Real Madrid, PSG and the eternal struggle to control European football’s future

Kylian Mbappe settled the first leg with a late goal for PSG

Mauricio Pochettino, naturally, was looking to what next. The Paris Saint-Germain manager was offering a mission statement during his press conference at the Santiago Bernabeu, but was more concerned about the training session that followed, and how Kylian Mbappe would react.

The forward was carrying a knock, but seemed to come through fine. It meant he could look around the great stadium a little more freely, with a little more excitement to the air. That isn’t just related to Wednesday’s Champions League last-16 return leg.

It is about much more, as tends to often happen with this competition.

For a trophy that is so prestigious, where everyone in football just wants to live the moment of lifting it, it is remarkable how so many Champions League ties are actually about seasons to come; Champions Leagues to be won in the future.

You might say that’s the nature of the modern Real Madrid, where it is always about the next thing. That ensures it’s especially the case for this tie.


Most prominently, there is all the intrigue about Mbappe’s future, as PSG wait on an offer of €100m a year that Madrid just can’t get close to.

Mauricio Pochettino looks to guide Paris Saint-Germain into the last eight

The Bernabeu hierarchy will instead be playing on other motivations, and expect the Bernabeu crowd to play on his emotions.

The Madrid media have already been all over Mbappe.

His performance could well dictate the futures of Pochettino and Carlo Ancelotti. Florentino Perez was already aggravated by the defensive nature of Madrid’s 1-0 defeat in the first leg, but was impressed with the way PSG so imposed their game.

That Pochettino intensity, the Madrid president feels, is much more befitting the history of his own club. Adding further edge to all of this is the uncertainty over the future of the game.

The week before the fixture has seen momentum grow for the next stage of the European Super League. PSG find themselves on the other side, having used the last launch as an opportunity to strengthen their position in the Uefa structure.

For all the debate about that, and the power of state-run clubs, much of the Super League is ultimately about Perez wanting Madrid to forever be bigger than such upstarts.

The Champions League’s most successful club right now feel much staler, less glamorous. That is a consequence of that recent history, and how so many key players in the Madrid squad are still the key players of the 2013-18 period.

Kylian Mbappe attends a training session at the Bernabeu stadium

The build-up to this match saw 32-year-old Toni Kroos fret about his fitness, as 36-year-old Luka Modric tried to talk up Madrid’s chances.

It doesn’t help that one of the more energetic players from that group, the 30-year-old Casemiro, is missing this game.

There are then the players that were supposed to be the next generation.

The 31-year-old Eden Hazard has been little short of a disaster at Madrid, a waste of a £100m signing that now feels like it is from a completely different era of football.

It says much that, far from PSG being any way intimidated by such an obvious talent, it is easier to forget he still plays for Madrid.

Perhaps that can serve him, and set this up to be his night.

There is no doubting the man of the moment, though, and it has created a curious dynamic in the opposition.

Everything in the PSG squad revolves around Lionel Messi, but there’s now little doubt who exerts the most gravitational force.

Pochettino was predictably asked before the game whether Mbappe is now the best player in the world, and played it diplomatically by pointing to Messi’s Ballon D’Ors.

For all the words expended on this topic over the years, it is really the feelings that say it all. Mbappe is now the player you want to watch, as that goal in the first leg proved.

Real Madrid will look to Karim Benzema to reverse the tie at the Bernabeu

That match also had Messi doing four or five things that only Messi can do, and it remains an experience to watch him.

Three passes after he missed his penalty were divine. But it is no longer the full Messi experience. It is no longer peak Messi.

The Bernabeu won’t quite see the same player that used to devastate this stadium.

By contrast, there will be an electricity when Mbappe gets on the ball. There will be an excitement, and a fear.

He will shape the entire game, right down to the approach. The feeling around PSG is that Pochettino is adapting around Messi, and compromising, but absolutely adores Mbappe.

He can go full gun with him, perfect for his pressing.

Lionel Messi has been overshadowed by Kylian Mbappe

Where Ancelotti positions his backline will meanwhile be entirely dependent on where Mbappe goes. The perpetual danger will be leaving him too much space in behind.

While the conflicting issue for Madrid will be that they have to score and therefore run the risk of attacking PSG early on.

Whether Ancelotti can square that will be his best test. It helps that Karim Benzema will be back.


He is their biggest player for such nights.

This match, however, could go much further than deciding this game. There is still a Champions League to be won, though. This match will itself go a long way to deciding this season.

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