Almost exactly 60 years since they played their first ever match in the European Cup, Rafael Benitez will take charge of Real Madrid for the first time in a competition that has long meant more to the legendary club than any other. The Spanish giants have won the competition a record 10 times and Benitez will be all too aware that failure to add to that haul is likely to cost him his job.
Despite delivering Real Madrid La Décima just a year before, Carlo Ancelotti’s failure to guide the side past Juventus in last season’s semifinals helped lead to his exit this summer. And in the past, notably with Vicente del Bosque, the club have shown that even winning La Liga is not enough to save a coach if the Champions League title is not secured. Yet, as he prepares to begin the group stage with the visit of Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday, Benitez has claimed he is not feeling the pressure.
“Not at all,” he said, reports Spanish sports daily AS. “What I do feel is the need to win every game we play -- not the pressure to win a competition. If we do win every game, we’ll win trophies. The Champions League is the most important competition in Europe but I also really like the league and the Copa del Rey. Without having to choose between the three, I prefer to look at it in that way.”
The former Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Napoli coach was far from a unanimously popular choice to replace Ancelotti this summer. And scrutiny on him only increased during an underwhelming preseason and goalless start to La Liga. But the team has found their scoring boots in the past two matches, dispatching of Real Betis and Espanyol to the tune of a combined 11 goals.
The headline maker on Saturday was Cristiano Ronaldo, who ended his mini scoring drought with a five-goal show. The haul took the Portuguese star past Raul to become Real Madrid’s all-time leading scorer in La Liga, and he is now just five away from matching the legendary forward’s record tally in all competitions of 323.
Shakhtar now face the ominous task of preventing Ronaldo from closing in on that mark at the Bernabeu on Tuesday. The club’s run of five-straight Ukrainian Premier League titles was ended by Dynamo Kiev last season, and they have now also been handed the challenge of overcoming the loss of two of their key players this summer. Winger Douglas Costa is now starring for Bayern Munich, while Luiz Adriano, scorer of nine goals in the Champions League last season, was sold to Milan. And after seven games this season, Shakhtar sit second again in the standings.
Although they have reached the knockout stage of the Champions League three times in the past five seasons, Lucescu has admitted that they face a tough task to do likewise this time around in a group containing Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, as well as Malmo.
“We respect all our opponents but this is a very difficult game,” Lucescu said, per Uefa.com. “Real Madrid are a super club with top-level organization. It's not good to start the competition against a team like this; Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain have an advantage in starting [Group A] at home.”
Shakhtar are at least without any injury problems ahead of the match at the Bernabeu. Real Madrid will be missing James Rodríguez and Danilo.
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: ESPN Deportes