Last week was a busy one for Florentino Pérez. As well as apparently anointing Rafael Nadal as his successor as Real Madrid president when he finally calls it a day and attempting to arrange a historic showdown at the Bernabéu between the 19-times grand slam champion and his great rival Roger Federer, the 72-year-old revealed his dream of seeing the club’s basketball team in the NBA. “I have asked us to be included in the Eastern Conference but they say that’s far away,” he admitted.
Ever since emerging from the power struggle with Ramón Calderón in 2009 to begin his second stint at the helm, Pérez has become used to getting his way. You would not bet against him achieving most of those ambitious goals should he – as expected – secure another term as president at next year’s elections, but Madrid’s fortunes on the football field have become a growing cause for Pérez’s concern.
Six months after returning as manager, Zinedine Zidane went into Saturday’s game against Levante having won just seven of his 14 La Liga matches in charge.
A 3-2 victory in front of a nervy Bernabéu crowd, during which Levante came from three goals down to almost snatch a point, has done nothing to convince the home faithful that the manager who delivered a treble of Champions League titles can solve their problems this time.
“You have to be self-critical,” Pérez told supporters at Madrid’s general assembly a few days earlier. “But also put value in everything that has been won. We have won four Champions Leagues.”
That includes the title secured by Carlo Ancelotti in 2014 and was a clear message that even Zidane is not expendable at a club where failure is not an option. The same rules apply to his counterpart at Paris Saint-Germain, where Thomas Tuchel is aware that failure to deliver in Europe’s elite club competition this season is likely to end with him being shown the door.
So although the Champions League group stages have become largely formulaic in recent years, the meeting of the big-spending Parisians and the 13-times champions in the French capital on Wednesday provides a genuinely intriguing showdown for the competition’s opening week. PSG will be without the injured Kylian Mbappé and suspended Neymar at Parc des Princes as the Brazil forward serves a ban – reduced on Tuesday from three matches to two – for criticising the referee on social media after last season’s elimination by Manchester United. Both have been courted by Pérez in the past, and there are some whispers in Neymar’s homeland that Madrid have edged ahead of Barcelona in the race to sign him in January.
For now, though, the world’s most expensive player remains in France and went some way to repairing his fractured relationship with the PSG supporters when he scored with a spectacular overhead kick in the win over Strasbourg on Saturday. Tuchel has tried manfully to put a positive spin on Neymar’s enforced stay in Ligue 1 but there is no denying the German manager’s plans for this crucial campaign have been hampered by the transfer saga. “Life for Neymar in Paris is not hard – he’ll get his smile back and then we’ll see,” he said last week, perhaps more in hope than expectation.
With five senior players including Thiago Silva and Edinson Cavani in the final year of their contracts and several youth prospects having been allowed to leave in the summer, this feels like a seminal moment in the PSG project under the returning director of football, Leonardo.
The Brazilian was responsible for bringing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Paris before being forced to resign in 2013 having been accused of pushing a referee after a match and banned for nine months. Leonardo was eventually cleared and played a big part in persuading Mauro Icardi to join on loan from Internazionale, although quite where the Argentina striker will fit in is a puzzle that Tuchel must solve.
The defeat by United after winning a group containing the eventual winners, Liverpool last season was the latest in a catalogue of missed opportunities in the competition since PSG were purchased by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011. Four successive quarter-finals between 2013 and 2016 suggested they were on the right track but the failure to get past the last 16 since then is scant reward for spending more than £1bn on transfers.
As for Madrid, the embarrassment of last season’s 4-1 thumping at home in the last 16 against Ajax under Santiago Solari, which ended their reign as European champions, still hangs in the air. Zidane, however, has never lost a Champions League knockout tie. He must make do on Wednesday without the injured Luka Modric and the suspended Sergio Ramos.
His failed pursuit of Paul Pogba has left the team short of midfield options despite almost £300m being spent in the summer on players, with Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente, and Mateo Kovacic among those allowed to leave. Potentially more damaging for Zidane, Pérez’s reluctance to meet United’s asking price has led to renewed questions over the former civil engineer’s role in signing players in an era when most clubs employ sporting directors for that task.
“Look, people say that I know numbers, but I know something about football,” Pérez said at Madrid’s AGM on Sunday. “We had gone 32 years without winning the European Cup and when I arrived Real Madrid were 13th in Uefa’s rankings. Now we’re No 1 and we have won 13 European Cups.
“If we rediscover our intensity, we’ll win,” he added. “It doesn’t matter who plays.”