New bosses Luciano Spalletti, Zinedine Zidane ready to lock horns in UCL
After its usual winter break, the Real Madrid Cup, formerly known as the European Cup and currently nicknamed "UEFA Champions League," is finally back. Even though the break felt longer than usual, the resumption of the tournament's activities happens in grand style, as the 10-time title winners, Real Madrid, visit AS Roma's Stadio Olimpico.
So far, both teams have only faced each other in the top club tournament in European -- and probably world -- football. Real Madrid and Roma have played eight Champions League matches, with four wins for the Madridistas, three for the Romans and one draw.
Amazingly enough, three of those four Real Madrid wins happened at the Olimpico. The first one featured a fantastic goal by Luis Figo. Their second victory, a 3-0 walk in the park the following season, saw the unpredictable talent of Jose Maria Gutierrez -- Guti -- shine in one of the most complete performances of his career.
Real Madrid's third win, in the middle of the Galactico era, took place in front of an empty stadium in 2004, as Roma had to play two matches behind closed doors after an object hit referee Anders Frisk in a previous match versus Dinamo Kiev.
The only time Roma have managed to defeat Real Madrid at the Olimpico, was in the last-16 round of the tournament in 2008. Raul handed Real the lead, but the Giallorossi came from behind to win the match 2-1. They would also win in the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, the only time Roma have eliminated Real Madrid in this competition.
According to coach Zinedine Zidane, the visitors are ready for Roma. Since he took over, the team have played six weekend matches with no midweek interruptions, so Zidane has enjoyed a decent amount of time to instil the tactical and attitudinal changes he wants to see in his players during long training sessions.
The calendar not only helped Zidane with the spacing of matches, but also with the level of the opposition: until the 4-2 win over Athletic de Bilbao, Real Madrid hadn't had to compete with any top-10 team in La Liga.
Things start to get more complicated as the season progresses towards its final and defining third. Real Madrid travel to Rome without Gareth Bale and Pepe -- both still trying to recover from injury -- but with full-back Marcelo as a surprising last-minute addition.
In the news conference prior to the match, Roma coach Luciano Spalletti sounded upbeat.
"I would not be amazed if it was my team who went through,", he said. He also remembered the 2008 triumph, which he masterminded from the bench in his first spell as a coach with Roma.
In fact, one can understand the reasons behind his, at least on paper, over-optimistic pre-fixture assessment.
Spalletti replaced Rudi Garcia in January and found a team lacking morale and purpose. Less than a month later, he's enjoying streak of four consecutive wins with 10 goals scored and three conceded. Spalletti has awakened his side's hunger to win, recovering some of the squad's big names in the process.
The mixture of the talent he already had in the squad -- on their day, Mohamed Salah and Edin Dzeko can obviously create trouble for any defence -- with the new additions of Diego Perotti (the former Sevilla player) and Stephan El Shaarawy gives Spalletti a quite competitive offensive quartet.
If you throw the impressive talent of Bosnian playmaker Miralem Pjanic into the mix and the comebacks of Daniele De Rossi and Francesco Totti from injury, the Italian coach must feel confident in his side's chances to surprise Real Madrid's back four.
The Madridistas have of course improved since Zidane took the reins, but their weakest point becomes apparent when they transition from attack to defence. Even when they play with four midfielders, the team already looks disconnected in his lines, and ample room appears for the opposition to take advantage of. A team with Pjanic directing the movements and Perotti, Salah et al to run to the open space can indeed punish Real Madrid.
Another point of concern that Roma could exploit was clearly put into evidence last Saturday by Athletic de Bilbao. The Bilbainos' high press generated plenty of doubts among Real Madrid's back four, who wanted to build up plays through short passing, but have not developed the correct dynamics with their midfield yet.
This presented Athletic with plenty of chances to steal the ball in dangerous areas, and left Real Madrid exposed for a decent spell of the first half. Spalletti will have taken plenty of notes about this.
Roma's defence, the second worst of the tournament in the group stage, features a rare mixture of youth and experience that has not worked as a proper unit yet. Given that they face this season's top-scorer in Cristiano Ronaldo, with 11 goals, Spalletti will want to keep the ball as close to Real Madrid's goal as possible.
The main concern for the hosts, and probably what Zidane intends to favour, is the weight of Real Madrid's midfield in the match. With Isco Alarcon back into the side, if the Real Madrid's four men take control of proceedings, Roma will find themselves in the back foot more often than not.
One of the most evident impacts of Zidane's influence in the squad is the remarkable improvement in the performances of both Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. If they are allowed to run the match and feed the strikers, the visitors could have a field day. That is why most expect Spalletti to start with a 3-5-2 that would clog the middle of the pitch, although one never can be sure with the experiment-prone Italian coach.
The contest features two teams that changed coaches six matches ago and that show promising, but still not completely solid progress. This last-16 round fixture will confirm how far Zidane and Spalletti have gone, and how much work is still before them.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.