Monday 22 January 2018

Journey home starts for Real's new galacticos

Rory Smith

History, for once, is not on Real Madrid's side. Winners of the European Cup a record nine times, owners of the proudest football past anywhere on the Continent, they are now little more than a curious footnote.

In five of the six seasons since UEFA abolished the second group stage, the eventual winners of the Champions League have been the team who beat the team who beat Real Madrid. It is, no doubt, a quirk of fate, yet it hints at Madrid's struggles.

Despite winning the Spanish title twice in that time, Real have not qualified for the quarter-finals of Europe's elite competition since 2004, having been dumped out at the last-16 stage in successive years by Juventus, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Roma and, most recently, Liverpool.

It is a record which the new generation of galacticos, the most expensive football team ever assembled, know must end this season.

Tonight, they visit Lyon in the first leg of their first knock-out round tie.

Florentino Perez's largesse, spending £230m last summer on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso, was not empty generosity, an act of ego or vanity. Perez had his eye on a specific date, a certain purpose.

On May 22, the strains of 'Zadok the Priest', the Champions League anthem, will blare out over the Bernabeu. Perez expects his collection of expensive trinkets to be in attendance.

The players are not looking that far ahead. "We cannot think about the final in the Bernabeu," said Alonso. "We have to take it game by game. Lyon is the most important match now, and we have to get a good result to take back to Madrid for the second leg.

"If it's possible, we have to score. We know their history in the competition, they are an important team in Europe. It will be complicated."

Not as complicated as it might have been. Despite qualifying comfortably ahead of Liverpool in the group stage, Claude Puel's side are hardly a fine Lyon vintage. They lie fourth in their league, facing a struggle to reach this competition next season.

Yet the French would have reason to believe fate may be on their side, judging by the reaction of their opponents to the appointment of Martin Atkinson to take charge of tonight's match.

The Englishman awarded a controversial penalty against Iker Casillas this season, and he has been derided in Spain as "insufficiently experienced" to take charge of Real's first step of their journey home.

Their concerns about the referee apart, Madrid could hardly have had a better weekend in preparation for their trip to Lyons.

Not only did they beat Xerez 3-0, Cristiano Ronaldo scoring twice on his return from suspension, but they also got a huge helping hand from local rivals Atletico, who inflicted a first league defeat of the season on Barcelona on Sunday night.

Those results mean there are just two points separating the big two at the top of La Liga and, with Barca still to go to the Bernabeu, Madrid are now in control of their own destiny.

Another plus for Manuel Pellegrini's side came with the news that striker Benzema had recovered from a groin problem quicker than expected and he is included in a 19-man squad to face his former club, which he left last summer. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Lyon (probable) -- Lloris; Reviellere, Boumsong, Cris, Cissokho; Kallstrom, Toulalan, Pjani; Govou, Lopez, Delgado.

Real Madrid (probable) -- Casillas; Ramos, Albiol, Garay, Arbeloa; Granero, L Diarra, Alonso; Ronaldo, Kaka, Higuain.

Lyon v Real Madrid

Live, Sky Sports 3, 7.45

Irish Independent

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