Paris Saint-Germain face a huge task to reach the Champions League quarter-finals after Cristiano Ronaldo defied talk that his powers are waning with two goals as Real Madrid won 3-1 in the first leg of their last-16 tie.
Billed as a contest between World Player of the Year Ronaldo and his Brazilian heir-in-waiting Neymar, the 33-year-old Portuguese came out emphatically on top as he became the first player to score 100 Champions League goals for the same club.
“He who never fails”, said sports daily Marca of Ronaldo’s latest decisive contribution on a pulsating evening at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Ronaldo dragged Real level with a penalty — his 100th Champions League goal for the club — after Adrien Rabiot had given PSG the lead, fed by a cheeky Neymar backheel.
As PSG seemed to be heading for a draw that would have put the French side in the driving seat for the return leg on March 6, Ronaldo turned the match in Madrid’s favour with a scrappy goal that bounced in off his knee.
Marcelo then completed the turnaround to show PSG — who have never won the Champions League — the value of the experience of winning the competition 12 times.
Zinedine Zidane’s side have been flagging domestically, leaving the French coach under pressure, but Madrid’s other major sports daily As called the performance “the late push of a team who still rule in Europe”.
– ‘We love the Champions League’ –
“Real Madrid love the Champions League and as players we can feel that on the pitch,” Ronaldo said after being named man of the match.
“Today things worked out for me, scoring two goals and helping the team win, but we know the tie is not finished yet.”
Neymar, who cut a dejected figure at the end, said his side “committed errors at certain moments”.
“We didn’t play badly, but I think we need to be better if we want to eliminate Real Madrid. It is difficult, but nothing is impossible,” the 26-year-old Brazilian said.
The return leg at the Parc des Princes will be the hottest ticket in Europe.
Zidane will take credit for sending on Marco Asensio, who set up the two late goals, although Alfredo Relano in As warned that the young Spanish star now “has to play every time”.
The Frenchman, meanwhile, paid tribute to Ronaldo, who despite showing signs of fallibility in La Liga this season has scored 11 goals in Europe in just seven matches.
“With Ronaldo it’s difficult to always say the same thing. He has shown once again that he always turns up in the big games,” Zidane said.
PSG coach Unai Emery, who has never been further than the Champions League round of 16 in five previous attempts, gambled with a young line-up, starting with 21-year-old Argentinian midfielder Giovani Lo Celso and 22-year-old defender Presnel Kimpembe.
He also took off Edinson Cavani in the second half, replacing the club’s all-time record goal-scorer with a right-back in Thomas Meunier rather than Angel di Maria.
“Emery, bets lost”, said France’s L’Equipe, although the front page of the sports daily struck a defiant tone, saying: “It’s not finished”.
The Paris side’s Qatari owners stuck with Emery last season despite a humiliating 6-1 defeat to Barcelona in the last 16, but they are unlikely to show the same patience if their expensively assembled squad fails to overcome Real.
“The team played well and deserved better,” Emery said. “We have to be optimistic and positive for the match in Paris. We still have a good chance of getting through.”