Sunday 26 March 2017

Madrid's crazy world offers City some hope

'Ronaldo factor' always a threat but there are plenty of weaknesses

Gareth Bale watches as Cristiano Ronaldo goes through his paces at the Etihad Stadium last night Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Gareth Bale watches as Cristiano Ronaldo goes through his paces at the Etihad Stadium last night Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Zinedine Zidane shows off his skills in training at the Etihad Photo: Dave Thompson/Getty Images

Ian Herbert

The view from the top of Manchester City is that the club need to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League perhaps four times if they are to win it because the knock-out is a lottery and there is no accounting for the occasional catastrophic hand it can deal.

Like Cristiano Ronaldo being fit to play at the Etihad tonight: City will have deal with him if they are to take something to play with to the Bernabeu next month.

But the lottery can play in your favour when the opposition is as dysfunctional as Real can be. They have reached this stage despite themselves and - where manager Zinedine Zidane is concerned - in the face of expectation among many at the club.

Zidane's press conference delivery last night, with a lack of spoken Spanish despite his considerable time in the capital, revealed an individual bound up with the club and yet somehow still not at its native core.

Aura

Zidane brings an aura and a certain air of aristocracy. When he managed the Madrid B team, before his elevation to the top job, the squad flew everywhere to games, he was allocated more money to spend on players than his predecessors and he took a vast, airy office.

The B team go by bus again now and his successor Luis Miguel Ramis did not inherit the big office at the Vadebebas training ground.

But president Florentino Perez has actually taken some convincing that Zidane is the man for the job. He overlooked him to hire Rafael Benitez last summer, much to the Frenchman's chagrin. Zidane's appointment was a populist move and not entirely expected to bring success.

Behind the polished PR exterior of last night's press conference, there is a chaotic aspect to the squad, too. On the big European nights like this, when Ronaldo wants the spotlight, he expects the clique of players who looked up to him - like James Rodriquez and Marcelo Vieira - to pass to him and when they do not, he is not happy.

"He demands it centro, centro," says a source. Gareth Bale, out on the flank, has thus found himself isolated and when he was moved him to a more central last autumn, Ronaldo asked: "Why are you putting him there? He's standing on my space."

Paranoia can reign amid that kind of factionalism. When Sergio Ramos became convinced last season that the club doctor was a mole for Perez and "feeding the president", he conducted a poll, complete with voting slips, asking if they wanted him removed.

It is a squad with its power bases and Ramos, who has lacked his usual force in this injury-plagued season, holds one of them. It is tempting to include that his difficulties stem from the fact that he didn't want to be at the club eight months ago.

The captain's relationship with Perez is extremely difficult and Ramos had an agreement with Manchester United to leave last summer. He stayed only because of the president's need for populist choreography.

When Iker Casillas left at the same time, there was a problem with the absence of Spaniards in the side, so Perez gave Ramos a ¤10m contract, aborting plans to sign Nicolas Otemendi, who went to City instead.

Trying to manage the egos is no ordinary job. By popular consent, Carlo Ancelotti did it as well as anyone, not least because of a laissez faire philosophy, allowing the players more of the power they sought than some managers would and benefitting.

It is hard to imagine some managers tolerating the loose arrangements in what Real players call the 'lab' - the medical room/gymnasium beneath the pitch which is designed for specialist recuperation work for injured players, but which is actually a preferred hangout for taking Instagram pictures and letting the world go by.

For all this, Zidane can point to the only criterion for success that matters: results. Beyond the quarter-final first leg defeat at Wolfsburg, his side have only lost once - to Atletico Madrid - since his arrival.

"In Wolfsburg we found it difficult," he said last night. "When they scored we suffered a little bit. We don't want that to happen again. We need to be try and be strong defensively because we know we'll be put under pressure.

"But I think we can unleash our weapons in attack. City are a great side. If you leave them space they can hurt you. The players get between the lines and cause problems. We need to try and stop that happening."

The talk of Ronaldo did not stretch to his contractual situation - though Real do look set to complete their U-turn on his future by offering him a contract extension that will keep him at the club until he is 35. This, after Perez started the season with the intention of cashing in on him with Paris Saint-Germain ready to pay close to £80m for his services.

Bale insisted of his relationship with Ronaldo last night "We've said many times, both of us, that we get on fine," though Marcelo said something about the Portuguese's power base when Bale was taken off before half time against Sporting Gijon in the depths of winter.

"It would be unfair to say that we missed Bale when you look at the squad we have," he said. "James had a great game. He worked very hard."

Manchester City v Real Madrid, Live, BT Sport 1/TV3, 7.45

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