Madrid (AFP) – Paris Saint-Germain know better than most what a comeback means in the Champions League and while their two-goal retrieval on Tuesday offered a dramatic late twist, there was no doubting the biggest recovery of the night.
Real Madrid had not only lost 3-0 in the opening fixture at the Parc des Princes in September, they were outplayed, the verdict so damning that it put Zinedine Zidane’s future as coach in doubt.
Ten weeks later, his team were transformed at the Santiago Bernabeu, where they bullied PSG, hogged possession and peppered the goal of Keylor Navas, who was returning to the club where he spent five successful years.
That Madrid conceded twice in two mad minutes meant it amounted only to a 2-2 draw but the overwhelming sense is that this is a side finally playing with verve again. It feels like Zidane’s Madrid are back.
“It was a great performance,” said Zidane. “The players are not happy with the result but you have to be happy with what we have done for 80 minutes. I’d take that performance all day long.”
“We were lucky,” admitted PSG coach Thomas Tuchel. “But that’s not a crime.”
Their late smash and grab was instigated by the electric Kylian Mbappe and completed by Pablo Sarabia. Sarabia was coming back too, to Real Madrid, where he came through the ranks but never played in the first team.
If the French resurgence happened in a flash, Madrid’s has been of an altogether different kind — long, frustrating and for extended periods not at all obvious where it might end up.
Zidane’s own comeback in February was hailed as the start of a “glorious new era” by club president Florentino Perez but questions about why he returned soon turned to dejection around the team, as three miserable months offered little hope of a revival.
The summer was supposed to bring revolution but that proved disappointing too and when this season began badly, it looked as if Jose Mourinho might make the most controversial comeback of all.
Instead, Madrid regrouped, spurred on perhaps by the struggles of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, and driven on by the re-emergence of key players.
– ‘Spectacular’ Hazard –
Eden Hazard came back from injury and while the Belgian needed time, he has been almost back to his riveting best, all the more a shame that a twisted ankle in the second half threatens now to check his momentum.
“He was spectacular,” said Zidane. “I hope the twist is a minor one.”
Hazard has formed an instant connection with Karim Benzema, whose comeback began last season after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and has been accelerating ever since.
Benzema scored 30 goals last season, after scoring 19 and 12 in the previous two. His latest double against PSG means he already has 14 this term.
There are others. Gareth Bale is back, from injury and international duty with Wales, and attempting to win back the fans, whose whistles for his introduction as a substitute were far less pronounced than when he returned against Real Sociedad on Saturday.
Fede Valverde, the 21-year-old Uruguayan back from a loan at Deportivo La Coruna, has been a revelation in Madrid’s ageing midfield, while Isco, who many believed might never come back under Zidane, was busy on what was his first appearance in Madrid’s starting line-up since October 5.
“We changed his position during the game and he did it well,” Zidane said. “That’s what we’re looking for from him.”
The question now is whether Madrid’s revival will be fleeting or more sustained.
Toni Kroos admitted last month Barcelona’s rocky start means Madrid feel they should be a few points clear by now at the top of La Liga.
Instead, they are level with Barca, who they face at the Camp Nou in three weeks and who will also surely improve.
Madrid are through to the Champions League last 16, but as runners-up, and are still neck-and-neck for a first La Liga title in three years. Coming back is just the start.
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