Even on the night Real Madrid may have wrapped up La Liga, it was all about Europe. On Saturday, the day Paris Saint-Germain were losing 1-0 at Nice, Carlo Ancelotti’s team produced possibly their best performance of the season. Coming from a goal down, they defeated Real Sociedad 4-1 at a noisy Santiago Bernabéu where well after the final whistle the players came back out to greet their fans and a defiant chant went round, a message of hope. “Sí, se puede!” it ran. “Yes, we can!”
They weren’t talking about being able to win the league. Having just pulled eight points clear of Sevilla – a lead never overturned at this stage of the season – that seems likely now. Instead, they were talking about being able to turn round the 1-0 deficit from the first leg against PSG. This, after all is the competition that truly measures them and obsesses the 13-times winners of the European Cup.
It is the competition that obsesses PSG too of course, the only one that truly appears to matter for a club at the opposite end of the European scale when it comes to trophies. “The Champions League is special, you’re motivated even more and I want to produce a great game, make history and take Paris where they should be,” Neymar said here in Madrid. “What we most want is the Champions League. The excitement and hope will always be there with the Champions League.”
If the “unlike Ligue 1”, still less the French Cup, went without saying it was pretty explicit there and also in the words of Mauricio Pochettino, who insisted that “the Cup, the league, and the Champions League are different challenges”. It was even more explicit when the PSG coach added: “Neymar was signed a few years ago to try to win the Champions League: that was said in every press conference and at his presentation.” And that’s before you get on to Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé.
For that to happen PSG must progress here. Neymar is back to help and they lead, which is the good news, as is the fact that they were so dominant at the Parc des Princes. And yet the feeling has shifted, that sense of superiority diminishing and something else building in its place. The conditions have been created for a comeback. “We have to adapt and read what has changed in three weeks,” Pochettino said.
“As soon as the game was over the machinery started, those around Madrid and the club started to generate positive feelings, the idea that the comeback is possible,” he added, comparing that with the negativity and pessimism he believes surrounds his club. At one point he noted that he replies to some questions out of “good manners”, the line “I have been patient with you” serving instead to highlight that patience is something he is running out of. “We do know that if we lose there are no more Champions League games,” he said.
Perhaps that is the pressure talking, the need to finally win this competition. For Madrid, it is the opposite: even in defeat, they are not defeated, history teaching them there is a way back and offering a lesson they cling to. The idea of a European comeback is built into their identity, as much a story as a statistical reality.
Pochettino, though, may have overplayed it and there was a negative spin put on it too when Ancelotti was asked who had more at stake if they lost – him or his players. The first-leg performance was so bad that the initial reaction was not optimistic, consolation found only in it being a single year – next season Mbappé would be theirs. Concern was deepened by two key suspensions too: Ferland Mendy and Casemiro. Toni Kroos is a doubt, with Ancelotti saying: “If he’s 95% fit, he doesn’t play.”
“Casemiro is the best there is in his position and Madrid will miss him; for us, obviously it is better he doesn’t play,” Neymar admitted, laughing. As for PSG’s key injury doubt, Pochettino and Neymar said they expected Mbappé to play after he limped out of training on Monday.
For all that Pochettino saw Madrid’s wheels clicking into gear, it wasn’t until Saturday that the attitude finally shifted fully. Twenty days without midweek fixtures have helped, allowing for better preparation and fitness, Karim Benzema’s return has too, and there is a solidity about them that was not there before. But it took the Real Sociedad win to really feel ready for this meeting.
“After this, Madridismo believes more in the comeback than before,” Ancelotti said on Saturday. “The reception from the fans was nice because their help will be vital.” A call has already gone out for them to gather at 7pm to welcome the team bus, Luka Modric insisting: “The Bernabéu can play an important role.”
Madrid’s manager, though, was trying to avoid falling into the trap of making an epic of what will be a special evening no matter what. For all PSG’s dominance, it is only 1-0: for Madrid, that was the best news of all to come out of Paris. “There are lots of key factors in a game like this; the mental aspect is very important,” Ancelotti said. “The team is in a good shape, motivated, calm. We have to be intelligent. We can’t go mad because we have to win the game, not score loads of goals. Maybe we score early or in the last minute; the important thing is to be alive.”