Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid is the game everyone has been waiting for as the Champions League returns for the knockout rounds. It would be fitting if both of these sides made it into a Champions League final with so many storylines, pressure and hype -- and that's before mentioning the talent within either side's ranks. It's the one both teams have been waiting for too, but the reasons why the teams are desperate to win might be the exact same reasons why they could have trouble getting themselves over the line.
From PSG's perspective, the Champions League was always the Promised Land. Their humbling at the hands of Neymar and Co. last season against Barcelona was the final sign that they needed to spend if they were ever to arrive. The financial outlay last summer now implies that they will no longer be fodder for the real heavyweights of European football as soon as things get serious. However, that very spending has piled the pressure on and the expectation is to win the Champions League or the season is a bust.
Also, that defeat to Barcelona in last year's round of 16 didn't help in their attempts to convince that they are capable and mentally strong enough to overcome the biggest teams. The party line from the side since then has been that they have recovered, learned and improved. Unai Emery said recently about that game: "Perhaps preparation began last year [post-Remontada] and this experience can help us in a positive way. There has been talk of this and the circumstances that have surrounded this match. The team learned a lot and is now ready to play at this level."
The pressure on Real Madrid to win now is slightly trickier and more complex and maybe more psychological. After winning the club's first league and Champions League double in 59 years, Los Blancos' slow start to this season has forced them into a corner. They trail Barcelona in La Liga by 17 points and have as good as waved goodbye to any comeback as they sit fourth in table with no Copa del Rey final to look forward to either. As some ominous signs turned into trends in their form, and as their league hopes decayed, they knew that the Champions League was the only way to salvage a lost season.
They are also the victims of their own success in more ways than one too. For a start, having won two Champions Leagues in two years and three in four, to keep the players who had won it all chomping at the bit was always going to be a very delicate aspect of Zinedine Zidane's management.
Also, having won those three Champions Leagues, along with beating Barcelona so comfortably in the Spanish Super Cup and Manchester United in the European Super Cup, it felt like anything other than winning every trophy they played in this season would be viewed as a failure.
But on that same note, if anyone has the know-how to win in tight situations on the biggest stage, it is this group of players. It's something Real Madrid are almost relying on to get them through the tie.
Turning it on at the flick of a switch is not typically a very good idea regardless of the calibre of player or squad you are dealing with. That's why plenty of stock has been put into their recent league form even though they seem somewhat resigned to that fact that catching Barcelona is a fool's errand. The form, like their season, has been ordinary.
They've beaten Depor, Valencia and Real Sociedad and have straightened themselves up somewhat with those wins. A pesky draw against Levante, however, saw mental mistakes and a lack of killer instinct in front of goal despite numerous chances appear again in their play.
Zidane has named a full squad for the game in a move that encourages unity to the cause. Even the suspended Dani Carvajal and injured Jesus Vallejo have been named in the matchday collective. PSG, however, have left out Thiago Motta as they might have to rejig their midfield, which is exactly what kind of game they need this to be -- a tactical one. This can't be an emotional game for them.
But the wait is almost over to see how both teams respond -- PSG to the pressure that they've never won it and Real Madrid because they've won it so many times.