There has been lots of talk this week — understandably enough — about the shock injury to Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar, which almost certainly rules the Brazil star out of next Tuesday’s Champions League last-16 second leg against Real Madrid. Meanwhile there has been a lot less spoken about how Madrid are likely to arrive at the Parc des Princes with a much weaker line-up than the one that eventually outclassed their opponents in last week’s 3-1 first-leg win at the Bernabeu.
While Neymar is clearly a huge loss for PSG, they have an obvious direct replacement in Angel Di Maria, a proven international who will be highly motivated to face his former side Madrid. However, three important injuries are forcing Blancos coach Zinedine Zidane into serious structural changes to his side, and with the outcome far from certain.
Zidane could count on all his big names for last week’s first leg but then midfielder Toni Kroos picked up a knee problem during that game, left-back Marcelo tweaked a hamstring in the following Sunday’s 5-3 La Liga win at Real Betis and playmaker Luka Modric was also sidelined with another hamstring issue.
Madrid have not released many details at all on the trios’ recoveries, with Zidane limiting himself to saying he was “optimistic” about their chances of making it back in time for the second leg. But less than a week before Madrid fly to Paris, none have returned to training with the squad. There still remains the chance of some minutes in Saturday evening’s visit of Eibar to the Bernabeu but it would be risky at best to throw one less than 100 percent player, never mind all three, straight back into such a high intensity game three days’ later.
While remaining publicly positive on their prospects, Zidane has been quietly using recent games to trial different alternatives.
The left-back position is pretty straightforward. With youngster Theo Hernandez not ready for a match of this magnitude, utility man Nacho Fernandez will this time fill in on the other side of the defence. Meanwhile the most interesting development has been Zidane mostly using a flat 4-4-2 shape in recent La Liga matches. This has replaced the diamond midfield with Isco at its tip, which started the first leg against PSG and also last year’s Champions League final. Instead it has two traditional central midfield players — usually Casemiro and Mateo Kovacic — and then two wingers who have generally been Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez.
The latter pair have been in excellent form lately. Asensio made the difference from the bench in the first leg against PSG, entering at 1-1 and setting up the two late goals for Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo. BLucas Vazquez is second only to Ronaldo as Madrid’s most productive attacker of the past month, with five assists and two goals in his last five La Liga games. The pair also provide hard work off the ball and know their jobs very well.
The new tactical set-up offers fewer positive for bigger names Gareth Bale and Isco. Bale was a surprise omission from the first leg XI and his mood appeared to be affected by that decision. The Wales international was back on the scoresheet in Saturday’s 4-0 home win over Alaves; however, this was not the usual “trident” 4-3-3, as Zidane explained afterwards.
“Gareth did very well in the 4-4-2,” said the former galactico, not sounding like he was really considering it as a regular option. “I wanted to see him in this position, but we will see what happens in the coming games.” The likelihood remains that the more tactically and defensively aware Asensio and Lucas will be the wide players at the Parc des Princes. Bale could in theory partner Ronaldo up front but Karim Benzema looks to have a lock on that role.
Isco did very well in the first half against PSG at the Bernabeu, especially when tracking back off the ball. But not for the first time this season, he faded after the break and was replaced at 1-1. The Spain international’s recent level has dipped well below the highs of spring and autumn 2017, with just one goal and zero assists in his last 10 appearances. A lack of mobility and physicality also means he’s not well suited to either the wide or central positions in a flat, four-man midfield.
The biggest issue with this 4-4-2 is a lack of creativity in central areas. Casemiro’s main (and very useful) responsibility will always be to destroy. Kovacic is more of a playmaker but the past few La Liga games have shown he cannot manage a game in the style of Modric or Kroos. Madrid’s problems in possession were stark during Tuesday’s 0-1 defeat at Espanyol, with the team having loads of the ball but no shape to their play. Kovacic completed a record 22 dribbles but after carrying the ball forward, he then often just gave it away.
Barring unlikely returns for Modric and/or Kroos, it looks like Zidane’s plan for PSG will be to sit deep, remain compact and look to counter-attacks or set-pieces for an away goal. It means that as has so often been the case for Madrid, they will be dependent on Ronaldo to take the chances that come his way.
It’s no surprise that the 33-year-old has been rested for his team’s two most recent away games so he’s primed for the trip to Paris. Neymar’s absence will give some of his lesser profile teammates a chance to shine but Madrid’s injuries put even more of a focus on Ronaldo.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan