RB Leipzig and Upamecano look to hold back PSG’s forward class

21-year-old defender is the influential conductor of German side

RB Leipzig’s French defender Dayot Upamecano turned down a move to Manchester United as a teenager. Photograph: Photograph: Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images

RB Leipzig’s French defender Dayot Upamecano turned down a move to Manchester United as a teenager. Photograph: Photograph: Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images

 

Champions League semi-final: RB Leipzig v Paris Saint-Germain, Estadio da Luz, Lisbon, Tuesday, 8pm – Live on Virgin Media Sport, RTÉ 2 and BT Sport 1

What a scrumptious irony it would be if, after years of domination in Ligue 1, Paris Saint-Germain were to be thwarted in Europe by a French opponent. Lyon could sicken them in the Champions League final but that is unlikely, not least because it depends on Lyon getting past Bayern Munich in Wednesday’s semi-final. A more plausible scenario, however, is PSG being frustrated in the other semi-final by Dayot Upamecano, the Frenchman who leads RB Leipzig’s defence.

Upamecano was born and raised in Évreux, Normandy, where his childhood playmates included Ousmane Dembélé, now of Barcelona. Unlike Dembélé, Upamecano, who is still only 21, has yet to be capped by France’s senior team even though he has long been identified as a top talent.

Manchester United might may not be where they are today if they had managed to convince him to sign when he was 16: after being shown around Old Trafford in 2015 the defender was on the verge of moving to England but changed his mind at the last minute, when his parents decided he would be better off at Red Bull Salzburg, from where he joined Leipzig 18 months later.

Although Upamecano was much bigger than his peers when in his early teens and could bulldoze his way past opponents if he pleased, what really made him stand out was his finesse and intelligence. Those are the virtues that help make him such a commanding performer.

In the quarter-final victory over Atlético Madrid he subdued his rivals while perpetrating only one foul – no mean feat when confronted by Diego Costa – but he also did much more than that. At Leipzig, to a greater extent than at most clubs, leading the defence also means launching attacks. Upamecano’s astuteness and his ability to open up opponents with dribbles and passing make him far more than a powerful stopper: he is an influential conductor.

This is where the PSG-Leipzig match becomes so fascinating. There is little chance of Julian Nagelsmann doing a Pep Guardiola and suddenly sticking a straitjacket on his attack-minded team. So Upamecano and his fellow Leipzig defenders will be encouraged to dash and probe as much as ever. Which will either hurt PSG or play right into their hands.

Paris Saint-Germain forwards Neymar and Kylian Mbappe celebrate the win over Atalanta in the Champions League quarter-finals. Photograph: David Ramos/AFP via Getty Images
Paris Saint-Germain forwards Neymar and Kylian Mbappe celebrate the win over Atalanta in the Champions League quarter-finals. Photograph: David Ramos/AFP via Getty Images

With their own 21-year-old sensation, Kylian Mbappé, close to full fitness after an ankle injury, Ángel Di María back from suspension and Neymar in refulgent form and no doubt eager to shine even brighter in the wake of another wan surrender by Lionel Messi and Barcelona, PSG can start with awesome firepower.

Mbappé’s speed will prove a particularly destructive weapon if PSG can beat Leipzig’s dynamic and clever press-swarm. Di María and, especially, Neymar can provide the ammunition from almost anywhere, as well as striking themselves. On the counterattack PSG could wreak havoc.

The hardest part for PSG will be getting the ball to their attackers. Although Mbappé and Di María will return to the frontline, injuries have weakened them further elsewhere. The excellent midfield schemer Marco Verratti resumed training on Sunday after calf trouble but casting him back into the action against opponents as vibrant as Leipzig is a risk that Thomas Tuchel is unlikely to take.

Same story for Idrissa Gueye, who is valued by the manager for his ball-winning prowess but suffered a muscle strain in training over the weekend. The most likely replacement for Gueye is Leandro Paredes, who is not as good at winning the ball as the Senegalese can be but, on the plus side, tends to use it better.

PSG have a bigger worry at the back, since their goalkeeper Keylor Navas has been ruled out by the thigh injury that forced him off in the 79th minute of the quarter-final win over Atalanta. That win would not have been possible if Navas had not made a couple of excellent saves to keep the score down before PSG’s late comeback.

The experienced Costa Rican will be replaced by Sergio Rico, who hardly imagined starting in a Champions League semi-final when he left Fulham after emphatic relegation from the Premier League 15 months ago.

Rico is on loan at PSG from his hometown club of Sevilla, where he was once considered to be a future great and even played in the triumphant 2015 Europa League final. But Sevilla lost faith in him after several costly mistakes, which is why he wound up at Fulham. PSG believe his class remains and, when he makes what will only be his sixth start since joining them last year, the goalkeeper is likely to be given plenty of opportunities by Leipzig to prove his worth.

The first Champions League semi-final is not going to be boring. – Guardian

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