In need of a morale boost after a woeful 2-0 defeat at Wolfsburg in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal, Real Madrid couldn’t have wished for a much better weekend. Not only did a heavily rotated Madrid side cruise past Eibar 4-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu, but just a few hours later they received the welcome and unexpected news that Barcelona had been beaten by Real Sociedad. Suddenly, following the previous week’s victory over the Catalans at the Camp Nou, Real Madrid’s La Liga titles hopes have been revived.
Still, despite now trailing the leaders by only four points, with Atletico Madrid sandwiched in between at three points back, there is no question that the focus at the Bernabeu this week is on avoiding elimination from the Champions League quarterfinals. Not since 2010 have Real Madrid failed to make it to at least the semifinals of a competition they have won a record 10 times. And head coach Zinedine Zidane will know that it will not do his job prospects any good at all to be the man in charge when that streak is broken.
To bow out against opponents considered the weakest in the last eight, particularly in the manner in which they went down in the first leg, would only provide president Florentino Perez further reason to dispense with Zidane after just a few months in charge.
Against a Wolfsburg side struggling in the Bundesliga, Real Madrid were 2-0 down inside 25 minutes, with their defense horribly exposed. The lack of intensity evident in the backline stretched across a team that had just a few days earlier risen to the occasion to inflict a defeat on their great rivals.
The sense that Real Madrid’s star names had turned up to the Volkswagen Arena expecting to stroll through to the last four was hard to ignore. In the opening minutes it appeared Real Madrid would do just that, having made a fast start in which they had a goal ruled out for a marginal offside.
Instead, Wolfsburg overwhelmed them, helped by the energy of Max Arnold and Bruno Henrique, who combined for the second goal along with the dribbling prowess of Julian Draxler, who gave Real Madrid right-back Danilo the runaround. It all eaves Real Madrid with no margin for error back at the Bernabeu on Tuesday.
“It must be a perfect night,” Cristiano Ronaldo admitted in an interview with the Real Madrid website after he scored in the win over Eibar. All aspects are important. Those of us on the pitch need to run fight and play with intensity for 90 minutes.”
Yet as well as their own performance at the weekend, Real Madrid have reason to be uplifted by the showing of their opponents. Wolfsburg could only draw 1-1 at home with Mainz to extend their winless run in the Bundesliga to four games and leave them down in eighth, nine points off the Champions League places. If Dieter Hecking’s side are to return to Europe’s top table next season, then they will almost certainly have to lift the trophy in Milan at the end of May.
It is a far-fetched scenario, although the club has continued to confound both expectations and their domestic form in Europe this season. Having never gone beyond the group stage in their one previous experience in the Champions League, Wolfsburg got the better of three-time winners Manchester United to make the knockout stage for the first time, before ousting Gent to move onto the quarterfinals. Ahead of last week’s first leg, few outside of Wolfsburg even gave them a chance of keeping the tie alive, never mind putting themselves in the driving seat, heading to the Spanish capital.
Having to go up against Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, among others, Wolfsburg will be all too aware that the job is far from over. Yet the scale of the task facing Real Madrid is shown in the fact that only twice in the history of the Champions League has a team overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit.
Prediction: Real Madrid have put themselves in a real hole with their insipid first-leg showing in Germany. Should they approach the game in a similar manner then Wolfsburg will surely advance. Yet if Zidane’s side are on their game, there is reason to believe they can get the job done. Still, as impressive as Wolfsburg were in the first match, there were enough moments of danger and a number of last-ditch challenges, particularly from defender Naldo to encourage Real Madrid. Should a Madrid side that have been far stronger at home that away from the Bernabeu under Zidane get an early goal, Wolfsburg could wilt and the floodgates may open.
Predicted score: Real Madrid 4-1 Wolfsburg