For a change, defense could be key for Madrid’s UCL success

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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid has relied on its attacking power to thrive in the Champions League in recent years.

Led by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, Madrid won three of the last four titles in the elite club competition.

This time, though, the key to its success may depend on its defense.

Real Madrid will take on Paris Saint-Germain’s formidable attack in the tournament’s last 16, and for once it will face an opponent with an attack just as highly regarded as its own.

Beginning with Wednesday’s first leg at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, the focus will be on stopping Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria and Kylian Mbappe.

“Like us, they have players capable of making a difference at key moments in the game,” Madrid defender Raphael Varane said. “We must defend all together. We will have to keep our focus at all times. Together we can stop PSG.”

Boosted by Neymar’s world-record transfer last year, PSG has scored a record 25 goals in the group stage this season.

“They’re a good team, difficult, but not only because of their forwards,” Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos said. “We’re not only coming up against three of the best forwards in the world, we’ll face one of the best goalkeepers, four of the best defenders, three of the best midfielders and three of the best forwards.”

The need to succeed defensively is even more important now considering that Madrid’s attack has been far from its best this season.

Ronaldo has had an up-and-down season – struggling in the Spanish league but scoring at will in the Champions League.

Bale has been marred by injuries and only now has been able to play regularly in the starting lineup.

Benzema played an important role in Madrid’s success in recent years, but he has been loudly criticized for his poor performances lately. The French forward has scored only one goal in his last 10 matches and has been often jeered by the Bernabeu crowd.

The Madrid defense has also struggled this season. The team kept a clean sheet only twice in its last 11 matches.

A series of injuries to regular starters prompted concerns for coach Zinedine Zidane.

But Sergio Ramos and Varane appear fit again and are set to start on Wednesday. The only problem will be the absence of right back Dani Carvajal because of a suspension for trying to clear his bookings in the group stage.

Carvajal will likely be missed, as he was highly successful defending Neymar when the Brazilian star played for Barcelona.

Carvajal’s substitute at right back is 19-year-old Achraf Hakimi, who didn’t perform too well when he got a chance to play recently. Zidane may pick central defender Nacho Fernandez to play in the position.

Finding a solution is imperative for Zidane, having publicly acknowledged that failure against the French club will likely mean the end of his coaching stint with the Spanish powerhouse.

The Champions League is the only competition Madrid can still realistically win this season. It trails Barcelona by 17 points in the Spanish league and it has already been eliminated from the Copa del Rey. Madrid won the Spanish Super Cup and the Club World Cup earlier in the season.

“This tie between Real Madrid and PSG,” Ronaldo said, “is one that could define the whole season.”

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