By J Hutcherson (Feb 15, 2022) US Soccer Players – It’s knockout round time in the Champions League, UEFA’s better answer to crowning the top team in all of the world. Chelsea doesn’t take the next step in defending its title until February 22, enough of a lead-in to find a place on the shelf for their new Club World Cup trophy and set their focus on Crystal Palace in the Premier League. Meanwhile, the teams in action in the Champions League this week face the familiar, at least for the most part. It’s upset scenarios matching up against the potential for staggering disappointment with one easily spotted exception.
Since the day of the draw, the round of 16 has put the focus firmly on Paris St-Germain playing Real Madrid. PSG is the new market leader in spending on an extraordinary squad, especially when noticing the value of their attacking players. It’s worth the reminder that they paid nothing to sign Lionel Messi over the summer. It was the same price point for defender Sergio Ramos and goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. While they did spend €60m on defender Achraf Hakimi back in July, PSG let the January window pass without any moves. Given the strength of their squad, it’s easy to see why.
PSG may only lead Ligue 1 by 13 points after 21 games, but they’ve only lost once. Rarely is this a team needing to explain why the obvious didn’t work. With their first choice squad available, they do as advertised. While that wasn’t enough to win group A, PSG seems like a team with better results ahead of it. There’s the distinct feeling of more to come with an attack that can use Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe and that should resonate across the knockout round. All it takes now is for that vaunted attack to play to form against the always relevant Real Madrid.
The easiest way to summarize La Liga this season is that 1st-place Real Madrid has a four-point lead not over Barcelona or Atletico Madrid. Instead, it’s Sevilla trying to maintain a title race with Real Betis seven points behind in 3rd. For all the talk of tighter budgets and changing realities for the Spanish elite, Real Madrid is currently meeting expectations. They’ve managed it without buying anybody, though last month they were linked with plenty of moves. Instead, they’re left with the same squad that finished with one loss in the group stage, easily finishing ahead of Inter Milan.
What the talk of what Real Madrid might be able to add to its squad this summer suggests the current version is not the finished product. Whether or not the market provides bigger names for next season, that downplays the strengths of this squad. They beat Inter Milan home and away in group D with Karim Benzema scoring five of their 14 goals. He has 17 in 21 La Liga games, forcing opponents to try to stop the likeliest scoring threat. Most can’t, but that’s part of the point of the Champions League. It’s matching the best in Europe over 180 minutes and seeing which team’s game stands up.
Mbappi’s late goal changed the story for PSG. Instead of Messi’s blocked penalty and how close PSG came to scoring, it’s a one-goal lead. Stoppage time took away what would’ve otherwise carried into the second-leg, Real Madrid’s willingness to let PSG play and trust that the score wouldn’t change.
“We lost a stupid ball, Mbappe skips by two and manages to get the ball under me,” Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said. “It’s tough to take but we didn’t play well. Our game plan doesn’t change all that much being one down – we need to win to go through. Hopefully, with the fans behind us, we’ll do just that.”
That brings us to the larger point that normally ends up in play this time of year. It’s the pressure of expectation across the knockout phase, even in match-ups of Europe’s elite. Regardless of who loses the PSG vs Real Madrid series, it will trigger the same crisis opportunity we saw last season with Barcelona and Juventus. Treating 2019-20 as the outlier of outliers, in 2018-19 it was Real Madrid and PSG. That was the round of 16 where Real Madrid took a first-leg lead to Amsterdam only to lose to Ajax and PSG was on the wrong side of the away goals rule against Manchester United.
Both of those exits recast seasons. For Real Madrid, it was a second consecutive 3rd-place finish but without winning the Champions League. Meanwhile, PSG had one more piece of evidence to point towards needing the kind of squad that is soccer’s working definition for elite. They now have that, without question. Like we saw on Tuesday, even in the hardest of the round of 16 match-ups, eventually, that quality should find a way through.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Chelsea vs Palmeiras for the Club World Cup
- Preview: USMNT vs Honduras in 2022 Concacaf World Cup qualifying
- The Premier League at the January/February break
- Building a competivive roster in MLS is not getting any easier
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