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 By Rob Train

Champions League is Zidane's best chance to seal Real Madrid hot seat

"Many people feel that Wednesday's match will be easy and that is not true. It will be a tough game," said Zinedine Zidane ahead of the second leg of Real Madrid's Champions League tie against AS Roma.

It is a healthy attitude for the manager to adopt. Zidane knows only too well what complacency can lead to at the highest level after France unravelled in a tame Group A at the 2002 World Cup.

Zidane is also acutely aware that all of Real's eggs are rattling around in a single cup. The Champions League is the last remaining tangible goal for this season. And the team's results on the continent may well determine whether Zidane's appointment is extended or quietly filed into a well-stocked drawer at the Bernabeu marked "interim."

Real MadridReal Madrid
AS RomaAS Roma
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Leg 2Aggregate: 4 - 0
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A sixth consecutive quarterfinal appearance is the minimum requirement. The odds are stacked in Real's favour -- home advantage and a two-goal lead -- but Roma are not travelling to Madrid to make up the numbers. More than 3,000 tifosi will be roaring their side on at the Bernabeu and they have reason to be optimistic: Roma have won seven on the spin in Serie A, beating Fiorentina 4-1 on Friday night to ease into third and perhaps the Scudetto reckoning.

Real meanwhile, have failed on numerous occasions this season to rise to the big occasion. Roma manager Luciano Spalletti is expected to go for the jugular from the outset with a 4-2-3-1 formation spearheaded by Edin Dzeko, with plenty of speed, guile and goals behind the Bosnian in Diego Perotti, Stephan El Shaarawy and Mohamed Salah.

For Zidane, the question is whether to stick with the formula that has served him well since the loss to Atletico and play the energetic Lucas Vazquez and Casemiro, or fall back on his more experienced stars, even if some have been operating well below par. The probable answer is a mixture of the two, a Zidanes and Pavones 2.0. Vazquez has certainly earned his new status with his impressive work rate while Casemiro lends an extra layer of protection to the back four. The Brazilian's passing range is also a huge bonus. Mateo Kovacic has impressed in recent games but with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric available, the Croatia international will start from the bench.

Zidane's only injury absence is Karim Benzema but his compatriot's value to the side will condition the manager's approach to the game. Gareth Bale made a goalscoring return against Celta and will start. Jese did himself no harm in his brief cameo on Saturday and Zidane said ahead of the game that he wants "punch" up front. A 4-4-2 with Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo would certainly provide that. With Vazquez on the right and Isco on the left of a midfield four, Real would have cover to allow Modric and the full-backs, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, to get up in support of the front two.

In a 4-3-3, which Zidane has strayed from only once so far during his tenure, Ronaldo could operate in a central position flanked by Jese and Bale. The punch in that formation would be on the counter and Zidane may opt to target Roma's full-backs Alessandro Florenzi and Lucas Digne, neither of whom are the strongest tacklers in the opposition ranks.

Cristiano Ronaldo's second half strike for Real Madrid vs. Roma gives the Portuguese 12 goals in this season's Champions League.
Zinedine Zidane's team have a good advantage going into Wednesday's game against Roma.

Whatever Zidane decides to do, a lot will depend on Ronaldo. The Portuguese comes into his own in the Champions League, and hit four at the weekend against Celta. The first was a ferocious, dipping drive from distance. The second was a sumptuous free kick. Real scored 19 in the group stage and Ronaldo hit 11 of them, a record in the first phase of the tournament. He was on target again at the Stadio Olimpico. Roma will come out of the blocks quickly looking to score an early goal to rattle the hosts, and that could play straight into Real's hands if Zidane stacks the side with pace to match that of his no. 7.

Spalletti has a two-goal deficit to address and cannot afford to sit back. Real can, but the home side will try and put the tie to bed as quickly as possible, not least to get Sergio Ramos off the pitch with the captain a caution away from missing the first leg of a potential quarterfinal. The Roma coach said ahead of the match that he will be asking his players to "achieve the impossible."

It wasn't an understatement: Real have lost only one tie in European competition when leading after an away first leg and no team have ever recovered from a two-goal deficit in the Champions League-era to progress to the next round.

However, Spalletti was at the helm at Roma in 2007-08 when the Giallorossi defeated Real 2-1 home and away at the same stage of the competition. Real meanwhile, have lost their last eight European knock-out ties against Italian opposition.

Zidane is in a formidable position to break that statistic after the first leg but he is taking nothing for granted. As he said before the match: "The only thing we have to do is win [...] to win, we have to play well. If we don't, they can eliminate us. I am not thinking about whether this has been a good or a bad season. I just focus on the day-to-day."

Wednesday will be a disaster if Roma do pull off mission impossible at the Bernabeu. Zidane's only remit at this stage of a poor campaign is to make very sure Real are in the hat for Friday's draw.

Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.

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