Real Madrid have surprisingly failed to dominate in their Champions League group, leaving Borussia Dortmund with the chance to progress into the latter stages of the tournament as group winners. Los Blancos’ shock 3-3 draw against Legia has left them trailing the German side by 2 points going into the crunch clash between the two heavyweights. Anything other than a win for Zinedine Zidane’s men would allow Thomas Tuchel’s exciting unit to top the charts and possibly face a kinder fixture in the first knockout round. Can the reigning champions battle through and fight to retain their title?
Repercussions of a Second-placed Finish
Real Madrid are still well-favoured to battle through to the latter stages of the competition whether they top Group F or not, because of their prowess in the tournament and the players they have at their disposal. Some have even argued that finishing top of the group this year may not be as imperative as it has tended to be in the past.
Research from oddschecker found that since 2003/04, teams that have qualified top of their groups have had a better ratio of progressing past the last 16. Arsenal are a prime case study of a side that tends to end their group in second and then fail to win their first knockout fixture – The Gunners haven’t reached the quarterfinals since 2009/10. Arsene Wenger has been incredibly unlucky in recent years and has faced Barcelona and Bayern Munich twice apiece straight after the group stage, along with AC Milan and Monaco.
Real have the muscle to brush aside most opponents in Europe, but a draw against one of the other big guns would prove a sterner test. Bayern have failed to win their group, and Porto are the other huge club to have fallen short of first place, meaning that if Real do come second they will not be drawn against one of these two powerhouses. They would also avoid Manchester City and possibly Arsenal. On the other side of the coin, a second place finish could mean that Zidane’s men would have to face Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Napoli or Paris Saint-Germain, with Leicester City and Monaco looking to be the kinder fixtures.
Regardless of whether Real finish their group in first or second, if they want to lift the trophy for a second successive year they will have to defeat some of these formidable opponents at some stage in the tournament. Therefore it shouldn’t really be cause for concern among fans if Los Blancos fail to leapfrog Dortmund.
Local Rivals Flying High
There is a strong chance that Real could once again face their fierce rivals Atletico in this year’s tournament. Diego Simeone’s men have crushed the opposition in Group D, and qualified as out-and-out winners. The Argentine has once again proven his tactical astuteness and tightened the defence, and Los Rojiblancos only conceded 1 goal after 5 games. Atletico have never won the Champions League but have come close under Simeone. They made the finals in 2013-14 and 2015-16, but were defeated by Real on both occasions.
Real’s dominance over Atletico in the pinnacle European tournament has stoked the flames of animosity between the two sides. Los Colchoneros have upset the La Liga hierarchy in recent years, and managed to pip both Barcelona and Real to the title in 2013-14. Aside from that win and the Spanish Supercup, The Galacticos have always had the upper hand in the capital. If Real end up second in their group and draw Atletico in the round of 16, it may give Simeone’s men the chance to gain the advantage.
It is fair to say that Real have a greater wealth of big-game experience which is why they have emerged victorious in both finals between the two teams. Zidane is likely to feel more worried at the prospect of facing Simeone over two legs where the Argentine has the opportunity to put in one of his famous resolute defensive displays and look to snatch a goal on the counterattack. Real thrashed Atletico 3-0 at the Vincente Calderon Stadium earlier in November, but Simeone is likely to learn from his mistakes in that early season La Liga fixture.
Zidane Desperate to Join the Elite
There is no doubt that Zidane was one of the best players in the world and a Real Madrid legend on the pitch. Now the 44-year-old seeks to join the elite managers in football and follow a similar path to Pep Guardiola at Barcelona.
When Guardiola was chosen as Barca boss in 2008 it was met with a similar scepticism as Zidane’s appointment last year. Both men were club heroes from their playing days but neither had fashioned a name for themselves in football management before taking up the position at their former clubs. Guardiola and Zidane quickly went on to silence doubters as the two former midfield icons both claimed the Champions League in their first seasons in charge of their respective clubs.
Zidane will be desperate to emulate or even outdo Guardiola’s ascension to the top in the world of football management. The Catalan won the Champions League for the second time in 2010-11 but failed to win two European trophies on the bounce. Zidane has the opportunity to beat the Manchester City boss in this respect.
In claiming the European Holy Grail for a second time, the Frenchman has the chance to join a highly exclusive club. Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Vincente Del Bosque, and Carlo Ancelotti are the only managers to have won Europe’s top tournament twice, with the Italian winning it three times.
If Zidane wants to join this group of world-class managers then now might be the best chance he ever gets. The Real boss has a fully fit and functioning Cristiano Ronaldo at his disposal, a player who is flying high in all competitions this season and is seemingly destined to pick up his fourth Ballon d’Or in January.
The Euro 2016 winner scored a whopping 16 goals in last season’s campaign and was way ahead of Robert Lewandoski (9) and Luis Suarez (8). In fact, the Portuguese sharpshooter has won the golden boot in the competition for the last four seasons running. Ronaldo doesn’t look like hanging up his scoring boots anytime soon either, and bagged 2 goals and 4 assists after five group games in the current Champions League campaign.
Although Zidane and Real Madrid have started a little slower than usual this year, they still have what it takes to push forward in this competition until the bitter end – and make history. No matter how they finish the group or who they draw in the next round, Los Blancos have the muscle to go all the way again.