Paris Saint-Germain will attempt to overturn a 3-1 deficit when they host Real Madrid in their heavyweight Champions League last-16 second leg tonight (at 2:45am Cambodian time), but do so without the injured Neymar.
The world’s most expensive player is recovering from a foot operation in Brazil, yet the French club remain hopeful they can overcome the defending European champions and advance to April’s quarterfinals.
“I speak with him practically every day, so yes we have agreed between us that we would see each other again later on in this competition,” said PSG defender Dani Alves when asked if he had been in touch with his fellow Brazil international.
“For sure, we will feel his absence. But between sitting down and crying and getting up and getting on with it, I always opt for the second option.”
Angel Di Maria, a Champions League winner with Real in 2014, is set to replace Neymar in the home line-up before a sell-out crowd of around 47,000 at the Parc des Princes.
“He is a spectacular player, who made history with Real Madrid. He can play in any position across the middle, he moves well, has a good shot, and is quick,” said Real coach Zinedine Zidane of Di Maria.
PSG took the lead in the first leg in Spain last month through Adrien Rabiot only for Real to hit back with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring twice to break through the 100-goal barrier for the club in the Champions League.
Marcelo also scored for Real, who are aiming to become the first club since Bayern Munich in 1976 to win a third consecutive European Cup.
Real have not been eliminated from the Champions League this early since Lyon beat them in 2010. However, PSG are relying on their formidable record at home, where they are unbeaten in over 50 games going back two years.
They have also overturned a 3-1 first-leg deficit against Real before, winning 4-1 in their UEFA Cup quarter-final return in 1993.
George Weah scored for PSG that night. Now the president of Liberia, his son Timothy made his professional debut for the Ligue 1 leaders at the weekend.
No margin for error
A repeat of that famous comeback would be the biggest result for PSG since the Qatari takeover of the club in 2011, after four straight quarterfinal eliminations and then a humiliating loss in Barcelona in the last 16 a year ago.
“I think that we need games like this and to beat these teams to take a step forward and so that our opponents really take notice of PSG, and don’t just think we have loads of money,” said Alves, who played in two Champions League final victories for Barcelona.
“PSG have had their limits in this competition in the past and now we need to go beyond them to keep on progressing as a club.”
An elimination would surely spell the end for coach Unai Emery, who is out of contract in June.
Similarly, an exit would be disastrous for Zidane, with Real currently 15 points behind leaders Barcelona in La Liga and already out of the Copa del Rey.
“After the game, it’s going to be difficult for one of the two teams, but that is football,” said Zidane.
Given their domestic difficulties, Real are throwing everything into their quest to win a record 13th European Cup.
“That can mean added pressure or added motivation,” said captain Sergio Ramos. “The margin for error is minimal.”
Toni Kroos (knee) and Luka Modric (thigh) could return for Real after spells on the sidelines. Javier Pastore was named in PSG’s squad despite a calf concern, meaning Neymar is their only notable absentee.
There will be a minute’s silence before kick-off of at this and all the midweek European games in honour of Fiorentina and Italy defender Davide Astori, who died suddenly at the weekend aged 31.