Monday 19 February 2018

Cristiano Ronaldo the emperor in Real's Roman conquest

Roma 0 Real Madrid 2

Cristiano Ronaldo in action during the UEFA Champions League first leg match between AS Roma and Real Madrid CF at Stadio Olimpico (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
Cristiano Ronaldo in action during the UEFA Champions League first leg match between AS Roma and Real Madrid CF at Stadio Olimpico (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

Oliver Brown

It had been a decade since we last savoured the spectacle of Zinedine Zidane on a Champions League night.

One half-expected still to see him in the all-white strip, not in an elegant black three-quarter-length coat.

Head jutting, legs prowling, the great 'Zizou' betrayed more than a couple of familiar mannerisms on this, his European debut as Real Madrid's manager. Just once did the facade of professorial calm fracture, when Cristiano Ronaldo rushed over for an embrace after the sumptuous goal that set up this deserved victory at Stadio Olimpico. It was a resonant image, a reflection of the respect between one legend and another.

Granted, Ronaldo's goal was more than a little fortuitous, the ball taking a clear nick off Roma captain Alessandro Florenzi as it arced beyond goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

But the manner of the set-up - a delicate back heel, then an emphatic pulling of the trigger - was a compelling rebuke to the inquisitor who had dared suggest before this match that he was struggling for form.

If Real are to march onwards to a record 11th European Cup triumph the contributions of their superstar promise to be as pivotal as ever.

Significantly, Real also went a long way here towards throwing off their historic hex against Italian clubs in this competition. Not since 1987, when they beat Napoli, had they knocked one of Italy's clubs out of Europe over a two-legged tie. On the latest evidence, with Jese's late goal complementing the genius of Ronaldo, that particular demon is surely poised to be exorcised in Madrid in three weeks' time.

Any Chelsea fans could be forgiven for quietly lamenting the sight of Mohamed Salah in the maroon and orange of Roma. The Egyptian has been in captivating form under manager Luciano Spalletti since his switch to Italy last summer and he pierced the Real defence at will, spurning one clear chance when he neglected to spot Stephan El Shaarawy's run to his left.


Nobody seemed to be tracking the incursions of Diego Perotti, either, as Zidane hopped around agitatedly on the touchline.

The centre-back partnership of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, who have been struggling for consistency away from the Bernabeu this season, looked out of sorts.

So, too, did Ronaldo, hugging the left flank like a traditional winger but struggling in the first half even to touch the ball. The Portuguese, who had been ruffled this week by repeated questions about his nemesis Lionel Messi, drew howls of derision all evening.

Spalletti, despite claiming that he would not send three men to mark Ronaldo, had a degree of catenaccio in force. Real's front three were incapable of finding a foothold.

The match settled into a pattern of strangulation, as Antonio Rudiger and Kostas Manolas put in gargantuan shifts to contain the wily threat of James Rodriguez, while Karim Benzema looked isolated whenever he ventured further forward.

The defensive genius did not belong solely to Roma, though. Only an exquisitely-timed tackle by Varane thwarted a charging El Shaarawy on the cusp of half-time.

From there, Real turned on the afterburners. First Ronaldo arrived at the party, scything in from the left before unleashing his delicious curling strike that flicked off Florenzi to leave Szczesny helpless.

Then Jese put the outcome beyond doubt, closing in on Roma's goal almost unimpeded as Florenzi failed to make a challenge, feathering the ball low past Szczesny. It was a finish worthy of Zidane himself. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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