Lots of big names as PSG and Real Madrid do battle with a single goal – to go through

PSG have been ‘waiting 50 years’ to win the Champions League

“What Mbappé thinks is what Benzema thinks, which is what Vinicius thinks, which is what Messi thinks,” Carlo Ancelotti said, pretty much saying it all, or at least trying to. And he hadn’t named half of them yet, the list lengthening a few minutes later even without citing Neymar when he added Marco Verratti, Ángel Di María and Mauro Icardi.

“If you start to think about the names you’ll lose your head,” he noted, looking for all the world like a man who never loses his, just happy to be there. “It’s better to think about what we will do.”

The point Ancelotti was trying to make is that, strip it all away and there is a football match to play: one delivered by a dodgy draw, neither club happy with the result when it was redone, and one that he said “could easily be the final”.

This is the trophy that Paris Saint-Germain have been “waiting 50 years to win” in the words of their coach Mauricio Pochettino, while Madrid have won it 13 times and have come to consider their own, even as they seek to break from it. This matters for very different reasons but the aim is the same.


“What they all think,” Ancelotti concluded, “is what we all think: to go through.”

And nothing else. The prize, the game itself, provides all the focus any of them need, at least that’s the theory.

Attention was drawn to whether Benzema will be fit to play after three weeks out – “I will have to see how I train now; I always ‘force’ for my team,” he said. To whether Neymar, who can seem like the eternal absentee at this stage, will be fully fit having not played this year.

And even to whether Gareth Bale may play too, an unexpected alternative to Benzema should Ancelotti choose not to risk the Frenchman. Here Ancelotti admitted that Bale might have lacked motivation at times before, but said he now seeks the end to his Real Madrid career “he deserves”. A fifth European Cup would be some finale.


The very possibility has put some backs out but Ancelotti cares only for how useful he could be. Besides, the Italian insisted he had no problem with the Welshman.

“I talk to him like I talk to all of them: I listen to their problems, talk. The personal relationship is good when a player is serious, professional, respects the rules and the people here and he has always done so, he has never let us down in that sense,” Ancelotti said.

“He has had injuries, his contract is expiring. Maybe he has not had great motivation in the past, [but] now he is good. He wants to finish here the way he deserves because Bale has helped this team win Champions Leagues, the Copa del Rey … for him it would be good to finish here well too for his career.”

Of all the elements that might emerge around this fixture, this was one few expected. Bale had disappeared, not playing a single minute since August until this weekend at Villarreal.

There were so many other stories more significant. There is Luka Modric and Toni Kroos too, and for all that the Italian focused on the match alone, shrugging “it’s a top game”, all that other stuff is inevitable, part of what makes this compelling, feeding into the field.

There was a moment a couple of moments before when Benzema sat in the seat Ancelotti now occupied when he said: “friends is for afterwards”.

He had been asked, of course, about Mbappé – as Ancelotti would be – and there had been a smile, a little flash of mischief, like a kid aware he shouldn’t say this but was going to anyway. “It’s a big game and to face Kylian is special because we play for France together and everyone knows he could play one day for Madrid.”


One day soon, so everyone assumes. Mbappé’s contract at PSG expires at the end of June, and he can officially talk to whoever he wants now.

“No, my decision on the future is not made; playing against Madrid changes a lot of things. Even if I am free to do what I want, I’m not going to go and talk to the opponent,” he insisted recently – a remark that made it sound even more like his mind was made, it just wasn’t time to say so yet. Not, as Benzema has said, until afterwards.

If PSG “won” in the summer that may well only feel like victory if they do finally win this competition.

At the Bernabéu they complain at the unfair advantage PSG have, the threat they pose offered as a reason to seek a new European order, but there are some things they cannot reach, some players they cannot retain. There is something of old order versus new order about these two clubs, a cold war.

Mbappé is not alone, just one of countless connections, so many stories. Achraf Hakimi began at Madrid but felt forced to chase opportunity elsewhere, the right back who Mbappé declared the best in the world.

Di María won Madrid’s tenth European Cup. Keylor Navas won their eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth. Sergio Ramos won’t be there because of a calf injury.

Neymar will be, though. And then, of course, there’s Lionel Messi, the man who did more damage to Madrid than anyone else, ever, and whose signing and PSG’s approach depends on doing so again.


Ancelotti managed both clubs. Pochettino has twice been on the verge of managing Madrid and looks and sounds like he’s on the verge of not managing in Paris much longer. His replacement in Paris could well be Zinedine Zidane.

Departing may even come as a relief to judge by Pochettino’s tone, which could hardly be more different to Ancelotti’s. Asked which club was harder to manage, he smiled, raised that eyebrow, and said: “for me it’s not difficult to train clubs like this, it’s a pleasure”. – Guardian