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CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Blanc plays down hopes as PSG cruise into last 16

French league leaders PSG cruised into the last 16 of the Champions League with a 2-1 win over Olympiakos on Wednesday. The question now is exactly how far can Laurent Blanc's side go in the competiton?

Blanc plays down hopes as PSG cruise into last 16
PSG players celebrate their win over Olympiakos, which saw them into the last 16 of the Champions League. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP

Paris Saint-Germain coach Laurent Blanc sought to downplay his side's Champions League prospects after they qualified for the last 16 by beating Olympiakos on Wednesday.

PSG only needed a draw to secure top spot in the section and Zlatan Ibrahimovic gave them a dream start, opening the scoring inside seven minutes.

The sending-off of Marco Verratti early in the second half left the hosts down to 10 men, and Olympiakos profited from their man advantage to draw level through Kostas Manolas with nine minutes remaining.

However, Edinson Cavani's 90th-minute strike handed PSG the win as they progress while Olympiakos are left to fight it out with Benfica for the second qualifying berth in the last round of games after the Portuguese outfit won 3-2 at Anderlecht.

The big-spending Ligue 1 leaders are now unbeaten in 35 games in all competitions and remain on course to at least match last season's run to the quarter-finals, when they lost to Barcelona on away goals.

"The first thing we must do is aim to finish first in our group, and we have done that, so we are very satisfied," said Blanc, who has remarkably not lost since replacing Carlo Ancelotti in the Paris dugout in the summer.

"But you know the Champions League is a very difficult competition to win. There are other clubs out there who can say with greater legitimacy than us that they can win it, that's for sure.

"I think we also need to wait and see who we might face when the draw is made. If you get the right draw, it gives you more of a chance of going through than if you a big name. I don't know who, but maybe a Catalan team for example," he added, although Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid – who have both won their groups – are the only two teams PSG are certain to avoid in next month's draw.

"Finishing first was a really important objective for us. We are ambitious, we want to go as far as possible, but we must go one step at a time. The next step is to see which teams are also through, who finishes second in the other groups, and then hopefully we can get a kind draw."

Blanc was pleased with his side's display against Olympiakos, in particular their strength in adversity as they recovered from Verratti's red card and Manolas's equaliser – which was allowed to stand despite Chori Dominguez being in an offside position in the build-up – to triumph for the fourth time in five Group C matches.

Verratti has had disciplinary problems ever since arriving at PSG last year, and Blanc's predecessor Ancelotti accused the young Italian of picking up too many stupid cautions. However, Blanc felt that the sending-off was
harsh.

"He deserved his first yellow card for handball. That was stupid, although it broke up an attack so it helped the team.

"You know how many fouls Marco Verratti committed? Two. I am not defending him but these are things that happen in a game and, with his reputation, he paid the price.

"The solidarity and desire shown by the players with 10 men, to keep pushing forward and win the game rather than just sitting back, is a quality that great teams must have. Sometimes, things can go against you in games,
like tonight, and we need to be able to call on that mental strength."

PSG, who are four points clear in Ligue 1 before playing Lyon on Sunday, will go to Benfica next month with the pressure off, but the battle for second place in Group C will go to the wire.

Olympiakos and Benfica are level on seven points apiece, and the Greeks will go through with a win at home to Anderlecht in their last game, but anything less will allow the Portuguese side in.

They would have been pleased to hear Blanc say that he would field a strong side in that final match, and the Greek club's coach Michel believes his side deserve to advance.

"Olympiakos are capable of playing in the same manner wherever we go," said the former Real Madrid player. "This is a positive thing. The essential thing is that we put in a great effort tonight and we deserve to go through.

That is what we need to have in mind when we face Anderlecht."

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CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

PSG confident of Real Madrid scalp despite Neymar’s absence

Paris Saint-Germain remain optimistic that they can record what would be the biggest victory since the Qatari takeover of the club, even with Neymar out injured, when they face Real Madrid on Tuesday. Can they do it?

PSG confident of Real Madrid scalp despite Neymar's absence
AFP

A late collapse saw PSG lose 3-1 in Madrid last month in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie. And they come into Tuesday's return without Neymar, as the world's most expensive player recovers in Brazil from a foot operation.

Despite that blow, and the prospect of having to overturn such a deficit against the two-time reigning European champions, PSG are not throwing in the
towel as they bid to reach the quarter-finals.

“I think that we need games like this and to beat these teams to take a step forward and so that our opponents really take notice of PSG, and don't just think we have loads of money,” said Dani Alves, who played in two Champions League final victories for Barcelona and was in the Juventus side beaten by Real in last season's final.

“I said last summer when I was presented here that I wasn't coming just to live in Paris or take the money. I came here because I am a competitor,” added
Alves, speaking to media at the Parc des Princes on the eve of the game.

After Qatar Sports Investments bought the club in 2011, PSG had four successive quarter-final defeats in the Champions League before the
humiliation in Barcelona in the last 16 a year ago.

A failure to turn the tie around on Tuesday would mean PSG being eliminated by one of Spain's big two for the fourth time in six seasons.

“PSG have had their limits in this competition in the past and now we need to go beyond them to keep on progressing as a club,” added Alves.

Neymar's absence is an obviously huge blow, but Alves and coach Unai Emery both insisted that Paris have enough quality in their ranks to cope without
him.

“When one player is missing, it opens the door for someone else, and I know that whoever comes in through that door will do so with all their force,” said
Emery.

Angel Di Maria, who won the Champions League with Real in 2014, is likely to be the major beneficiary of Neymar's absence.

The Argentine has been PSG's form player with 13 goals in 14 starts in 2018, although he has played just 67 minutes in the Champions League this
season.

“He is a spectacular player, who made history with Real Madrid. He can play in any position across the middle, he moves well, has a good shot, and is quick,” said Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane.

No margin for error

Di Maria has a point to prove, as does Emery, who took charge of his 100th PSG game at the weekend.

His contract expires in June and there is surely no prospect of a renewal in the event of a defeat, even with PSG on course for a domestic clean sweep.

The pressure is also on Zidane, albeit less so after the manner of their first-leg victory.

Cristiano Ronaldo, whose brace in the first leg took him past 100 Champions League goals for Real, is in form again and the Spanish giants have not been knocked out at this stage of the competition since 2010.

“Tomorrow (Tuesday), after the game, it's going to be difficult for one of the two teams, but that is football,” said Zidane.

Fifteen points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona and out of the Copa del Rey, Real are throwing everything into their quest to win a third consecutive Champions League.

“That can mean added pressure or added motivation,” said captain Sergio Ramos. “We are focusing everything on the Champions League and the margin for error is minimal.”

Toni Kroos and Luka Modric trained on the Parc des Princes pitch on Monday evening and could play after spells on the sidelines with respective knee and thigh problems.

Javier Pastore, who had been a slight doubt with a calf problem, was named in the PSG squad.