Madrid's European dream pinned on Ronaldo
You can picture the scene now. On May 22 in the Bernabeu stadium, Florentino Perez is smiling through gritted teeth at the chairmen of the two clubs contesting the Champions League final.
Maybe it is Manchester United, the club who sold him Cristiano Ronaldo, or the eternal rivals Barcelona, or Bayern Munich, who refused to sell him Franck Ribery.
You can imagine the consternation if it isn't Real Madrid, the club who spent £250m last summer and then aren't invited to the season's gala event, even though it's taking place on their own lawn.
Real simply cannot fail in the European Cup this season. The Barcelona-supporting paper 'Mundo Deportivo' last week claimed such is the pressure to win club football's biggest prize that president Perez had offered his stars an extra €250,000 per head if they overturn Lyon's 1-0 advantage tomorrow night.
Perez spelt out the competition's importance to him last week when he said: "Real Madrid love the Champions League above all other things. European football is in the DNA of the club."
They will become the first team to win the European Cup for the 10th time if they lift the trophy in May and it will be only the third time a club has won it on their own ground -- Internazionale did it in 1965 and Madrid were the first to do it eight years earlier.
Last weekend they scraped a dramatic 3-2 victory over Seville to take them to the top of La Liga on goal difference but everyone at the club knows what really matters this season. Players have gone on record as saying the Champions League is the primary aim this campaign. "This game is a final for us" said Ronaldo of the Lyon tie.
Perez has privately cursed the previous president Ramon Calderon for ensuring Madrid host this season's final. The club were due to hold the event but Perez would have preferred to host next season's final at the Bernabeu, when last summer's massive investment is more likely to have begun to bear fruit.
There is huge pressure on the players not to fail, and in France three weeks ago it told, as Lyon took a one-goal lead that could easily have been doubled before time was called on a disjointed and completely unconvincing Madrid performance.
Tomorrow night, with Ronaldo on a fantastic scoring run in his own stadium -- he scored 10 goals in his first 10 games at the Bernabeu and his strike at the weekend was goal number 14 in 16 matches -- the home side will be favourites to win. But they have no away goal in their locker and they will not be at full strength for the most important game of their season so far.
The former Liverpool playmaker Xabi Alonso and versatile left-footer Marcelo are both suspended for the second leg and while neither can be counted in the ranks of Madrid's swashbuckling strike force, both share a common trait -- they have no natural replacement.
Alonso is the midfield organiser the club so craved in the summer. His place will be taken by the inexperienced Esteban Granero, the not fully fit Rafael van der Vaart or the temperamental veteran Guti, who may have the former Liverpool player's eye for a defence-splitting pass but none of his other qualities.
Should Guti start, he will need carrying and that weight will rest on Lassana Diarra's shoulders. The former Arsenal, Chelsea and Portsmouth midfielder suffered a similar burden last season when, playing alongside the ineffectual Fernando Gago, he was crushed by a Liverpool engine room that roared Rafa Benitez's side to victory -- one in which Alonso, alongside Javier Mascherano, was the star performer.
Marcelo, meanwhile, is Madrid's first and last option on their left flank. The Brazilian has played well both at left-back and further forward, and the Real coach, Manuel Pellegrini, will be banging square pegs into round holes tomorrow when he looks to fill both positions without an obvious option in either.
If Madrid can score early then Lyon's resolve will surely be broken. The French side know they face a side on course to break their own scoring record this season. Real are maintaining the same pace set by the John Toshack side which, back in the 1989-90 season, scored 107 goals in a campaign. They are currently outscoring La Liga rivals Barcelona, not to mention the rest of Europe. But the longer the match continues goalless the more Lyon will fancy their chances.
They rested key players at the weekend ahead of the second leg. There was no Jeremy Toulalan, Miralem Pjanic, Cesar Delgado or Lisandro Lopez in the 0-0 draw with strugglers Boulogne. All will return fresh tomorrow night.
The stalemate against a side who have the worst record of any Ligue 1 team this year will have done little to strike fear into Madrid supporters' hearts but Lyon have now gone 620 minutes without conceding -- and it is keeping a clean sheet that will be the name of the game at the Bernabeu.
Madrid are fond of talking about their fantastic history but it belongs largely to another century. They are the team of the 20th century, but since winning the tournament for the last time in 2002 their record in their favourite competition is abysmal.
They have not reached the quarter-finals for five years and they have not overturned a second-leg deficit in any cup competition for six years. Never mind the Champions League exits to Arsenal, Roma and Liverpool having gone behind in the first game, there are also recent embarrassing failures to turn things around against Spanish third-division clubs Real Union and Alcorcon in the Spanish Copa del Rey.
Now, inspired by Ronaldo, they must break with that recent history. Pellegrini has, this season, played the former Manchester United forward in a front two alongside the Argentinian forward Gonzalo Higuain, granting him almost complete freedom to go where he best feels he can destroy the opposition.
It's a far cry from the early Old Trafford days when his remit was to run up and down the right wing, and at times this season the Portuguese international has thrived on the freedom. In other matches, the lack of instruction has left him playing out a frustrating monologue -- running in from the left touchline towards a crowded penalty box and overlooking better-placed team-mates to shoot without success from distance.
Saturday's performance was arguably his most selfless so far in the white shirt, suggesting he might be finding the balance between freedom and responsibility at just the right moment to punish Lyon and help Real progress.
A pulsating comeback at the weekend was just the confidence boost Pellegrini's side needed. Seville stunned the home side by taking a two-goal lead courtesy of an own goal from Alonso and a free-kick from Ivica Dragutinovic that Iker Casillas should have gathered comfortably.
But Real battered the visitors' goal in the second half with 16 shots on target. Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos levelled the scores and Real edged it in injury-time thanks to Van der Vaart to go top of the pile for the first time in 106 days. Such heroics will need to be repeated tomorrow, with Ronaldo looking to add to that goal-a-game home record and lead Real one step closer to their date with destiny.
Anything less will mean a loss of face, not to mention job at the end of the season, for Pellegrini. And it will also make for a very uncomfortable night for Perez on May 22 -- exchanging pleasantries with the great and good of clubs who spent a whole lot less to go a whole lot further in the competition that Real Madrid value more than any other. (© Independent News Service)