Even at the coin-toss, losing isn't a good idea. The same goes for friendlies played in promised and promising lands; Paris Saint-Germain knew that. And, as they observed their opponent’s desire and the regally decked out directors’ box, it slowly dawned on Real Madrid too. Sheikhs were watching and the world's attention was on them. That's how shirts are sold. Door to door and emirate to emirate. Winning is the most effective marketing tool there is.
It goes without saying that the clash was not without spice or substance, and it went down well (perhaps because we were hungry for football after the festive break). The first shot arrived through Cristiano (high, wide and applauded with gusto), but a more focused PSG started the better; not for nothing have they been in Doha since Sunday and not for nothing do they belong to the Qatar Investment Authority. Whoever doubts the influence of the French champions’ owners only has to take a look at the new club badge: the word is that Louis XIV’s cradle was removed from the redesigned crest because of his active participation in the Crusades.
For Real Madrid, the game’s early stages offered cause for concern. Coach Carlo Ancelotti started with five youth products: Nacho, Jorge Casado, José Rodríguez, Jesé Rodríguez and Álvaro Morata. With fewer regulars missing from the PSG line-up, Laurent Blanc’s men took control of the clash and put together a hatful of opportunities; an attempt by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a shot wide from Edinson Cavani and then the clearest chance of the lot: a one-on-one for the Uruguayan kept out by goalkeeper Diego López.
Madrid's response came in the language they speak the best: a counter-attack and the ball was in the back of the net. Los Blancos put together an excellent move to come out from the back and Morata found Jesé with a fantastic pass, the type of ball that lights the way to the opposition’s goal like a high street at Christmas. The goal not only put a smile on our faces, but also left us reflecting on the possibility that maybe the two aren’t only different players; maybe they also complement one another. Jesé’s muted celebrations were also a positive sign: he knows that some goals are worth more than others.
The visitors (let’s take PSG as the home side) were brought to life by the strike, and by the rain that began to fall over Doha (the desert isn’t what it once was). The match now finely poised, its essence nonetheless remained the same: the Parisians had more of the play, but the Madrileños had more cutting edge. After approaches from Lucas Digne, Blaise Matuidi and Cavani, José Rodríguez hit a shot against the post. The move, again woven together on the counter, was a further display of prodigious agility and control (read Asier Illarramendi and Xabi Alonso) garnished with a superb pass from Cristiano, the Portuguese dropping into midfield with relish.
As so often has been the case, the sharpest and most eye-catching player on show for PSG was Ibrahimovic. The six-foot-four Swede is a dominant presence, and his stature is an advantage to him. However, it can also work to his disadvantage; it leaves him looking down on the other mere mortals, engendering a certain arrogance that also affects his play. On Thursday, this was again the case. He offered half a dozen exquisite touches (including a move, known in Spanish as a ‘cow’s tail’, which saw him shield the ball and spin away from his marker) and a couple of other tricks indicative of a footballer both full of himself and marginally uninterested.
Ancelotti sent out a completely new side for the second half, with his counterpart Blanc making just the three half-time changes. Despite this, the French outfit remained unable to profit. The comings and goings led to a disjointed second period as Madrid again marked their territory with a poetic piece of play from Karim Benzema: controlling the ball on his chest, he unleashed a shot that smacked against the crossbar. At that point, PSG must have seen the desert rain as a sign of fate: today wasn’t the day, the night or the rival.
Nonetheless, they refused to let up, and that is to be commended. They continued to look for Jesús’s goal, trying their luck with shots from afar and headers from close range. But to no avail. Goalkeeper, defence, luck, call it what you will. The better teams find a thousand and one ways to win and as many again not to be beaten. Now they know that in Qatar too.