The Champions League returns with a bang this week as holders Real Madrid take on Paris Saint-Germain in a blockbuster clash in the Spanish capital.
Madrid have won the Champions League in each of the last two seasons, but Zinedine Zidane is under pressure due to poor form in LaLiga this term.
PSG have prioritised the Champions League title since the takeover by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011, but they could hardly have been handed a trickier last-16 tie.
Ahead of Wednesday’s first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, two of our writers debate whether PSG or Madrid boast the most dangerous attack.
PSG – Joe Wright
Paris Saint-Germain obliterated transfer records and prompted a UEFA financial fair play investigation last year when they signed Neymar from Barcelona for €222million and negotiated a deal for Kylian Mbappe that will see them pay €180m to Monaco.
It was a monumental gamble to take but, boy, is it paying off.
The Eiffel Tower was lit up to herald Neymar’s arrival from Catalonia and he has continued to dazzle France on the pitch. The Brazil star has 27 goals and 16 assists from 27 appearances in all competitions, despite the media circus that has followed his every move, speculating on his poor relationship with team-mates, his coaching staff and his alleged desperation to return to Spain.
Mbappe has not had quite the same impact and, truth be told, his form has not matched the standards he set for Monaco last season. That is not to say his move has been a disappointment. The 19-year-old has 15 goals and 14 assists, giving him a goal involvement of almost one per game, while his spectacular pace has given PSG an invaluable outlet on the counter-attack on the rare occasion they have not dominated possession, such as in the 3-0 win over Bayern Munich in the group stage.
Amid the fanfare of Mbappe and Neymar’s first seasons in Paris, though, it’s the form of Cavani that has been most impressive. So often criticised for missing too many chances, especially during Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s time at the club, Cavani has been ruthless in 2017-18. His 28 goals to date have seen him surpass Ibrahimovic’s club goalscoring record of 156, and even rumours of a falling-out with Neymar have done little to disrupt him. Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of his season has been his consistency: he has only failed to score in nine of his appearances in the Champions League and Ligue 1.
Cavani brings pace, power and scoring efficiency. Mbappe boasts stupendous talent and his speed adds an entirely new way for PSG to attack. Neymar’s skill, ingenuity and impudence have seen him rival Lionel Messi this season as the world’s most dangerous player. There is no more expensive front three on the planet, and there is certainly none better.
Real Madrid – Jamie Smith
So poor have they been for much of this season, it is easy to forget the stunning pedigree of Real Madrid in Europe – they have won the Champions League in three of the last four years. That type of experience will prove invaluable in their tie against PSG. And, while Madrid may have held an interest in Mbappe and retain one in Neymar, the current strikeforce available to Zinedine Zidane is not bad at all.
Cristiano Ronaldo made a terrible start to the season but we are talking about one of the greatest players the world has ever seen. When the big games arrive, Ronaldo inevitably comes up trumps. You would certainly not swap him for anyone else in European football apart from his old rival Lionel Messi. Neymar may be the heir to that pair, but he is not at their level yet. Ronaldo scored twice in last year’s Champions League final and he has hit 15 goals in finals since joining Madrid. Neymar cannot come close to those figures – and he plays for himself even more than the Portugal icon!
Similarly, when fit and firing, former Tottenham man Gareth Bale fully justifies the world-record fee Madrid paid to take the winger from Spurs to Spain. Bale’s stunning finish against Borussia Dortmund in the group stage was a sign of his class, and although injuries have once again disrupted his campaign, the Wales star returned to save Madrid’s bacon at the Club World Cup at the end of last year.
This season may well be the last time the ‘BBC’ feature together, with Karim Benzema coming under renewed criticism for substandard performances. It is hard to build up a striker who has only scored twice in the league this season, although like Bale his season has been hit by injury. Benzema’s selflessness remains key to Madrid’s attacking play, though, and he is a good foil for both Ronaldo and Bale to wreak havoc from wide positions.
Cavani may have scored a load of goals since becoming PSG’s main striker following Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s departure, but the Uruguayan is operating in a league where PSG steamroller most of their opponents without needing to find second gear. He only comes up against defenders of the class of Sergio Ramos in the Champions League, while Madrid have to find a way to break through Barcelona’s back line, as well as the famously stingy defence of city rivals Atletico, in their domestic league.
This could be the difference between the sides. PSG have virtually wrapped up the Ligue 1 title already and they have previously struggled to maintain intensity over the second half of the season. They have also been brilliant throughout this term and keeping up those high levels is tough. For Madrid, things can only get better, with Zidane accepting his job is likely to be on the line in this last-16 meeting. The Frenchman will not go without a fight.
In Neymar and Mbappe, PSG have two of the stars of the future. But in Ronaldo and Bale, Madrid have players who have proven repeatedly they can make the difference on the biggest stage. And they will do so again.