Champions League football returns with the quarter-finals and on Tuesday, Spanish giants Real Madrid will host surprise-package Tottenham Hotspur at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Last May, when Spurs popped the surprise of the season by qualifying for the Champions League, not even the greatest Spurs' fan would have dreamed of a quarter-final clash against nine-time European champions Real Madrid. A bit of surrealism is guaranteed for any of them looking back at the journey till this stage. Spurs embarrassed holders Inter Milan to qualify on top-spot of their group and then went on to eliminate seven-time winners AC Milan in the first knock-out round. Increasingly building up a reputation as giant killers, Spurs will be looking ahead to their greatest upset yet by sending home Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid.
What is a bit of a dampener is that having built a name for themselves as an all-out attacking side, Spurs have run out of goals. Their last three games have all ended in goalless draws and their performance in the weekend trip to rock-bottom Wigan was disappointing. Injuries haven't helped their cause either and they go into the quarter-final tie with only two fit central defenders. Manager Harry Redknapp will be aware that Spurs need to raise their game against Madrid if they are to stand a chance of extending their exquisite European run.
They will be boosted by the news that their season's stand-out player, Gareth Bale, who was rested for the Wigan tie at the weekend, will take his place on the left flank alongside the attacking bulk of Luka Modric, former Madrid man Rafael Van der Vart and Aaron Lennon, with Sandro providing cover for the defense. Bale will be instrumental for Spurs and Madrid full-back Sergio Ramos will have to be on high alert to prevent being embarrassed by Welshman as was the case with Inter right-back Maicon.
Bale isn't the big-news for Spurs though. It is their summer signing Van der Vart, who was signed from Madrid for £8m and has since made that price a bargain with his performances for the club. He will look to show Bernabeu what they are missing and he could be Spurs' key player on the night.
Despite playing against the most successful club in Europe in a Champions League quarter-final, manager Harry Redknapp has stated that his team is under no pressure as they have nothing to lose. I don't feel pressure. No-one expected us to be here at here at the start of the season and we have a big chance of winning, said Redknapp. We're not just coming here to turn up, we want to keep progressing.
Progressing is the key word there, and though they have embarked on a magical run in Europe, it could come to a cruel halt at the hands of Jose Mourinho's Madrid. Under the guidance of the self-labeled 'Special One', the Spanish giants qualified for the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time in seven years. With Mourinho's record in Europe, having won the cup with two different clubs - Porto and Inter Milan - it'll take a brave soul to bet against him doing it again with the all-round powerful force possessed by Real Madrid.
As is the case when a Mourinho side reaches the knock-outs, mind games were on full steam. Before the crucial league encounter with Sporting Gijon on Saturday, Jose claimed that that tie was more important than the Spurs clash as it could prove pivotal in the league race. However, it backfired as Mourinho suffered his first home loss in the league in nine years. That loss almost certainly means Barcelona will retain the title for a third time and Mourinho will require a good run in Europe (which can synonymous with winning the trophy) to keep the demanding Madrid faithful happy.
Being the favourites against Spurs, Real will have to bear with the pressure and that could prove to undermine them. Though the in-form Karim Benzema will miss out with injury, both Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo are reportedly fit to start against Spurs, meaning the threadbare Spurs defence will have to contain arguably one of the best players in the world without their first-choice defensive pairing.
Presumably playing more mind games, Mourinho has stated that he would be satisfied with a goalless draw or even a 1-1 draw against Spurs. We have to see if we play people to try to settle the tie in the first leg or if we are satisfied with a draw, but 0-0 at home is good and even 1-1 is not dramatic. It would be all open, so I'll talk to the injured players and decide whether we risk them. He said.
However, one can be sure that no Madrid side will aim for a 1-1 draw at home against minnows. The tie, despite being just the first-leg, pits two potent attacking sides against one another and it could be feast for the neutral. Though both teams are expected to lay the foundations for the decisive second-leg, the game could be one to watch out for!
Team News -
Spurs face a defensive crisis and will be without Ledley King, Jonathan Woodgate and Younes Kaboul while William Gallas is a doubt. However, Gareth Bale has regained fitness and will start the tie.
Madrid will take a risk with Ronaldo, who was expected to be out until the coming weekend as well as Marcelo who isn't completely fit either. Benzema is sidelined with an injury.
Irrespective of Mourinho's mind games, Real will be not aiming for a draw and it shouldn't be a surprise if they win 3-1.