Real Madrid look to reverse fortunes at Dortmund
Zinedine Zidane takes his Real Madrid side to the Westfalenstadion on Tuesday night where he will aim to achieve something that has eluded all of his predecessors: beating Borussia Dortmund on their own turf.
In six attempts Real Madrid have never got the better of Die Shwarzgelben on German soil, losing three and drawing three against an extremely familiar foe in European competition. In five of the past six Champions League seasons the sides have met across the group stages, quarterfinals and semifinals.
Madrid's nadir came in the last four in 2012-13, when Robert Lewandowski scored four times in the opening leg in Dortmund to crush Real's European aspirations for another season. Under Carlo Ancelotti the following year, Real exacted their revenge with a 3-0 victory in the return game after Dortmund had scored twice without reply in the Westfalenstadion. The last time the sides crossed paths, in the opening phase last season, they played out two memorable 2-2 draws, Dortmund going through as group winners while Madrid went on to the lift the title.
The bonus associated with finishing at the top of the group has depreciated slightly due to the emergence of a much stronger continental second tier, and both sides will be well aware that relative European novices Tottenham Hotspur have the ability to mount a serious challenge to the status quo in Group H. Last season Legia Warsaw finished eight points adrift of qualification with a win and a draw to their name. Spurs have already beaten Dortmund, and with less baggage on their shoulders in Europe can take a free hit at the reigning champions as well.
Dortmund boss Peter Bosz will be keen to maintain his club's run against Madrid, and his side's form in the Bundesliga is ominous from the visitors' viewpoint. Dortmund were the last side in Europe's five strongest leagues to concede a goal and that came in a 6-1 thrashing of Borussia Monchengladbach. Bosz's side lead the German top flight after six games and have banged in 19 goals domestically, eight more than Madrid have managed. After the Spurs defeat Bosz bemoaned the "soft goals" his defence had conceded -- and a disallowed Dortmund strike -- for changing the texture of the game.
Unlike his opposite number, Bosz appears to have found the remedy to his defensive issues. Not only are Madrid failing to capitalise on chances created up front, Zidane's back line have struggled to contain Alaves, Levante and Valencia in recent weeks, conceding against each and having fortune to thank for not dropping even more points.
In the Westfalenstadion, Sergio Ramos will have to marshall his defence against one of Europe's form strikers, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has bagged 12 goals in nine appearances so far this season, while also keeping the Gabonese's supporting actors, Maximilian Philipp (4), Christian Pulisic (3) and Andrey Yarmolenko (1), quiet.
Real's incredible scoring run in all competitions may have come to an unexpected end against Betis, but in Europe they are still kicking, having found the net in every Champions League game since the 0-0 draw in the semifinals against Manchester City in April 2016.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who will make his 150th European appearance in the Westfalenstadion, has drawn a blank in his opening two Liga starts of the season, but there is little to fault in his continental record. The Portuguese struck twice as Real saw off Apoel in the last round of fixtures and is the competition's leading scorer of all time with 107 in 141 appearances.
It is to Ronaldo that Real will look for the cutting edge in the Westfalenstadion, and he certainly enjoys a game against Bundesliga opposition, having scored nine against Bayern, seven against Schalke and four against Dortmund.
Zidane will be without Marcelo, Karim Benzema, Theo Hernandez, Mateo Kovacic and Jesus Vallejo in Germany but will hope Toni Kroos passes a late fitness test. If the German midfielder misses out, Dani Ceballos did enough to warrant inclusion after his performance in the victory over Alaves but Zidane will probably opt for Isco in a three-man midfield with Luka Modric, rested in Mendizorrotza, and Casemiro.
Gareth Bale, who also sat out Saturday's game, and Marco Asensio will form the rest of the attacking triumvirate, with Ronaldo operating in a more central role but also an interchangeable one depending on how Dortmund set up to greet Real's front line.
That flexibility has long been cited by opposition managers as the primary difficulty in plotting a route to a clean sheet against Real Madrid. Betis coach Quique Setien found the formula last week but was aided and abetted by the opposition's inability to put their chances away. Zidane will need his players to be more clinical in the Westfalenstadion: Dortmund are in excellent form and will not be in the mood to surrender their proud record against the European champions lightly, however much the Real boss would love to tick another unchecked box on the club's CV.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.