A stirring comeback to beat Barcelona in Saturday’s Clásico at the Camp Nou cut Real Madrid’s deficit to their great rivals at the top of La Liga to seven points. Yet it is in the Champions League where the victory could prove to have the bigger impact.
With just seven matches of the Primera Division remaining, Real Madrid’s prospects of overhauling their points gap remain slim. However, that needn’t mean that goals from Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo to overturn a 1-0 deficit were in vain.
Before Saturday’s result, there had been little from Zinedine Zidane’s short time in charge to suggest the club could mount a late season charge. Saturday’s victory, though, provided a blueprint for how Real Madrid could overcome their still evident deficiencies to provide a real challenge for the Champions League title, beginning with their quarterfinal first leg at Wolfsburg on Wednesday.
Unlike Rafael Benitez in his sole Clásico in charge, a 4-0 defeat that precipitated his dismissal soon after, Zidane opted for pragmatism at the Camp Nou. Casemiro was named in the side to add steel and balance to a midfield often desperately lacking in both. Meanwhile, the former French great managed to coax both Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to do more defensive work they have in a long time.
Getting the world’s two most expensive players in history to perform with the same diligence, and the whole team to play in a reactive style, week-in week-out may not be a viable long-term solution. But in a knockout competition like the Champions League, where the biggest prize around is now just five games away, it could just be pulled off.
Indeed, Real Madrid followed a similar path to land their long-coveted La Decima, their 10th European Cup, two years ago. That season, Real Madrid fell a long way short of the Spanish league title under Carlo Ancelotti, but the team was able to raise themselves for the shorter format of the Champions League, notably in a devastating counter-attacking annihilation of Bayern Munich in the semifinals.
Not only could the Clásico win offer a guide for how to achieve that success, but it should provide plenty of belief that the success can be achieved. The celebrations after the final whistle on Saturday exceeded what might be expected simply from a team reducing their deficit at the top of the table to seven points. The squad were at least projecting a sense that it could be a turning point.
Turning point or not, Real Madrid will be expected to comfortably brush aside Wolfsburg in the last eight, having been handed what many saw as the most favorable quarterfinal draw. But there is still an opportunity to assess whether progress has been made.
Prior to Saturday, Real Madrid had been far weaker away from home than at the Bernabeu under Zidane. Even in the last 16 of the Champions League when winning 2-0 at Roma, it was far from a convincing performance and on another night the result could have gone a very different way.
Wolfsburg managed to see off Belgian champions Gent in the last round to reach the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time and setup a meeting with Real Madrid in what is arguably the biggest match in the club’s history. Yet they will enter Tuesday’s occasion at the Volkswagen Arena in the midst of a woeful run of form.
Indeed, Wolfsburg’s Champions League run has been the only bright spot in what has been a desperately disappointing season. Runners-up to Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga last season, as well as German Cup winners, Wolfsburg currently sit in a lowly eighth place, having failed to cope with the departure of Kevin de Bruyne last summer to Manchester City.
Rather than finding their feet, Dieter Hecking’s side have slumped further in recent weeks, taking just a solitary point from their last three matches and being swept aside 3-0 by Bayer Leverkusen on Friday.
Prediction: Wolfsburg have been a shadow of the deadly counter-attacking team of last season. And, with Bas Dost still out injured and Max Kruse being involved in a series of personal problems of late that appear to have impacted his form, scoring goals has been a real problem. Although they have raised their game for Champions League fixtures, the task against a buoyant Real Madrid is likely to be too much.
Predicted score: Wolfsburg 0-2 Real Madrid
D: Träsch, Knoche, Dante, Rodríguez
M: Guilavogui, Gustavo
Vierinha, Draxler, Schürrle
D: Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo
M: Modric, Casemiro, Kroos
F: Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo