Young French defender is also an astute force in launching attacks as RB Leipzig hope for Champions League upset

 Leipzig’s French defender Dayot Upamecano and Paris Saint-Germain’s forward Kylian Mbappé.

What a scrumptious irony it would be if, after years of domination in Ligue 1, Paris Saint-Germain were to be thwarted in Europe by a French opponent. Lyon could sicken them in the Champions League final but that is unlikely, not least because it depends on Lyon getting past Bayern Munich in Wednesday’s semi-final. A more plausible scenario, however, is PSG being frustrated in the other semi-final by Dayot Upamecano, the Frenchman who leads RB Leipzig’s defence.

Upamecano was born and raised in Évreux, Normandy, where his childhood playmates included Ousmane Dembélé, now of Barcelona. Unlike Dembélé, Upamecano, who is 21, has yet to be capped by France even though he has long been identified as a top talent.

Manchester United may not be where they are today if they had managed to convince him to sign when he was 16: after being shown around Old Trafford in 2015 the defender was on the verge of moving to England but changed his mind at the last minute, when his parents decided he would be better off at Red Bull Salzburg, from where he joined Leipzig 18 months later.

Although Upamecano was much bigger than his peers in his early teens and could bulldoze his way past opponents if he pleased, what really made him stand out was his finesse and intelligence. Those are the virtues that help make him such a commanding performer.

In the quarter-final victory over Atlético Madrid he subdued his rivals while perpetrating only one foul – no mean feat when confronted by Diego Costa – but he also did much more than that. At Leipzig, to a greater extent than at most clubs, leading the defence also means launching attacks. Upamecano’s astuteness and his ability to open up opponents with dribbles and passing make him far more than a powerful stopper: he is an influential conductor.

This is where the PSG-Leipzig match becomes so fascinating. There is little chance of Julian Nagelsmann doing a Pep Guardiola and suddenly sticking a straitjacket on his attack-minded team. So Upamecano and his fellow defenders will be encouraged to dash and probe as much as ever. Which will either hurt PSG or play right into their hands.

With their own 21-year-old sensation, Kylian Mbappé, close to full fitness after an ankle injury, Ángel Di María back from suspension and Neymar in refulgent form and no doubt eager to shine even brighter in the wake of another wan surrender by Lionel Messi and Barcelona, PSG can start with awesome firepower.

Mbappé’s speed will prove a particularly destructive weapon if PSG can beat Leipzig’s dynamic and clever press-swarm. Di María and, especially, Neymar can provide the ammunition from almost anywhere, as well as striking themselves. On the counterattack PSG could wreak havoc.

The hardest part for PSG will be getting the ball to their attackers. Although Mbappé and Di María will return to the frontline, injuries have weakened them further elsewhere. The excellent schemer Marco Verratti resumed training on Sunday after calf trouble but casting him back into the action against opponents as vibrant as Leipzig is a risk Thomas Tuchel is unlikely to take. Continue reading

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