Zinedine Zidane still doesn't know Real Madrid's best front six but has chance to experiment

Andy West 10/04/2018
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Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane

If there’s one thing we know following Real Madrid’s weekend derby draw against Atletico, it’s that we don’t know much about the identity of Zinedine Zidane’s strongest front six.

We do know one thing, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s brilliantly taken goal serving another reminder, as if one was needed, that his is the first name on the teamsheet.

Other than that, every place still appears to be up for grabs as Sunday’s game provided a microcosm of Madrid’s whole season by seeing Zidane run through a dazzling range of attacking options without finding any that worked particularly well.

A narrow 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond; a flat 4-4-2 with wingers; 4-3-3; 4-5-1…we’ve seen them all this season, all accompanied by changing personnel, but still it appears that Zidane doesn’t know which is his preferred set-up.

Sunday was a fine example. He started off with Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio on the wings, with Toni Kroos and Mateo Kovacic in the middle and Ronaldo joined by Gareth Bale up front. By the end, Ronaldo, Asensio and Kovacic had been taken off, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and Isco brought on, and the only potential member of Madrid’s potential front six not to see any playing time was Casemiro.

Other than Ronaldo, who always looked capable of scoring, none of the nine players involved did their cause much good.

Kroos coolly sprayed passes but was occasionally bypassed defensively, Asensio flattered to deceive, Bale delivered some good crosses but did little else, Vazquez ran around a lot but lacked end product, Benzema hardly had a touch and Isco floated across the turf looking pretty without providing much substance.

Wednesday’s Champions League quarter final second leg will give Zidane yet another chance to assess his options, with the 3-0 lead his team holds from the first leg allowing the coach to rest, rotate and experiment.

Maybe he’ll hit upon an answer, but maybe it doesn’t really matter whether he does or not because Madrid’s season, and perhaps even Zidane’s entire managerial regime, has been reduced to three games: the two legs of the Champions League semi-final and the Final.

Nothing else really matters. And in that scenario, the usual vital concerns about long-term planning, coherent playing strategies and collective philosophies become irrelevant.

Right now, what matters far more than whether Zidane is instilling a convincing sustainable structure is whether or not his team can win three games – or even just avoid losing them and come out on top in a couple of penalty shoot-outs.

To achieve that, boasting a clear long-term plan could prove to be less advantageous than having various options up your sleeve – the ability to adapt to circumstances and find a solution to whatever challenges might be presented.

Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale in training for the second leg

Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale in training for the second leg

And Zidane certainly has plenty of possibilities. If the game demands width, he can go with Vazquez, Bale or Asensio. Need some power in the box? It’s time for Bale. A bit more subtlety and creativity? Isco’s your man. More energy in midfield? Kovacic gets the call. The ability to link play and ghost into the box? Benzema has a time to shine.

Zidane is blessed with such a deep squad, he really can do whatever he wants – in contrast to Barcelona, whose match-winning options are basically Lionel Messi and Lionel Messi.

Importantly, it has always been clear that Zidane trusts all his players to deliver. Someone might be out of favour for now, but that player won’t necessarily be confined to the bench forever, and he could end up being the match-winner in the Champions League Final.

And if that means a consistent team shape is sacrificed, will anyone really care?

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Juventus ready to exploit Real Madrid's fragility and back problems

Alex Rea 10/04/2018
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Raphael Varane and Zinedine Zidane

Real Madrid have one firm step in the Champions League semi-finals but Juventus travel to the Bernabeu on Wednesday bidding to drag them right back out.

Los Blancos hold a 3-0 advantage after their stunning blitz in Turin last week, hallmarked of course by Cristiano Ronaldo producing one of the great European goals with a superhuman overhead kick.

Juve did bounce back from their midweek disappointment with a 4-2 hammering of Benevento while Real were held to a 1-1 draw with city rivals Atletico on Sunday.

Madrid are heavy favourites to progress but the narrative has shifted slightly after the weekend’s games and so with that in mind, we examine the key talking points.

JUVE GOT NOTHING TO LOSE

Pavel Nedved in action during the win over Madrid in 2003

Pavel Nedved in action during the win over Madrid in 2003

Juventus have history for losing first-leg ties against Real Madrid and coming back with a vengeance to win 4-3 on aggregate. In 2003, the Italian giants were beaten 2-1 in Madrid but gained passage through to a first all-Italian Champions League final with AC Milan following a 3-1 victory in Turin.

Thrust that night by Pavel Nedved’s dynamism and the Italian art of organisation, this current iteration is a far cry from the side of 15 years ago, though.

And the modern history between the two sides is far more in favour of Madrid with the Bianconeri conjuring good and symbolic memories for Los Blancos with last year’s Cardiff capitulation securing them a first league and European Cup double for 59 years.

Still, Max Allegri’s side have nothing to lose and that is a dangerous prospect for any team, let alone a Madrid with known fragility.

They have struggled to defend commanding leads in the past (Borussia Dortmund 2013/14 and Schalke 2014/15) and the Old Lady has shown mettle already this season to eliminate Tottenham.

An early goal for the visitors could really crack Madrid’s fortitude.

