World domination might have to wait another year. That will have been one of the first reactions coming out of Paris Saint Germain after the Champions League draw paired them with the holders Real Madrid.
But club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi can rest assured that his counterpart Florentino Perez is every bit as deflated – neither club wanted to face the other, neither wanted to contemplate exiting club football’s biggest tournament before the quarter-finals.
Real Madrid wanted to sign Kylian Mbappe in the summer. They binned all previous transfer targets just to focus on the then-Monaco winger only to have PSG take him from their grasp.
Real Madrid and PSG were paired together in the Champions League last 16 draw on Monday
It was not the tie that Paris Saint-Germain chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi had been hoping for
Real president Florentino Perez would also have preferred a different opponent at this stage
And their pursuit of Neymar stretches back to 2011 when he had a medical for the club before joining Barcelona.
Now it is Mbappe and Neymar threatening Real Madrid with a potentially catastrophic early exit – imagine if they stay eight points behind Barcelona in the league and go out of the Champions League at the last-16 stage.
Club director Emilio Butragueno made surprisingly little attempt to hide his disappointment at the draw when he spoke to Spanish media after it was made.
‘It could have been the final for the strength of the two teams,’ he said. ‘We are both candidates but one will not reach the quarter-finals. They have had a fantastic group phase and they have great players. They were strong last season and now they have Mbappe and Neymar.’ The name-checking was telling.
One thing Madrid will rely heavily on as they try to get the psychological advantage ahead of the tie will be their superior history. ‘This club has won 12 European Cups so we know how to face these games,’ added Butragueno who also made much of Madrid’s injury problems so far this season.
They are currently in Abu Dhabi preparing for the World Club Cup and have Gareth Bale ready to make his return from injury.
Real and Perez wanted Kylian Mbappe but were beaten to his signature by Al Khelaifi and PSG
Another Madrid target, Neymar, joined PSG earlier this year but he remains on the Real radar
Referencing the club’s fitness problems this season, Butragueno said: ‘We will need a bit of luck but with all the injured players back we have a great chance.’
Bale was bought the same summer as Neymar moved to Barcelona. The two were compared frequently in the four years they went head to head and it may well be that way again if the former Tottenham flier can regain full fitness.
Cristiano Ronaldo will be another fascinating sub-plot. PSG remain one of the few clubs in world football that could sign him if they wanted to. There were winks and handshakes and backslaps when Al-Khelaifi passed Ronaldo in the mixed zone at the Santiago Bernabeu in November 2015 after a Real Madrid v PSG game.
Last summer PSG were contemplating a move for Ronaldo before they decided they could go the extra Financial Fair Play mile and get Neymar instead.
For both coaches the game will also be huge. The last time Unai Emery was on Spanish soil he suffered the humiliation of overseeing the most spectacular capitulation in Champions League history, surrendering a four goal lead against Barcelona.
Despite some stories in the French press he is unlikely to leave his post before these games are played but he would be odds-on to be edged out if he is second best to Zinedine Zidane.
Real icon Cristiano Ronaldo, who hugged a fan in Paris back in 2015, has been linked with PSG
Managers Unai Emery and Zinedine Zidane will come under severe pressure if they lose this tie
Likewise Zidane would be in for a long final three months of the season if both the league and the Champions League were to disappear from Madrid’s horizon so early in the year.
Madrid president Perez’s patience would be tested by such an early exit from the competition his club has dominated in the last five years. He will of course have another thought in mind as he flies to Abu Dhabi on Wednesday and further reflects on the draw – what if we win and the victory further unsettles Neymar?
Madrid have resigned themselves to the fact that the Brazilian is probably not going to be available at the end of next season just 12 months after arriving from Barcelona.
But Perez knows if the star is unsettled then he will soon start looking Madrid’s way and having only Ligue 1 to play for would have exactly that unsettling affect. It might even increase his desire to do some business in the January transfer window just to help his team topple the Parisians and get inside Neymar’s head. Only last week he spoke of how being at Madrid would help him win a Ballon d’Or.
One thing seems certain — there has never been so much resting on a Champions League last-16 game. As Butragueno seemed to be saying: ‘The final has come very early this year’.