The first round in the battle of the superclubs belongs to Real Madrid.
Two late goals gave Real Madrid a surprising edge over PSG in the last 16 of the Champions League as the two-time reigning winners persevered to a 3-1 triumph.
Adrian Rabiot put PSG ahead, but Cristiano Ronaldo leveled from the penalty spot with his 100th Champions League goal for Real Madrid just before halftime. And then when Marcos Asensio’s 82nd-minute deflected cross was pushed out by Alphonse Areola, the ball hit Ronaldo on the knee and bounced in. Another Asensio cross was slammed in by Marcelo four minutes later to give Real Madrid the final edge.
Elsewhere in the competition on Wednesday, Sadio Mane struck for a hat trick, as Liverpool all but confirmed its place in the quarterfinal with a 5-0 win at Porto, with the other goals coming from Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino.
Here are three thoughts on the day in the Champions League:
Relief for Real Madrid, but questions remain unanswered for both sides
The names were glamorous, but for all the pre-match claims that this was a match-up that would have graced the final, both sides began with serious doubts about their credentials. Neither really answered them. For all the potential skill on display, this was a weirdly poor game, disjointed, disfigured by dives and cynical fouls, lacking much in the way of control or cohesion.
For Real Madrid, the questions are relatively straightforward ones. It is not playing well. It trails Barcelona, the league leader in Spain, by 17 points. Cristiano Ronaldo, although he scored a hat trick against Real Sociedad over the weekend, has looked out of sorts for most of the season and he snatched at two first-half chances before converting a penalty and getting lucky with his second. Karim Benzema’s form has been even worse. Since beginning the season with wins over Manchester United in the European Super Cup and Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup, Real has often been sluggish and lacking in inspiration.
For PSG, meanwhile, the concern is more existential. Given the way it dominates in France–it is 12 points clear at the top–how can it ever develop the defensive excellence and capacity to battle that would make the side truly competitive in the latter stages of the Champions League?
A strangely shambolic game did nothing to answer that worry. Real Madrid was a long way from its best, lacking a spark after an intense early press, and yet PSG’s carelessness still allowed the hosts to create chances. Giovani Lo Celso, never comfortable in a defensive role, needlessly conceded the penalty from which Ronaldo leveled, while PSG never got to grips with Asensio once he entered off the bench. For the second successive season in Spain, PSG lost its shape and its heads in the closing minutes.
From an attacking point of view, PSG was more impressive, although without a great amount of fluidity. Neymar, operating almost exclusively on the left, got the better of Nacho, the Madrid right back, and yet still allowed himself to be sufficiently rattled by a couple of cynical fouls, including one when he got himself booked for a petulant hack. He was extremely lucky not to receive a second yellow card for simulation just after the hour mark. Not for the first time, the sense with him is that he tried to do far too much himself.
Real Madrid still sloppy in the back
It’s not just a lack of zip to their passing and a tendency to over-elaborate in attack that should concern Real Madrid. In one sense, Madrid’s poor domestic form shouldn’t impinge on its hopes in Europe. It has won the league 33 times and the European Cup/Champions League 12, yet last season was the first time in 51 years it had won both in the same season. But in another, Madrid sits fourth in La Liga for a very good reason, which is that it simply is not that good.
This was the eighth successive game in which Madrid had conceded, and it could have let in far more than the one it did concede. That was an issue at times last season, and the inability to control a game has been a general feature of Zinedine Zidane’s reign as manager. Madrid’s success last season was based on outscoring opponents, and although it eventually managed that again, it is much harder to do when Ronaldo’s flood of goals has slowed to more normal levels.
PSG’s opener was a perfect example of Real's sloppiness. The defending was fine up to the point at which the ball bounced out toward Rabiot. Nobody had picked up the midfielder. Luka Modric made a belated attempt to get back, but Rabiot had time, even on his weaker foot, to line up a finish. And there were other opportunities as well. Real may be feeling confident and relieved, but a two-goal lead heading to Paris is not insurmountable.
Liverpool delivers another strong Premier League statement
It’s too early for English football to make too many assumptions, but after a long spell of underachievement, this is looking increasingly as though it will be the season in which the Premier League will finally make its economic might start to tell. After Manchester City’s demolition of Basel and Tottenham’s comeback to draw against Juventus on Tuesday, Wednesday brought another excellent away result for a Premier League side, with Liverpool's thrashing of Porto in Portugal. The 12 goals Premier League sides have scored in the Champions League knockout ties this week equals or surpasses their total in the knockout stage for each of the past three seasons.
Perhaps Liverpool got lucky with the opening goal, as Jose Sa let Mane’s shot squirm under his body, but once it had sniffed blood, Jurgen Klopp’s side took full advantage adding a second four minutes later thanks to a remarkable finish from Salah. He seized on a loose ball after James Milner had hit the post, casually lifting the ball over Sa, controlling it on his head and poking the ball into the empty net. Two second-half goals from Mane and another from Firmino meant they matched City’s result the previous night.
Two Premier League sides are golden for the quarterfinals, and more could easily follow.