LONDON: The Champions League resumes with a mouthwatering meeting of the aristocrats and the disruptors of European football.
The hosts: Real Madrid, the indisputable kings of the continent with 12 titles led by five-time world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo.
The visitors: Paris St Germain, the upstarts who bulldozed football’s transfer record to hitch Neymar to the Qatari-funded mission to join football’s elite.
The Santiago Bernabeu is the stage on Wednesday for Neymar’s return to Spain six months after the heir to Ronaldo’s throne was prized away from Barcelona for 222 million euros.
“[Neymar and Ronaldo] are both quick, very strong one-on-one, they play quickly and put a lot of intensity into their games,” said PSG winger Angel Di Maria, a Champions League winner alongside Ronaldo at Madrid in 2014. “Ney is smaller, and that’s perhaps his advantage. But they are both capable of turning games.”
Only one of the superstars can advance from the round of 16 games in Madrid and Paris over the next month.
The 26-year-old Neymar is chasing the supreme status already attained by Ronaldo.
“He lives and breathes goals,” Real coach Zinedine Zidane said of Ronaldo, underscoring the 33-year-old Portuguese’s enduring influence on the team. Ronaldo has helped Real win three of the last four Champions League titles, with two goals in last season’s final victory over Juventus.
Juventus open the knockout phase this week against Tottenham Hotspur on Tuesday when Manchester City travel to FC Basel. Liverpool are away against FC Porto on Wednesday but it will take something special to seize the spotlight from the Spanish capital.
It’s not just a place in the quarter-finals at stake for PSG and Real. The losing coach is likely to find himself out of work by the end of the season.
Only two months ago, Zidane lifted the Club World Cup for a second successive year but his job prospects could be dependent on winning a third successive Champions League title.
So much has gone wrong domestically. Real languish in fourth place and 17 points behind Barcelona in La Liga and are out of the Copa del Rey.
In Paris, Unai Emery is still haunted by last season’s failures. He clung to power despite being deposed as French champions and an astonishing collapse at this stage to Barca.
“We’re stronger than last season,” Di Maria said.
Certainly in France where PSG have pulled 12 points clear of defending champions Monaco.
But while PSG can bully most teams, they are vulnerable against those playing with aggression and closing down high up the pitch. That was evident in a loss to Lyon last month when PSG panicked in defense and conceded a stoppage-time goal.
PSG will be hoping the decision to invest so much of its resources in securing Neymar and Kylian Mbappe does not backfire against Real.
Di Maria has been in stronger form than Mbappe recently, scoring four times in the last month compared to the 19-year-old forward’s solitary effort.
Might it have been wiser to spend on protecting the shaky defense? For the trip to Spain, 32-year-old Lassana Diarra could be deployed as the holding midfielder even though Emery accepts he can’t last a full game.
But Real have concerns in defence after conceding eight goals in its last five games, and Dani Carvajal is suspended after a yellow-card ploy backfired. While Carvajal had experience taking on Neymar in games against Barca, Zidane could be left relying on 19-year-old Achraf Hakimi.
Real are protecting a formidable home record in Europe, having gone 17 matches unbeaten.
Even though striker Paulo Dybala is sidelined with a muscle injury, Juve can turn to Gonzalo Higuain who has scored six times in four matches. And he is likely to be leading the strike force with Mario Mandzukic, who netted in two of his three group stage appearances.
After an inconsistent start to the campaign, the back line has settled down and the Bianconeri have only conceded once in 16 matches in all competitions to set a club record. But the defence will be coming up against one of Europe’s most lethal strikers in Harry Kane, who has netted 34 goals for Tottenham in all competitions this season.
While Juventus are slugging it out for the Serie A title with Napoli where they are separated by one point, Tottenham have a fragile grip on the fourth Champions League qualification place in the Premier League.
Since breezing through the group stage, City’s quadruple chase has gathered pace.
Pep Guardiola’s side have pulled 16 points clear in the Premier League despite Gabriel Jesus sustaining a long-term knee injury on Dec 31. Sergio Aguero shouldered the burden as City’s only other senior striker, scoring 13 times in 10 games across the league and two domestic cups including four at the weekend.
Basel also have a tighter domestic title chase, sitting in second place five points behind Young Boys, and are adapting following the sale of centre-back Manuel Akanji to Borussia Dortmund in January.
Five-time European champions Liverpool scored 23 goals in the group stage, but have since lost playmaker Philippe Coutinho to Barca.
Shoring up the defense was a priority, though, in the January transfer window and centre-back Virgil van Dijk was finally signed from Southampton.
While Liverpool are 18 points behind City in the Premier League, Porto have a two-point lead at the top of the Portuguese standings and is unbeaten in 23 matches in all competitions.
Porto were the fifth equal highest scorer among the 32 group stage teams with 15 goals. But their leading attacking weapon, Vincent Aboubakar, is doubtful for Wednesday’s match with a muscle injury.