais says that they believed there was a five percent chance with Neymar, but that has increased to 50 percent in his absence. They have a point to prove, which makes them dangerous, and they are hoping to turn the heat up in Paris. Real Madrid, however, could not be any more composed heading into the clash with their returning stars, the form of Cristiano Ronaldo and that advantage they helped themselves to in the first leg.
Before that game, PSG were on a mission to assure anyone that would listen that they were a better and more mature side than the one that was humiliated last year by Barcelona to get knocked out despite giving themselves a 4-0 lead in the first leg of that tie. Before the game on Tuesday, however, they are reverting to a campaign through the media that ensures "Parc des Princes will be boiling" and while they might think that, it's actually Real Madrid who are beginning to simmer nicely heading into the game.
Ronaldo has never scored as many goals in as few games to start a calendar year as he has in 2018 with 14 in the first 10 games -- 1.4 per game. The closest he came to that average was in 2016 when he scored 14 in 12 games at a clip of 1.16 per game. Meanwhile, the absence of Kroos, Modric and Marcelo gave the likes of Lucas Vazquez, Mateo Kovacic, Marco Asensio and Theo Hernandez the chance to dust off the cobwebs and play themselves into contention for a place. The end result is a myriad of options for Zinedine Zidane and tons of possibilities for Unai Emery to consider.
A 4-3-3 formation is a possibility with Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo up top along with his favoured trio of Casemiro, Kroos and Modric in the middle. Zidane might play a 4-4-2, either with Vazquez and Asensio, who were rested at the weekend, out wide or with Isco at the top of a diamond-shaped midfield, depending on how he wants to approach the game.
Ramos said Real Madrid "have to go and implant our identity there" but this will very much be a game that PSG will dictate, at least on the surface. Expect Real Madrid to fight for possession and not be too concerned if and when they lose it because the return of Kroos and Modric make Los Blancos a nightmare to defend against in transition. And while PSG's sporting director, Antero Henrique, has been fixated on the referee and the need for one "with an exceptional level" to officiate the game, there will come a time when PSG themselves will need to do something they have failed to do in the past, and that's execute on the biggest stage.
PSG are the ones under pressure given the scoreline, but Ramos made sure to point out that his side are playing for their season on Tuesday night. There are times when Real Madrid's entire reason for being feels wrapped up in the Champions League and when it comes to pressure on the biggest stage, that tends to be where they feel most comfortable.
Robbie is based in Madrid and is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers. Twitter: @robbiejdunne