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Worst tackle ever? Drop kick in Champions League

The Toe Poke

England glee proves why Liverpool fans revelled in CL run

 By Rob Train

Real Madrid face a tricky test seeing off a Juventus with nothing to lose

Shaka Hislop and Steve Nicol explain why a European super league would be a terrible idea, despite the feeling of inevitability surrounding it.

The "decaf derby," as it was widely dubbed in the media before Sunday's game, did provide a little jump-start for Real Madrid and Atletico but it was a case of each side providing the cables for the other to get the engine running for weightier matters. Pride remained intact on both sides when the final whistle sounded and, more importantly for the managers, so did their squads.

It was a derby played on a European dentist's chair, shorn of any bite in the Liga stakes. Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone will measure this season as successful or otherwise based on the continental stage with Barcelona having all but wrapped up the league. There were no traces of blood in the gurgle and spit that accompanied the final whistle in the Bernabeu.

For the Real boss there was no prospect of unnecessary risk ahead of the return leg against Juventus on Wednesday. Cristiano Ronaldo was brought off after 60 minutes in a clearly pre-arranged substitution, the Portuguese not raising so much as an eyebrow in dissent. The Frenchman has done what his predecessors never could and has found the formula to managing Real's star asset. It worked perfectly in Europe last season and Zidane has learned other lessons from recent history in the Champions League.

The holders have struggled to defend a commanding lead at home in the past: Schalke knocked four past them in 2014-15 during Carlo Ancelotti's second season. Real were never in genuine danger of being knocked out, replying with three, but second-half goals from Leroy Sane and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar made the 5-4 aggregate victory closer than Madrid would have liked.

It was a similar scenario a year earlier when Real were defending a 3-0 home win against Dortmund. In the Westfalenstadion, the away side spent the second half in a state of panic after a Marco Reus double in the opening 45, grimly clinging to an aggregate lead against a side with their tail up.

Since Zidane ascended to the senior dugout, complacency has been largely eradicated in Europe. The novice coach discovered how fine the margins are in continental competition in just his second tie against Wolfsburg. On that occasion Real needed three at home. On Wednesday, Zidane has to ensure his side don't concede the same number without reply.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane have Real Madrid rolling again.
Zinedine Zidane has succeeded where others have failed in getting Cristiano Ronaldo to rest throughout the season.

A nothing-to-lose mentality is a dangerous mindset for Juventus to be arriving with. Like a boxer down on points in the final round, an unlikely KO can't be ruled out. The wilder and more desperate the swing, the more damage it will do if it connects. Zidane must prepare to weather's Juve's early blows. In the previous round Gonzalo Higuain took on the gloves, striking twice inside 10 minutes against Tottenham.

The former Real forward, who is not particularly fond of his erstwhile employers, will not lack motivation and the one area Zidane has been unable to fix during his tenure is the defence. Over the last two seasons, the Real boss has overseen four clean sheets in the Champions League. Until last week, two of those came against Apoel.

The only change to Zidane's lineup on Wednesday will be an enforced one at the back and that is where Juve may find their espresso. Sergio Ramos is suspended and Nacho ruled out with a thigh injury. Zidane had planned to rest Raphael Varane on Sunday but his compatriot was forced to play the full 90 after Jesus Vallejo pulled out of the squad at the 11th hour. Should the 21-year-old fail to recover, Zidane will be left with Varane as his only available senior central defender.

Even if Vallejo makes the squad, throwing the 21-year-old into his first Champions League appearance is hardly ideal: Juve will target him mercilessly.

Zidane rested Isco, Karim Benzema, Casemiro and Luka Modric on Sunday so his lineup will contain few surprises: It will be same one he deployed in Turin . As ever in Europe, it will fall to Ronaldo to finish the job. The Portuguese is in a state of grace and with his own record of 17 Champions League goals in a season in sight, Zidane will trust his star man to provide the decisive edge in the Bernabeu.

But the Old Lady have not yet acquiesced to the sound of their larger namesake clearing her throat. "In football, anything can happen. We had a bad day [in Turin] and the same thing could happen to Real Madrid," noted Massimiliano Allegri.

Even so, history does not favour the visitors. UEFA ran the numbers ahead of the Bernabeu clash and across the 49 ties in European Cup-Champions League history that an away side has gone into a second leg 3-0 down, the home side has progressed on every occasion.

That statistic favours Zidane, but it also adds an extra level of pressure. An early Juve goal, or two, could rattle the cage. The Real boss just has to keep it shut for 90 minutes to take another step towards an historic treble.

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


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