Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League aspirations took a big enough hit after a 3-1 first-leg defeat at Real Madrid, but then a combined broken fifth metatarsal and sprained ankle robbed them of the man who was supposed to deliver European glory. Nothing about facing the two-time defending champs was ever going to be easy, but having Neymar on the field—well, it certainly would’ve helped. Sadly, with a World Cup on the horizon and Neymar still Brazil’s biggest draw, the rest of his season will be determined by arguments between club and country over how long his rehab really needs to last.
If that wasn’t enough of a blow to Unai Emery’s side, 19-year-old star Kylian Mbappé suffered an ankle injury in last week’s 3-0 French Cup victory, putting his status for the Madrid match up in the air. Potentially losing two world-class attackers in a week’s time would doom most teams, especially one whose success or failure depends on Champions League success, but PSG shouldn’t throw in the towel just yet.
To start with, they have a stellar record at their home stadium. They haven’t lost at the Parc des Princes since a 2-0 defeat to Monaco nearly two years ago. This season, they’ve won every home game. Three Champions League fixtures have yielded 15 goals, 14 Ligue 1 fixtures have seen 54 goals, and on every single occasion, PSG have achieved the first thing they need to do this Tuesday: They scored at least twice.
Rolling over Dijon 8-0 or putting six past Bordeaux or Toulouse is very different from welcoming one of Europe’s genuine superclubs, but PSG’s recent home record against such teams is promising. Bayern Munich visited in late September and were skewered by a Dani Alves goal inside two minutes, as they ultimately failed to broach the Parisians’ defense and lost 3-0. However, the key reference ahead of this game is Neymar’s last Champions League knockout tie in this stadium. He arrived with Barcelona last March, and he lost 4-0.
Have another look at Di Maria's second goal. https://t.co/fse0aXPmS5— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) February 14, 2017
That match appeared to epitomize a change in European football. The new money in the game represented by PSG’s Qatari owners had finally surpassed the traditional giants on the field. Barcelona, so richly talented in attack, found their midfield unable to supply the likes of Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suárez. PSG dominated, and the scoreline was no fluke. Barcelona managed just seven shots that night, with Messi reduced to a solitary blocked effort from long range and Suarez failing to record a single attempt. Of course, what took place in the second leg (an unbelievable 6-1 Barcelona victory that saw the Spanish side proceed in the competition) eventually overshadowed the earlier game. While the gap between PSG and other superclubs had shrunk, they still contrived to find a way to lose out when it mattered most.
Barcelona’s chief tormentor from that memorable PSG victory was Ángel Di María, and he finds himself center stage once more with a point to prove both for his own club and against his former employers. He scored the first and third goals that night against Barcelona and doesn’t really deserve to be the backup to anyone. Having had his game time cut by the dual summer arrivals of Neymar and Mbappé, he is now PSG’s 12th man. With the club so far ahead of its domestic competition, Emery has shuffled the pack a little in Ligue 1, so Di Maria has made 18 starts in the French league, but in the Champions League, there’s been no way into the starting lineup. He has only four appearances this season, all from the bench.
For the best part of a decade across spells at Benfica, Real Madrid, Manchester United, and now PSG, Di María has been one of the premier creative talents in European football. Until very recently, his assist rate had consistently been around one every two games, but this season has seen a subtle change in his game. He is now getting better quality shots, closer to goal than ever before, and he’s scoring more than he’s assisting. The underlying numbers support the increased output, too: His expected goal rate has doubled from one goal in four games to one every two.
Before this season, Di María had been one of the best sidekicks of his generation. At Real Madrid, he supported Cristiano Ronaldo, and for his country across 92 caps, Messi has benefited from Di María’s selflessness. Now that he’s not a first-choice player, maybe he sees a need to make even more of an impact when on the pitch to get back into the lineup. Well, now he’s there by default, and two goals in last week’s cup game were the ideal way to announce his return. As a dual-threat goal-and-assist man, Di María’s rate of 0.8 per 90 minutes isn’t at Neymar’s or Messi’s level (both around 1.3 to 1.4 goals or assists per 90), but few players are. Di María’s rates are still top-class. Even at 30 years old, his inclusion means that while PSG are weaker, the difference is more marginal than decisive.
How he fits into the team ahead of the Real Madrid game likely depends on whether or not Mbappé plays. Di María has most frequently played from the right, but that’s the position that Mbappé has inhabited for most of this season. With Mbappé out, the solution would be simple: Di María would start on the right of Edinson Cavani while Julian Draxler or Javier Pastore would fill in on the left.
And that brings us full circle: The Draxler-Cavani–Di María front line started and destroyed Barcelona last season. Should PSG end up fielding that same trio again, Emery’s pregame motivation writes itself. In fact, the only player who started against Barcelona who definitely won’t be available this time around is Blaise Matuidi, who joined Juventus last summer. However, his departure highlights the team’s weak spot: central midfield. At times, Draxler has dropped back into midfield, but he offers negligible defensive cover, while Giovani Lo Celso is hugely promising but just 21 years old and inexperienced for this kind of game. (The first leg was his first start in the Champions League, and he conceded a penalty.) Perhaps former Real man Lassana Diarra is the answer? He has experience aplenty, but at 32 years old, he was a slightly unusual signing in the January window as he returned from what looked like semi-retirement at UAE club Al Jazira to front-line European football. If anything, the move for Diarra emphasized just how heavily PSG had prioritized the Neymar and Mbappé deals and neglected other parts of the squad.
Two goals behind and without their best player, PSG still come into the Madrid match as clear underdogs, but the Spanish giants have had an erratic season, currently sitting 15 points behind Barcelona in La Liga. Plus, the first time the sides met at the Bernabéu, PSG weren’t necessarily outplayed, either. Before two late goals to swing the tie firmly in Madrid’s favor, the two sides were completing the same number of passes, and the hosts had to work extra hard to keep it that way: They attempted more than twice as many tackles as PSG did across the whole game.
Neymar is probably done until the World Cup, and now his replacements have the chance to overturn last year’s round of 16 embarrassment. If they can’t? Emery will likely lose his job and, once more, all that will be left for PSG is a collection of domestic trophies that few really care about. This is their game of the season, but it’s not over yet.