Champions League: Unai Emery’s diffidence sees Paris Saint-Germain wilt after promising much against Real Madrid


Paris Saint-Germain lies crumpled in a familiar spot. The Parisians have been here before. The 1-3 defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday would not hurt so much if it was not predictable. PSG wilted when it seemed ascendant; it dreamt of a win but failed to dare.
Much of the blame for that lies with manager Unai Emery. After the match, he chose to shield his failings by focusing on the referee but the result spoke volumes. PSG did threaten to steal a win but the initiative was let go of easily. “They scored when we were at our best,” Emery said. The PSG manager was not wrong in his assessment but he may want to ponder why.
Before the kick-off, Emery had already made a big call. Angel di Maria’s involvement in 16 goals over the past nine matches was not considered worthy of a place in the starting XI; instead, Giovani Lo Celso was named in the midfield alongside Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot. Emery’s lack of faith in di Maria sustained throughout the match. When Edinson Cavani was removed around the hour mark, it was full-back Thomas Meunier who replaced him. Strangely, Dani Alves was pushed up to the front three in support of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
This was a consequence of Emery’s desire for security. But his defensive mindset did not allow PSG to fully assert themselves. At the time of Cavani’s substitution, the visiting side was growing in confidence and looked likely to take the lead. But Emery’s peculiar decision held his team back. Furthermore, he made only two substitutions on the night; the second arrived after Madrid took the lead as Lo Celso was belatedly replaced by Julian Draxler. Di Maria could only look on from the bench.
Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane was a pleasant study in contrast. Faced with a team which could potentially overwhelm his underperforming squad, the manager chose Isco to start ahead of Gareth Bale. Control was prioritised over counter-attacking. Zidane trusted what he knew had helped Madrid defend their Champions League crown last season.
Madrid embraced the occasion, unlike PSG, who were eventually overwhelmed by it. In the initial exchanges, the 12-time European champion played on the front foot as they sought to establish control. Isco’s presence in the centre of the park gave an edge to Madrid; PSG’s decision to play Lo Celso as a holding midfielder made to look rather unwise. Out of his comfort zone, the inexperienced Argentine failed to adapt all night as he gave away a penalty and could have been justifiably sent off.