In normal circumstances, the reigning Champions League holders starting their group campaign with a routine home game against minnows APOEL wouldn’t provide much cause for interest.
But these are not normal circumstances for Real Madrid, who are heading into Wednesday night’s clash at the Bernabeu on the back of two consecutive draws at the same venue against Valencia and Levante.
And in particular, this Champions League opener is by no means just another game for one Los Blancos player: Gareth Bale.
The Welshman started the new campaign well enough by netting his team’s first goal of the La Liga season at Deportivo La Coruna and delivering a strong all-round performance in a comfortable 3-0 win.
But that all seems a long time ago now, and Bale has desperately struggled to deliver in his last two outings, with his travails contributing heavily towards Madrid’s surprise dropped points.
He was especially culpable in the 1-1 draw against Levante on Saturday, missing three extremely good chances – two close range headers and one clear run on goal – which could have secured victory.
Missing one of those chances would have been perfectly acceptable. Squandering two of them would have raised eyebrows. But the fact that he missed all three, and that they ended up proving highly costly (the same missed chances in a 4-0 win would have seemed less relevant) has placed Bale under a huge amount of pressure.
Pressure, of course, is nothing new for any Real Madrid player, and Bale has been constantly struggling to live up to the lofty expectations generated by this then-world record price tag ever since he arrived from Tottenham four years ago.
But this feels different. From the snarky media headlines to the increasing regularity of jeers and whistles of fans, it feels like patience is running out with Bale’s frustrating habit of consistently losing form for weeks on end.
When he’s good, there’s no doubt that Bale is very good indeed, and he has been single-handedly responsible for winning many matches and scoring many memorable goals during his time in Spain – none more so than the remarkable solo effort to net a late Copa del Rey final winner against Barcelona in 2014.
But he just isn’t performing at that level often enough, with his inconsistency no doubt explained by his unfortunate vulnerability to muscle strains which have regularly forced him into spells on the sidelines and disrupted his rhythm.
There’s a growing sense that enough is enough, and that Bale’s ups and downs will no longer be tolerated – especially as his presence in the team is perceived as taking up a place which could be occupied by highly popular Spaniards (Bale’s nationality, rightly or wrongly, counts against him) Marco Asensio and Isco.
This meeting with APOEL, then, takes on a much greater significance for Bale than simply a fairly low-key group stage home game – he desperately needs to play well, ideally scoring a couple of goals, to quieten the critics and boost his own confidence.
Bale’s role will be even more critical this weekend, when Los Blancos travel to red-hot Real Sociedad with the aim of getting their league form back on track.
It will be a crucial and very difficult game, and with Karim Benzema injured and Cristiano Ronaldo still suspended from domestic action (although he can play tonight), Bale will be expected to lead the line and serve as the focal point of the attack.
For that reason, Zinedine Zidane will even consider resting Bale against APOEL – with two of his strikers already unavailable for such a crucial contest, the last thing the coach needs is Bale getting injured as well.
But Zidane will also know that tonight’s game is a major opportunity for Bale, against lightweight opposition who should be beaten convincingly, to make some positive headlines and get everyone back on his side.
If Bale plays and does well, this could be the turning point he is looking for in his quest to continue being a success at Real Madrid. And he desperately needs it.
When Romelu Lukaku chose to move to Manchester United, regular fixtures like the one he has on Tuesday night are what he expected.
The Belgian has craved Champions League football, but after failing to make the grade at Chelsea early in his career, he’s had to wait for his first taste of Europe’s preeminent club competition having only featured in qualifying games with Anderlecht as a teenager.
As he prepares to make his Champions League debut, Lukaku looks ready for the grand stage.
He has made a hot start to life at the Old Trafford club, scoring five goals in his first five appearances, and comes into Tuesday’s game against Basel having scored nine times in seven games for club and country so far this season. Clearly, this is a man in form. Not to mention, a striker who on Saturday scored the 150th goal of his club career, at the age of just 24.
In that regard, Lukaku holds his own against some of the very best goalscorers of modern times – Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Didier Drogba are a few of the names who hadn’t hit the 150 mark at the same age.
The knock against Lukaku has always been his record against the top sides. He has five league goals against last season’s top six in 34 appearances since 2014/15, a stat that detracts from his overall scoring record – only Sergio Aguero has scored more Premier League goals since 2012/13.
Really shouldn’t bring up big sides when Lukaku goes missing pic.twitter.com/qfCY7I3ONy
— Don Jon (@Hideyourmissus) July 20, 2017
Yet there are signs Lukaku is shrugging off the flat-track bully description. Of those five league goals, four of them came last season, which shows that he’s begun coming into his own against top opposition.
For comparison, across all competitions last season, Lukaku had as many goals against the top six as Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero (four), and more than Diego Costa, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Alexis Sanchez.
Tuesday night’s fixture will not be the one which tests Lukaku’s reputation. The true test will come later, if the club navigates the group stages as expected. If United come up against one of Europe’s powerhouses in a knockout tie, Lukaku will get the stage he’s been waiting for, along with the opportunity to quieten his critics.
But a goal in a winning performance against Basel would be the perfect start.
Manchester City face Dutch champions Feyenoord in the first match of their latest Champions League campaign on Wednesday.
Here are some of the talking points ahead of the Group F clash.
City’s new Brazilian goalkeeper was cleared of serious injury following his nasty clash with Liverpool’s Sadio Mane at the weekend but remains a doubt. The £35million signing looked in a bad way as he was carried off on a stretcher after receiving treatment on the field for around eight minutes during Saturday’s Premier League game.
A photograph released since has shown eight stitches in wounds on the side of his face.
The 24-year-old does has been impressive but playing him again so soon could be risky.
Ederson’s face after Sadio Mané booted him on Saturday. 😳 pic.twitter.com/zbpcDs0lRA
— Football__Tweet (@Football__Tweet) September 11, 2017
City boss Pep Guardiola has started with both his main strikers up front in three of their four games so far with Jesus deployed alone in the other.
Guardiola has indicated he will vary his approach throughout the campaign, saying there will be games when both players, either one or other, or neither will play.
Yet on the evidence of the 5-0 thrashing of Liverpool, the pair have the beginnings of a good understanding. Strike partnerships may have gone out of fashion to a degree but the potency of these two could change that, at City at least.
This is the club’s sixth successive Champions League campaign but they are still to really come of age in the competition despite reaching the semi-finals in 2016 and then bringing in two-time winning manager Guardiola. The team fell short at the last-16 stage last season, exposed by the attacking brilliance of Monaco.
Guardiola has since addressed some areas of weakness, notably in goal and both full-back positions. He now has more players for his desired style but City may not have bridged the gap to the elite yet.
The general opinion after the draw was that City should be happy but they have come unstuck against Dutch champions before, losing to Ajax in 2012. Guardiola has also said Napoli are one of the three best sides in Europe in terms of style while the long trip to face Shakhtar Donetsk in Kharkiv in December could be tricky.
The Rotterdam club, coached by former Arsenal player Giovanni van Bronkhorst, won their first Dutch title in 18 years last season and are returning to the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2002. They have opened their campaign with four successive wins and again top the Eredivisie.
Goalkeeper Brad Jones will be remembered in England for spells with Middlesbrough and Liverpool while midfielder Karim El Ahmadi was at Aston Villa from 2012-14 and scored one of his three Premier League goals against City.
Provided by Press Association Sport