Champions League: Title holders Real Madrid put LaLiga misery aside to enter last-16, but their credentials are yet to be tested

Rome: The sky isn’t just falling yet at the Bernabeu. At least, progress in the Champions League has been ensured, allowing club chairman Florentino Perez to briefly cast his look ahead and think of the Champions League final in June across town at the Wanda Metropolitana, the spaceship-like stadium of city rivals Atletico Madrid. Even before the kick-off, Viktoria Plzen's 2-1 defeat of CSKA Moscow had qualified both Real Madrid and AS Roma for the knockout stage of the competition.

Real Madrid's Luka Modric and Karim Benzema in action against AS Roma. Reuters

Real Madrid's Luka Modric and Karim Benzema in action against AS Roma. Reuters

Perez’s memories of Madrid’s last European triumph in Kiev in May are still fresh. Madrid transformed a much-hyped final into a routine 3-1 victory, containing Liverpool’s powerful attacking trident to lift the European Cup again. Except for a Cristiano Ronaldo goal, Madrid’s performance had all the quintessential ingredients of the Zinedine Zidane era: they proffered solidity at the back, controlled the game and relied on a cast of superbly gifted players to score. Once ahead, they’d inevitably exploit the space the opponent’s half.

Madrid’s football was neither a ballet nor imbued with galactic characteristics. They coupled a fine team spirit with individual skill and rampant competitiveness. It always felt amorphous, but it worked: under Zidane Madrid won La Liga once and the Champions League thrice consecutively, unprecedented and an extraordinary feat for a novice coach. Winning in Europe became the team’s hallmark.

Then Zidane left and Ronaldo followed soon in a 100 million euros move to Italian giants Juventus. Those two departures shaped much of Madrid’s current predicament: Zidane never inculcated in his players a distinct identity and given his quick success an overarching philosophy was never a pressing need. As Ronaldo evolved into a striker, his goals tally remained impressively steady, topping the 40-mark in his last two seasons in the Spanish capital. His participation in matches withered, but he’d score in defining moments.

With the success coach and talisman gone, Perez had a chance to rebuild. Here, the Madrid potentate had two options: bring in a new horde of superstars and replace the likes of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos or count on Madrid’s youngsters, spearheaded by the more established Isco, to fill the void left by Ronaldo. In a way, Perez has done neither.

Plenty of Madrid stalwarts have regressed, or at least underwhelmed this season. It was in evidence once more against Roma. Madrid were ordinary at best. Karim Benzema has become the non-scoring striker, almost similar to Oliver Giroud. In his last two seasons for Madrid, Benzema never managed double figures. In Rome, he was invisible. Luka Modric is still drained from the World Cup when he led Croatia, at times seemingly on just one leg, to the final. Gareth Bale is also walking a tightrope in Madrid. Shortly after the break, he scored the team’s opening goal in the Italian capital, but his contribution remained limited.

The injuries haven’t helped either. Without Casemiro, Real Madrid have lost their balance. It is almost uncommon for defensive midfielders to exert an all-encompassing influence over a team, but Casemiro does just that. Just ask, Brazil. They fell apart against Belgium as Fernandinho drowned in the midfield. Casemiro would well have halted Romelu Lukaku on his rampaging run for Belgium’s second goal. Against Roma, Llorente, the great nephew of Paco Gento, deputised for the Brazilian. He screened Madrid’s defence with moderate success against Roma as the visitors often deployed a 4-1-4-1 out of possession. At the end of the first half, Cengiz Under contrived to somehow tap the ball over the bar from just a few yards out with the goalmouth largely open.

Coach Santiago Solari was fortuitous that Rome, a team in a crisis of their own with Di Francesco’s future in doubt, posed little resistance. At the weekend the 3-0 defeat at Eibar had plunged Madrid into a mini-crisis and ended the honeymoon weeks of Solari, who succeeded the tarnished Julen Lopetegui. The latter’s blueprint of football required Modric to be in form and the team to be more structured, but his vision never came to fruition.

The Eibar humiliation had been a procession: across the entire pitch, Madrid’s failings were exposed. The defence, midfield and attack all malfunctioned. They displayed more solidity against Di Fransesco’s team, but that in itself was not much of a feat. Roma’s leading goalscorer in Europe Edin Dzeko didn’t play due to injury and his replacement Patrik Schick weighed too little on the central pairing of Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos.

The 2-0 win – Vazquez added a second in the 59th minute – steered Madrid away from a crisis. In reality, they still have all to play for, in both La Liga and in Europe. Come February and the business end of the Champions League, Madrid’s credentials will really be tested.

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Updated Date: Nov 28, 2018 13:01:02 IST

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