MADRID • With Cristiano Ronaldo on one side and Neymar on the other, today's heavyweight Champions League showdown between Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain sees two of the game's biggest stars collide.
Ronaldo, the reigning World Player of the Year, has rediscovered his form at just the right time for Real. PSG, meanwhile, are pinning their hopes on Neymar, the world's most expensive player at €222 million (S$362.2 million), as they chase European glory that has thus far eluded them.
But while Ronaldo turned 33 last Monday, he is far from finished.
He scored just four times in Real's first 18 LaLiga games, but a weekend hat-trick in a 5-2 win over Real Sociedad took him to seven goals in his last four league outings.
He now has 23 goals in all competitions this season, more than at the same stage a year ago and the Portuguese is relishing the chance to score more today.
"I always look to be at my best level and sometimes things don't go as we like, but experience has taught me that we must continue working hard to achieve our goals," Ronaldo said on the club website.
He may be beginning his decline, but there is life in him yet, especially in the Champions League, a competition he has won four times before. He is the top scorer in this season's group stage with nine goals. His next in the competition will be his 100th for Real.
For Neymar, he is already being talked about as a potential successor to Ronaldo, being exactly seven years younger than the Portuguese.
So far the Brazilian's route to the Ballon d'Or has been obstructed by the Lionel Messi-Ronaldo duopoly - they have won the prize five times each in the last 10 years.
Neymar will stand a good chance of ending their domination, if he inspires PSG to victory in this tie, and then glory in the final in May.
His first six months in France, however, have at times been overshadowed by reports of an uneasy relationship with Edinson Cavani, the club's all-time record scorer.
Doubts are still raised about how much the French scene motivates him, too. Last week he sat out a French Cup tie at Sochaux, just 48 hours after hosting a lavish party for his 26th birthday.
But Neymar can almost do and say what he wants, as long as his performances on the field satisfy PSG's Qatari owners. And he is delivering on the pitch, scoring at a ratio of a goal a game in a Paris shirt.
"We have lots of great players, but our leader on the pitch is Neymar," said PSG coach Unai Emery.
Emery's counterpart Zinedine Zidane will head into the match with his future hanging by a thread.
After winning eight trophies since replacing Rafa Benitez, including an unprecedented five in one calendar year in 2017, Zidane is finding it tough this season.
Real are now fourth in the LaLiga and risk finishing outside the top three for the first time since 2004. Finishing second behind Tottenham in their Champions League group also exposed them to this difficult clash against PSG.
"I am only thinking about tomorrow's game, not my future. Some things are completely out of my hands, I have no control over, not at all," the Frenchman said yesterday.
"It is not a final for me, and what I want is for us to play well. Tomorrow there will be pressure, as always, that is normal, but I will enjoy it."
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