The first week of round of 16 fixtures for the 2015/16 UEFA Champions League delivered mostly small advantages. Wolfsburg edged out Gent 3-2, Paris Saint Germain beat Chelsea 2-1, and Benfica took a 1-0 advantage of Zenit Saint Petersburg. Of those advantages, only Wolfsburg's seems highly unlikely to fall in the second leg of the round. Gent lost at home, which means that Wolfsburg both took the lead in the aggregate and picked up three away goals for their trouble. Chelsea and Zenit, however, both lost in away games, and the Blues even picked up an away goal, meaning that neither football club can be totally counted out of the Champions League tournament at this point.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, feel like the safest of bets to advance to the quarterfinals. The Vikings beat Italy's AS Roma 2-0 in their first round of 16 leg, and they did it at Roma's Stadio Olimpico. Barring some total collapse in the second leg-scheduled for March 9th at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium-Real Madrid should easily progress to the next round of the competition.
Real Madrid: Learning to Play Like a Team
Just how well Real Madrid have been performing this season probably depends on who you ask. Some would point out the club's high-scoring victories and offensive brilliance as a sign that they are still one of the best soccer squads in the world. Indeed, the Vikings have put on some truly dizzying displays of offensive glory in the past few months, from a 10-2 victory over Villarreal just before Christmas to a 6-0 win against Espanyol at the end of January. It's tough to bet against a football team that puts up those sorts of numbers on a regular basis.
Last season, Real Madrid had a lot of offensive power. Any team with Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and James Rodriguez is bound to score a lot of goals. However, even despite all of that talent, the Vikings failed to exit the 2014/15 campaign with a single trophy. For the most part, the football club's superstar players just hadn't figured out how to play together as a cohesive team.
This season-particularly since Zinedine Zidane took over for Rafael Benitez as manager-the teamwork aspect finally seems to be sinking in at Real. While Luis Suarez remains the La Liga's top scorer for the season, the trio of Ronaldo, Benzema, and Bale has been almost as successful as Barcelona's Messi-Suarez-Neymar powerhouse. (Though, granted, Lionel Messi missed the better part of two months with a knee injury.)
An Impressive Champions League Run
Real's growth as a cohesive team could make the club a possible spoiler for Barcelona's chances of repeating their 2015 Champions League victory. The Vikings are after their 11th title in the Champions League, after becoming the first 10-time winner in the tournament's history less than two years ago. And judging by their UCL run so far, Real Madrid have a very good chance of winning this competition yet again come springtime.
In the group stage, Real had the most impressive record of any team in the tournament, winning five of their games and drawing the sixth. (In comparison, Barcelona picked up two draws, while Bayern Munich and Zenit Saint Petersburg both won five games, but lost the other.) The group stage also saw Cristiano Ronaldo scoring 11 goals-four more than Bayern's Robert Lewandowski, the next most prolific scorer in the tournament.
Real Madrid at Roma
All of these factors set Real Madrid up well for the knockout stage, and in their first round of 16 match, they certainly didn't disappoint. The Vikings won the game 2-0, taking an advantage in the aggregate that Roma will have difficulty breaking when they visit the Bernabeu in March.
While the scoreboard ultimately ended up in favor of the visiting team, though, it looked at first as if Roma might escape the game with a 0-0 draw. Indeed, the first half remained a scoreless stalemate, despite the fact that the Vikings were dominating possession for most of the period. The ball rarely left Roma's half of the pitch during the first 45 minutes of the game, and Marcelo just missed a shot at the 33rd minute, off an assist from Ronaldo.
Still, Roma had a few good attacks in the first half, most of them from Stephen El Shaaraway. Taking a pass from William Vainqueur, El Shaaraway eased into the Real Madrid box in the final minute of the half for a particularly nerve-wracking attack. It was a too-close-for-comfort moment for the visitors, but a perfectly-timed block from Raphael Varane cost El Shaaraway the ball and the shot.
Roma's luck finally ran out in the 57th minute of the match. A long, curling shot from Ronaldo, deflected off of Roma captain Alessandro Florenzi, went arcing into the top-right corner of the goal. Just like that, Real Madrid were in control of the match.
The goal, which was Ronaldo's first on the road since November, put Real Madrid at ease in the match. The Wolves managed a few more dangerous attacks. In particular, a 25-yard kick from Vainqueur at the 72nd minute went just wide of the goal. The Vikings kept the pressure on, though, with close efforts from both Ronaldo and Rodriguez keeping the home fans on the edge of their seats.
Then, at the 86-minute mark, Real Madrid finally managed their second away goal. A patient dribble advance from Jese lulled Roma into a false sense of security until the 22-year-old attacker fired a shot at the bottom left corner of the goal to put his soccer team up by two points.
Planning for the Second LegÂ
Compared to the nail-biting match-up between Paris Saint Germain and Chelsea that had taken place just a day earlier, the Roma-Real Madrid fixture was honestly a pretty boring game. Real's offense won the match with 64% possession but looked less impressive than they have in most games since Zidane took over as head coach. Indeed, the Vikings managed just 10 on-target goals and only scored twice-a pittance compared to the four or five goals per game they've been averaging lately.
Still, a two-point win in the first leg of a Champions League knockout stage draw is nothing to shake a stick at-particularly since both of those points were away goals. Roma's defense was definitely doing something right here, and players like El Shaaraway, Vainqueur, and Mohamed Salah threatened to score on several occasions. But all of that effort counts for very little now that the Wolves need to make up at least two goals in the second leg.
Playing on their home turf on March 9th, the Vikings should easily win the right to advance to the quarterfinals. Real Madrid were sent packing from last year's Champions League by an Italian side, losing 1-2 to Juventus in the semifinal aggregate. In general, Real's away-game record against Italian teams has been shoddy for the past decade at least. ESPN FC says that the win against Roma was "Real's first away win in their last nine attempts against Italian sides."
That factor, coupled with Ronaldo's drought of on-the-road goals as of late, proves that the Vikings are a soccer squad for whom the home field advantage really does matter. In other words, now that the away game is out of the way, the pressure is off. Barring an injury or some other disaster during or leading up to the March 9th home leg, Real Madrid will live to fight another day in the 2015/16 Champions League.
Are you excited to root for the Vikings in their upcoming match against AS Roma? Do you believe that the La Liga heavyweights have a chance of winning an 11th Champions League title this year? Will Cristiano Ronaldo beat his previous record of 17 goals in a UCL season-also the all-time record for a European tournament? Show your support for this outstanding football club today, by stopping by Soccer Box and picking up a brand new Real Madrid home shirt 2015/16.