The entire football world will focus its gaze on Madrid on Wednesday night but the repercussions of another bad night for Zinedine Zidane may be most keenly felt in north London.
It may seem bizarre that the future of a manager aiming to become the first to win three consecutive European Cups is under such scrutiny, but this is Real Madrid and a glance at the current La Liga table is both startling and instructive.
Fourth and some 17 points behind Barcelona – a situation compounded by their humiliation in the Spanish Cup against Leganes – means that the Champions League is now regarded as Zidane’s last shot at salvation. And, should he depart this summer, the name of Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino will figure prominently on Madrid’s shortlist.
Harry Kane is also an expected transfer target and, while Spurs remain certain about their chances of keeping these two increasingly-talismanic figures, their summer could still be heavily influenced by how Madrid handle a last-16 fixture against Paris St-Germain that has enough stardust to be a final.
Zidane, predictably, was adamant that his own future did not feature in his pre-match thoughts but what he did again underline was that his faith in a group of players who delivered a rare La Liga-Champions League double only nine months ago has not dimmed.
He had already decided the team that would face PSG several days ago and the expectation is that he will select a front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale to go head-to-head with Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani. “I have nothing to prove – I don’t care what people say about me – I just want to play the game,” said Zidane, who also referenced his own Marseille upbringing and their intense rivalry with PSG.
“There’s no pressure in particular,” he added. “I don’t think about my future. I only think about the game.”
More illuminating was Marcelo for the very obvious connection between Zidane and his players. Zidane’s great strength has been his man-management, loyalty and willingness to listen to his squad and, amid a 17-game unbeaten home run in Europe, those players have invariably delivered in this competition.
Marcelo made his Madrid debut under Bernd Schuster more than a decade ago and, having also seen Juande Ramos, Manuel Pellegrini, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafael Benitez come and go, spoke with feeling when the subject turned to Zidane.
“He has told us what he had to say – that he is with us – and we are with him until the death,” he said.
Marcelo appeared rather more mischievous when the subject turned to Neymar and a flirtation from Madrid that carries some of the hallmarks of past attempts to dislodge leading rival players. Asked whether the Real Madrid fans would like to see Neymar at their club, he said: “I think yes. The Madrid fans like good players. Neymar is a world star. It is clear any fan would like to have him in their team.”
PSG, it should be stressed, are confident that their £197 million world-record signing will be going nowhere. Indeed, it is for nights like this that he has been signed and, for all the spotlight on Zidane, PSG manager Unai Emery will also be heavily judged on this fixture. After a hat-trick of Europa League wins with Sevilla, he was specifically recruited to take them past their ceiling between 2012 and 2016 of four consecutive Champions League quarter-final exits.
They were of course spectacularly beaten in the round of 16 last year after winning the first leg 4-0 and it is to their benefit that the return leg this time will be in Paris.
PSG are also dominant this season domestically and, while a choice in holding midfield between Lassana Diarra and Giovani Lo Celso – amid the absence of Thiago Motta – hints at one obvious weakness, the attacking options – which also include an in-form Angel di Maria – are vast.
Their last training session in Paris on Tuesday morning took place under the watchful eyes of chairman Nasser Al-Khelafi. “I think we’re ready,” said Emery. “We will be the focus of the world for those games, and we are relishing the opportunity.”
Real Madrid (4-3-3) Navas; Nacho, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Kroos, Casemiro, Modric; Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo
Paris St Germain (4-3-3) Areola; Alves, Marquinhos, Silva, Kurzawa; Veratti, Lo Celso, Rabiot; Mbappe, Cavani, Neymar
Referee Gianluca Rocchi (Italy)