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September 20, 2019

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Zidane takes heat as PSG runs Real ragged

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane could only hold his hands up after his side was outclassed by Paris Saint-Germain in their opening UEFA Champions League game of the season on Wednesday, going down 0-3 in the French capital.

“They were superior to us in everything,” Zidane admitted after the match at the Parc des Princes. “In terms of how they played, in midfield, but above all, and what annoys me the most, in terms of intensity.”

Games at this level are often won in the center of the park and the Real trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez could not cope with their opponents, for whom the tireless Idrissa Gueye was outstanding.

Zidane had pinpointed the same issue last weekend after his side almost blew a three-goal lead against Levante in La Liga. “When I looked to the bench there was nothing else,” he said of his midfield then, but he could and certainly should have seen this coming.

While an injury to Luka Modric has exacerbated the problem, Zidane allowed Dani Ceballos and Marcos Llorente to leave in the summer and did not have an alternative to a failed move to sign Paul Pogba.

The defeat in Paris may ultimately not prevent Real from reaching the last 16, but its performance contrasted sharply with two seasons ago, when it dumped PSG out en route to winning the trophy for the third year running.

Zidane walked away after that success only to be tempted back in March. If it seemed like a huge risk at the time to gamble his legacy, six months on and the France great appears no closer to getting the 13-time European Cup winner back on track.

He did not have to deal with such adversity in his glittering first stint in charge. Real has won seven and lost five of 16 games since his return.

On Wednesday, according to Spanish sports statistician Mister Chip, apart from two disallowed goals, Real failed to muster a shot on target for the first time in a decade, a period spanning 578 competitive games.

That was despite the presence of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard up front.

The latter made his first start for the club after injury following his 100-million euro (US$110 million) move from Chelsea but received a rating of two out of 10 from French sports daily L’Equipe.

“To not create chances with the players we had on the field, it is a bit of a strange feeling but that is how it is,” Zidane said.

Writing in Spanish sports daily As, Alfredo Relano remarked: “Real are not in good shape, others know it and their opponents no longer crouch down before them out of respect for their prestige.”

Of course Real was not helped by the absences of the injured Marcelo and the suspended Sergio Ramos from its defense on Wednesday.

There is still much work for Zidane to do, however, with what is meant to be a new-look Real — center-back Eder Militao and left-back Ferland Mendy were the other summer signings to start in Paris.

But he needs to find solutions quickly, with Real facing a tough test on Sunday as it travels to face a Sevilla side which is top of La Liga after four games, two points above Zidane’s team.

Real has lost on its last four visits to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, and on six of its last seven trips there.

Sevilla has another potential weapon given its coach, Julen Lopetegui, will be motivated by the prospect of getting one over on the club which sacked him after just 14 games last season.

“We need to forget this defeat, it is hard but we have another game on Sunday and we need to focus on that,” Zidane said.

It may be stretching it to say his position is under threat at the moment, but another defeat this weekend might change that, and a derby away to Atletico Madrid awaits a week later.

Meanwhile, PSG’s win was not a warning to its European rivals — it was more a self-confidence booster on the French side’s return to the biggest stage after another humiliation.

PSG suffered an embarrassing last-16 exit against a low-key Manchester United following a shock 1-3 home defeat last season, and on Wednesday, it had a point to prove to itself.

Thomas Tuchel’s side was without its magic trio of Kylian Mbappe, Edison Cavani — both injured — and Neymar, who was suspended, yet it produced a great collective performance.

Angel Di Maria showed his class and flair with a brace, helped by the huge work of midfielders Marco Verratti, Marquinhos and Gueye, with the Senegalese proving his worth after joining from Everton during the close season. “He’s a machine. He’s the type of player we were missing, he never stops running,” said Tuchel.

Gueye provided the midfield with much-needed stamina since Blaise Matuidi left for Juventus in 2017, proving essential with defensive tackles and impressive bursts going forward.

With the ‘MCN’ trio out, Argentina striker Mauro Icardi, loaned from Inter Milan, harassed the Real defense and created space for Di Maria while goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who joined from Real, is expected to give the defense some peace of mind.

“We have a great team, with more personality now,” said Tuchel.

PSG, however, is well aware that group-stage wins will mean nothing when the knockout phase comes in the winter.

In 2017, it beat Bayern 3-0 in the group phase and tamed Liverpool 2-1 also in the group phase last year, but those victories were followed by early exits.

The way it beat Real, however, was far more convincing.

“We need to always play like we did, with character and personality. With aggressiveness, too,” said center back Thiago Silva.

“Mbappe, Cavani and Neymar are phenomenons, but we have a solid squad of 25 players.”


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