Cristiano Ronaldo makes the difference for Real Madrid at Roma
Three things from Real Madrid's 2-0 win at Roma in their Champions League last-16 first leg at the Stadio Olimpico.
1. Ronaldo makes Zidane's night
A screamer from Cristiano Ronaldo and a late goal from substitute Jese Rodriguez saw Real Madrid take a commanding 2-0 victory in their Champions League last-16 first leg at Roma on Wednesday night.
The game saw Madrid's new galactico coach Zinedine Zidane return to the competition he won so iconically in 2002. However, it was Los Blancos' biggest superstar who made the biggest impression -- with Ronaldo's super solo effort breaking open a game which had, until then, been frustrating for both him and his team.
Before his sparkling goal, Ronaldo had fired an early free kick wide, was whistled for a handball and suffered some crunching tackles from the Roma defenders. Madrid were finding things tough, and a tight game went to the break goalless.
The second half began not too differently, and the Portuguese was soon protesting after being elbowed in the face by Roma centre-back Antonio Rudiger. Just before the hour mark, though, the screams were full of joy as the now 31-year-old cut in from his left wing onto his right foot and hammered the ball into the far top corner.
The shot took a deflection off Alessandro Florenzi's outstretched boot, but was probably not going to be stopped anyway -- it was so well hit. Ronaldo had taken offence at the pre-game news conference when asked why he had not scored away from the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu since November. This was a more-than-decent answer.
Ronaldo's goal should not take away from this being only a fair-to-middling Madrid performance. There had been hope when Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez that his team would play thrilling, attacking football and would sweep away teams like this Roma side. But the visitors struggled to create chances until the game opened up late, when Roma chased an equaliser and substitute Jese added an excellent second goal by driving into the area and firing low across Wojciech Szczesny and into the net.
The La Liga giants have not beaten an Italian team over two legs since 1987, losing their past eight direct meetings, with more tactical Serie A sides often overcoming greater individuals in the Los Blancos' ranks. This time, though, it was Madrid's main man who made the difference.
2. The Marcelo vs. Salah battle
While the game was tight and individual battles were played out all over the pitch, there was particular interest in the clash between Real Madrid left-back Marcelo and Roma right winger Mohamed Salah.
Egypt international Salah began the game causing all sorts of problems to Marcelo and centre-back Sergio Ramos down the left side of Madrid's defence. At one point, the former Chelsea man picked up the ball on the edge of his own penalty area and carried it all of 80 yards to win a corner at the other end.
As well as showing his lightning-quick pace, there were also delicate touches to haul in long balls played out to his wing, and strength to win physical battles with his markers. It was all very impressive, but Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas was untroubled.
Madrid had more of the ball as the first half progressed, and Marcelo was seen more as an attacking force. The Brazilian had been a doubt for the game with a shoulder problem, but there was no sign of any issue as he tried an audacious flicked pass on the edge of the Roma penalty area, although it was easily repelled. Then came a lovely, dipping volley from a scooped Ronaldo pass that went a yard wide; it was the closest Real came to a goal in the first half.
That connection down Madrid's left wing paid dividends for the opening goal, with Marcelo supplying the pass over the top, which set Ronaldo on the way to score. Salah was again influential as the home team tried to reply, but there was generally a frustrating lack of end product, and Ramos and Raphael Varane covered well for their attack-minded teammate.
3. Spalletti's organisation works for Roma
Roma changed coaches last month, with Luciano Spalletti taking over from Rudi Garcia just a week after Zidane replaced Benitez. Spalletti has immediately changed the mood at the club, and this was a very different Roma team, with January signings Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy in an attacking XI.
From the start, Perotti was involved from a "false nine" position, and also linked well with midfielder Miralem Pjanic behind him. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international was pulling the strings for Roma and also had his own 25-yarder blocked by Ramos during Roma's best moments of the first half.
While Madrid were always going to have their own long spells on the ball, deeper midfielders Radja Nainggolan and William Vainqueur also generally had the better of their battles with Luka Modric and Isco.
Spalletti's reaction to Ronaldo's opener was to send on ex-Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko as a lumbering Plan B. That caused Madrid to sit deeper, and Dzeko got behind Varane but shot into the side-netting from a narrow angle, then was involved in a decent penalty shoot for his side.
In the end, Roma were well-beaten but not outclassed.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan