It’s already crunch time for Paris Saint-Germain as a season-defining moment awaits Les Parisiens at the Parc des Princes on March 6. On that day, Unai Emery and his squad will need to overcome a 3-1 scoreline from the first leg of their UEFA Champions League tie against Real Madrid and they will have to do it without Neymar Jr.
The manager would prefer to have all of the cards in his favor but unfortunately, that’s not the case. Not only will he be without Neymar, but fellow Brazilian Marquinhos could miss the pivotal match as well due to a thigh injury. Understandably, Emery has been silent about the extent of the injuries to various players in his locker room. Let’s assume the worst-case scenario in that Neymar and Marquinhos are both out. What can Emery do to achieve the 2-0 win that will see his side into the quarter-finals of the competition?
Replacing Marquinhos may not be the hardest task. Captain Thiago Silva and the young, but prestigious, Presnel Kimpembe are more than capable of stepping in his place but it does leave doubts. Emery would likely have preferred to pair Marquinhos with Kimpembe, as he did for the first leg, where they both had a good game despite what the scoreline will tell you. Starting Silva only re-casts the eternal doubt about his ability to turn up in big games. Moreover, with all three center-backs accounted for, should bad luck strike again, Emery will need to come up with a creative solution, which likely involves playing a man out of position to cover.
In attack, you don’t have to be a pessimist for problems to emerge fast. With Neymar’s absence confirmed last week, the most expensive and possibly most important member of PSG’s attacking trio will be gone, leaving very big shoes to fill. One would instinctively imagine that Angel Di Maria, who has been hitting the back of the net on a regular basis lately, or the often-neglected, but nonetheless efficient Julian Draxler would step up to replace Neymar on the teamsheet, and it’s easy to see why. Di Maria, when on form, is very good. There’s a reason he used to play for Los Blancos and like any professional footballer, he’s probably rubbing his hands at the prospect of facing them (and getting revenge for sending him to Manchester). On the other hand, one cannot forget Draxler’s mesmerizing performance against Madrid two years ago when his VfL Wolfsburg side nearly knocked out that year’s champions-to-be and his great game against FC Barcelona in last year’s quickly-forgotten 4-0 rout. Whoever Emery picks to pair with Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappé, it will be hard to mentally and tactically match Neymar’s impact on the team.
A two-goal deficit with an away goal in hand isn’t the hardest score to turn around but doing it against Real Madrid is another story. Emery has the players to fill the gaps in his team so all that’s left to wonder is whether the manager himself will be up to the task as he’ll truly have to break out the big guns tactically against the reigning champions of Europe.