<
>

Ronaldo form boosts Madrid but pundits, fans wary of Juventus in Champions League

Most Real Madrid fans and pundits were happy when the Champions League quarterfinal draw pitted their team against a Juventus side well-beaten by Madrid in last season's final. But as the tie has drawn closer, some apprehension has appeared. Juve are tough to beat over two legs, and have an excellent knockout record against their opponents this week.

Madrid's rollercoaster season appears on the up again after their 5-2 aggregate win over Paris Saint-Germain in the last round, a result which dispelled the doom and gloom which had settled over the Bernabeu. Zinedine Zidane's side had fallen completely off the pace in La Liga, and been embarrassingly humbled in the Copa del Rey by neighbours Leganes. But a Champions League run, in the competition that defines Madrid, acts as a saviour.

The initial reaction to getting Juve in the last eight was to recall last May's final in Cardiff, when the Serie A side were steamrolled 4-1, as well as relief that a Clasico had been avoided at this point.

"Madrid fans are confident," says Jaime Rodriguez, who covers Madrid for El Mundo.

"Maybe they would have preferred Sevilla or Roma, but Juventus were better than the others in the draw. Nobody in the club hierarchy or in the dressing room wanted Barcelona in this round. Madrid feel capable of eliminating Juventus, for the memory of Cardiff, although they have maximum respect for the Italians."

Juanma Trueba of Onda Cero radio and alacontra.es says that as the days have passed, Madrid fans have remembered difficult ties against Juve.

"The first reaction after the draw was satisfaction as Real Madrid avoided Barcelona and [Manchester] City," Trueba said. "But Madrid are not so happy now. Playing against Juve is like having a wisdom tooth taken out. Confidence is high after knocking out PSG. But there is less certainty now."

There is no main reason for Madrid's better performances through recent months, says Hugo Cerezo of Marca, although Cristiano Ronaldo's stunning return to form stands out.

"I believe it is a mix of everything, in the same way as the bad results had multiple causes," says Cerezo. "The main one now is the impetus given to the team by Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio, who have lifted the competition for places and helped the team to play better and with more intensity. Knocking out PSG was a big boost. And Cristiano has returned to being the forward he always was."

Rodriguez says that Zidane's decision-making through difficult times helped the defending champions get back their self-belief.

"I believe the key for their self belief was the comeback against PSG at the Bernabeu, maybe with a bit of good fortune," he says. "That reinforced the team. Zidane's role has been important. Maybe he erred glaringly against Leganes in the Copa del Rey, but against PSG he got all his decisions correct."

"Zidane achieved for the team not to blow up, and that deserves praise," Trueba adds. "Bad results pollute the atmosphere of a squad, and Madrid were saved from that. From there it is obvious that the Champions League hymn is celestial music for Real Madrid. There is a love story between the club and the competition."

The Frenchman made some gutsy calls in both XIs against PSG, leaving out Gareth Bale for the first leg, and then changing tactics and picking less high-profile wingers Lucas Vazquez and Asensio for the return in Paris.

That second decision was conditioned by midfielders Luka Modric and Toni Kroos both being below 100 percent fit. But Zidane has another selection dilemma ahead of Tuesday's first leg in Turin, with Isco's hat trick for Spain against Argentina last week, and Bale's double in Saturday's 3-0 La Liga win at Las Palmas also well-timed.

"If Cristiano and Benzema have no fitness issues, the most likely is that Bale will be on the bench again," Trueba explains. "It worked in Paris, so I don't see why it shouldn't work in Turin. In the centre Casemiro, Kroos and Modric are automatic picks, so the only thing missing is who accompanies them -- Lucas, Asensio, [Mateo] Kovacic or Isco."

Cerezo predicts that Lucas' work ethic will win him the nod at Juventus Stadium.

"Lucas is competing with Asensio, Bale and Isco for one place, and he offers more defensive work and coverage of the pitch, ideal for such high demands games," he says. "He is not as creative as Asensio, but what he brings off the ball is very highly valued by Zidane."

Juve may have folded after half time in Cardiff last June, but they have won all four two-legged meetings between the clubs during the Champions League era, most recently 3-2 on aggregate in the 2014-15 semifinals. The traditional Italian ability to bend but not break at moments during the 180 minutes, as suffered by Tottenham in this year's round-of-16, is grudgingly respected around the Bernabeu.

"I've no doubt Juve will make it difficult," Trueba says. "Finals are Real Madrid's favourite territory, but within a two-legged tie more things can happen. I have the impression we will enjoy ourselves."

Rodriguez predicts it will be tight but home advantage in the return, plus the law of averages, should see Zidane's side through to the semifinals for an eighth successive year. "It will be a battle, but I believe it will end up with Madrid on top at the Bernabeu," he says.

"It's very difficult statistically for a team to knock out Madrid five times in a row. It would be a record."