Real Madrid visit Roma on Wednesday as strong favorites to eventually progress to the Champions League quarterfinals. Yet, while that basic fact remains true, significant changes in both the Spanish and Italian capitals since the draw pitted the two clubs together in December means the Round-of-16 contest will now feature a very different flavor.
At the time Real Madrid and Roma were matched together in the first knockout phase, both had managers that were teetering on the edge. In Madrid, Rafa Benitez had faced harsh scrutiny since the moment of his appointment last summer. Progressing through the Champions League group stage with the best record, and a spectacular 19 goals scored in six matches, had nothing to quell the skepticism, especially after a 4-0 home loss to arch rivals Barcelona. Just three weeks after discovering Roma would be their last-16 opponents, Benitez was summarily dismissed, with Zinedine Zidane immediately pushed forward in a swift attempt to confine the ill-fated Benitez era to distant memory.
In Rome, Rudi Garcia hung on just nine days longer. The Frenchman had earned widespread praise for a second-place finish in Serie A in his first season, but his second campaign, when Roma finished 17 points adrift of champions and Juventus and played out 13 draws, brought increasing frustration.
And, although he led the club to the last 16 of the Champions League this time around, just one win and six points in the group stage was far from impressive. In the end, a run of one win from seven Serie A matches saw Garcia pay the price.
In his place, Roma went back to the future. Luciano Spalletti previously spent four years as Roma boss, leading them to three straight second place finishes in Serie A, back-to-back Coppa Italia triumphs and the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2007—the last time the club reached such European heights. His style of play earned plenty of acclaim, too, notably utilizing a striker-less system featuring club legend Francesco Totti as a false nine long before it became the biggest tactical trend with Spain and Barcelona.
It would in the end turn sour, with a similar pattern repeated at his following club, Zenit St Petersburg. But, despite spending nearly two years out of the game after leaving the Russian club, the Italian was called back to Rome to turn around the club’s fortunes.
So far the signs have been extremely positive. Roma have won their last four games, and the desperate scoring struggles that plagued them in the last days of Garcia have been overcome. Indeed, a 3-1 win at Carpi on Friday even featured a first goal since November for big summer signing Edin Dzeko, as his near-12-hour goal drought finally came to an end.
There has been similar positivity at Real Madrid. Under Zidane, who stepped up from the Castilla side to take charge, Madrid have won five, drawn one and scored 23 goals. Meanwhile, the attacking players appear to have got their swagger back. James Rodríguez , confined to the fringes under Benitez, has scored two in his last three outings and Cristiano Ronaldo is scoring the type of fine individual goals that use to arrive with incredible regularity but which have dried up over the past year. Despite his legal problems off the pitch, Karim Benzema has flourished under his compatriot Zidane, too, scoring seven goals to date.
It all means that the absence of the previously in-form Gareth Bale, who has been sidelined for the past month with a calf injury, has barely been felt. Although Pepe is also out, Zidane will get an injury boost for Wednesday’s trip to the Stadio Olimpico, with left-back Marcelo ready to return to return from a shoulder injury. There is good news for Roma, too, with club stalwarts Totti and Daniele de Rossi expected to be passed fit. Only long-term injury casualty Kevin Strootman and defender Norbert Gyömbér are out for Spalletti’s side.
Prediction: While Real Madrid look much happier under Zidane, their performances have been far more convincing at the Bernabeu than on the road. Away from home, Madrid have registered only a draw and a narrow win against struggling Real Betis and Granada, respectively. And the long-standing problem at Real Madrid of a lack of balance amid all the attacking stars has yet to be resolved. Thus a confident Roma have every chance of coming away with something from the first leg, even if Real Madrid may remain favorites heading back to the Bernabeu.
Predicted score: Roma 1-1 Real Madrid