Real Madrid must seize on kind Champions League draw vs. Wolfsburg
"Opponents in the quarter-finals are always difficult," said Real Madrid director Emilio Butragueno after Friday's Champions League draw had smiled on his club. The old campaigner could barely suppress one himself while speaking to reporters in Nyon after Real were paired with Wolfsburg. "They are a German side and they will be extremely motivated."
The message was clear: all European clubs are equal but some are more equal than others.
The draw could not have gone any more smoothly for Real, who will play the second leg of the tie at the Bernabeu. Also to the club's benefit, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid were drawn together, removing at least one of Real's domestic bugbears from their hopeful path to the San Siro. The spectre of Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Atletico has been averted, for now at least, and Wolfsburg present a far less troublesome opponent as the Frenchman bids to at least match the club's performance in Europe last season with a semifinal appearance.
The Bundesliga club reached the knockout stages for the first time this season and made heavy work of seeing off Gent, another round-of-16 debutant. Dieter Hecking's side currently sit eighth in the German top flight and were dumped from the domestic cup in the second round, albeit by Bayern Munich. A year ago, Wolfsburg were on their way to finishing runners-up in the Bundesliga, lifting the German cup and the Super Cup over Pep Guardiola's juggernaut. Wolfsburg have failed to reach those heights again this season and the size of the task facing Hecking's side was summed up by the club's sporting director, Klaus Allofs: "Real Madrid are favourites for the home leg and the away leg."
Hecking was hardly more Churchillian in his analysis: "We'll give it a go. We'll have to come up with something to give a side with so many resources some difficulty. Surprises do happen."
Wolfsburg's main weapons are summer signing Julian Draxler and former Chelsea midfielder Andre Schurrle, who combined to finish off Gent in Wolfsburg's 1-0 victory in the Volkswagen Arena in the previous round. Club captain and midfield anchor Luiz Gustavo is also a cut above but man for man, Real hold the advantage across the pitch.
Hecking has also struggled all season to strengthen his defence, with the error-prone Dante, arriving from Bayern Munich, not helping matters as may have been expected. They also lack a prolific striker: Bas Dost and Max Kruse (who was amusingly fined €25,000 by the club for leaving €75,000 in cash behind during a recent late night Berlin taxi ride) have nine goals each in all competitions. Behind them, Hecking has Nicklas Bendtner. It's not all bad news; Draxler and Schurrle pick up the slack and Dost presents a very real aerial threat. Real will need to be alert on set pieces, their eternal weak spot.
Wolfsburg usually set up in a counterattacking 4-3-3 based on quick transitions from the back, often driven by occasional Real target Ricardo Rodriguez. That will suit Real Madrid nicely, with Zidane's side also being fond of the quick break. In more good news for the Liga club, Gareth Bale was spared a call-up by Wales and will spend the international break regaining full fitness in Valdebebas instead.
The first two weeks of April are Real's Waterloo as far as this season is concerned. Anything other than defeat at Camp Nou in el Clasico will be seen as a huge bonus and nobody will (theoretically) force Zidane's hand on team selection in Barcelona with Europe on the horizon.
Anything other than victory over Wolfsburg, though, will be an unmitigated disaster. Surprises do happen, as Hecking noted. Zidane won't be in the market for any unpleasant ones in the Champions League with a semifinal spot at stake.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.