ZIDANE HAS BACK PROBLEMS

Sergio Ramos is booked in the first-leg

Sergio Ramos is booked in the first-leg

There is an obvious weakness for Juve to exploit and that is at centre-back. It’s been a recurring theme throughout the season but once again Real’s lack of depth in the position has left Zidane with just one available central defender.

Sergio Ramos picked up a yellow card suspension after being booked in the first-leg and his natural replacement Nacho has been ruled out with a thigh injury.

It was hoped Raphael Varane could be rested on Sunday but the Frenchman was forced to play the entire 90 minutes after Jesus Vallejo pulled out of the squad.

And the 21-year-old is a huge doubt for Wednesday’s clash after training alone on Monday, which could mean Casemiro or Marcos Llorente are forced to retreat from their natural DM role to partner Varane.

The former has played at centre-back alongside Ramos in the past but his reckless tendencies in recent weeks hardly inspires confidence.

MADRID HAVE LOST MOMENTUM

Zinedine Zidane

Zinedine Zidane

With the surrender of their La Liga crown to Barcelona, Zidane beckoned his side to win every game up to and including the Champions League final in Kiev, but a run of six straight victories came to an end on Sunday.

The context is important to consider because while a draw against a resilient side like Atletico is hardly the most disappointing outcome, there has been a concerning delicacy to Madrid this season.

Granted, Zidane had one eye on Wednesday with neither Casemiro or Luka Modric in the starting XI while a seemingly pre-arranged move saw Cristiano Ronaldo withdrawn on the hour.

But they looked one-dimensional against Atletico, attacking exclusively from wide positions and short of ideas.

They were indebted, and not for the first time this term, to outstanding stops from Keylor Navas in avoiding defeat and the vulnerability both at the back and in attack should energise Juventus.

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Lionel Messi's record in Italy gives Roma hope: Seven Deadly Stats ahead of Roma v Barcelona

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Barcelona have a 4-1 lead from the first leg.

Barcelona‘s 4-1 win in the first leg against Roma has put them in a commanding position in their Champions League quarter-final.

Roma enter their home leg knowing they need a miracle to progress to their first ever semi-final in the competition.

Here are Seven Deadly Stats ahead of Tuesday’s second leg.

HISTORY AGAINST ROMA

Roma have never progressed when they’ve faced a three-goal deficit from the first leg of a European knockout tie.

They’ve been in such situations four times before, and the fifth time doesn’t look like it’s going to be any different.

Luis Suarez‘s late goal in the first leg to make it 4-1 could end up be the deciding goal of this tie.

Luis Suarez's goal may have decided this tie already.

Luis Suarez’s goal may have decided this tie already.

FOND MEMORIES FOR BARCELONA

Barcelona won the first Champions League of their current era of dominance at the same stadium they’re visiting on Tuesday.

The 2009 final was played at the Stadio Olimpico, with Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o grabbing the goals in Barca’s famous 2-0 win over Manchester United.

Messi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique remain from that side ten years ago.

Lionel Messi announced himself to the world in the 2009 Champions League final.

Lionel Messi announced himself to the world in the 2009 Champions League final.

AN UNWANTED RECORD FOR EDIN DZEKO

Edin Dzeko must be sick of facing Barcelona. The Roma striker has played against the Catalans six times, and not won once.

If Roma don’t get the win on Tuesday, Dzeko will equal the record for most matches played against a single opponent without a win, held by Alessandro del Piero against Deportivo La Coruña, Arjen Robben against Liverpool, and Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic against Barcelona.

Dzeko hasn't won against Barcelona yet.

Dzeko hasn’t won against Barcelona yet.

AND A WANTED RECORD, AS WELL

There is one record Dzeko will want to extend. He’s already set the new high mark for most goals in a single Champions League campaign by a Roma player with five.

It’s safe to say he’s been Roma’s most influential player in Europe this season – having been involved in 58% of their goals in the competition so far.

Dzeko has been instrumental in Roma's progress so far.

Dzeko has been instrumental in Roma’s progress so far.

BARCELONA’S UNBEATEN RUN

Everyone knows about Barcelona’s record in La Liga this season. 31 games, zero losses. But they’ve also not been beaten in the Champions League either; in fact, counting last season’s 0-0 draw in the second leg of their quarter-final against Juventus, they’re on a 10-match unbeaten run in the competition.

Barcelona aren't only unbeaten in La Liga.

Barcelona aren’t only unbeaten in La Liga.

BARCELONA’S WINLESS RUN

On the other hand, when it comes to away games in the knockout stages, Barcelona haven’t won in their last four. That includes the same quarter-final last season, when Juventus beat them 3-0.

Of course, in the round before that, they lost 4-0 to PSG in Paris. Encouragement for Roma?

Barcelona won't have happy memories of their last visit to Italy.

Barcelona won’t have happy memories of their last visit to Italy.

MESSI NEUTRALIZED?

Italy hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Messi. He’s scored in just one of his last six away appearances against Italian sides. Maybe Roma do have hope.

Italian teams in Italy: Messi's Kryptonite.

Italian teams in Italy: Messi’s Kryptonite.

*Stats provided by Gracenote

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