Real Madrid Advances in Champions League but Has Reason to Worry


10hughes-master675

Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, left, scored the first goal Tuesday in a 2-0 victory over Roma in the Champions League. Madrid advanced to the quarterfinals for a sixth straight year.

 

LONDON — Real Madrid needs to win the Champions League the way a capsized crew needs a life raft. Its team, one of the most expensive ever assembled, won at home, 2-0, to complete what looked like a rout of Roma over the two legs.

Looks can be deceiving.

Though Cristiano Ronaldo scored again for his 90th goal in 123 Champions League appearances, the evidence is that the good ship Real Madrid is less of a force and less complete than Barcelona or Bayern Munich, the two most impressive teams in this year’s tournament.

For more than an hour Tuesday in Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, it was Roma that created the better chances.

Created, and squandered.

If only Roma had a finisher remotely like Ronaldo, it would have comfortably wiped out the two-goal deficit it dug for itself after losing the first leg. “I’m asking my team to do the impossible,” Roma Coach Luciano Spalletti had said before the game in Madrid. “The way they are training allows me to ask that. But we mustn’t be weak mentally.”

Roma has excelled in Italy this year — it has won seven straight in Serie A — and Spalletti easily identified the obvious flaw in Madrid’s lineup. He told his players, particularly the speedy Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah, to get behind Madrid’s left back, Marcelo, and create havoc there.

Salah did that part to perfection. Marcelo is adventurous at going forward and linking up with Ronaldo, but the Brazilian has barely any inclination to fulfill his defensive duties.

Madrid Manager Zinedine Zidane, a marvelous player who now is a rookie coach, appeared happy enough to pick Marcelo. Why? Perhaps because what Zidane best knows and loves about soccer is attacking and exploiting the opponent’s weakness. He did it par excellence as a Real Madrid forward. And earlier this week, one of his players, Raphaël Varane, said, “He is a coach who loves the game and loves attacking football. He likes movement, moving the ball around quickly and playing higher up the pitch.”

Marcelo, then, is a definite Zidane pick. But the risks are obvious: On Tuesday night, Salah (twice), Edin Dzeko and Alessandro Florenzi were in good position to score, one on one, against the Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas.

Only once did the goalkeeper need to show his agility to make the save. The other three shots went wide. And Spalletti’s face on the sideline showed that he feared that once such opportunities came Real Madrid’s way, there would be no such wastefulness.

Madrid, to be sure, was carving out its own openings: Statistics had Real having 37 shots on goal to Roma’s 12. But that statistic didn’t tell the whole truth.

Most of Real Madrid’s attempts came from long range, against a well-organized double line of Roma defenders. And most were either off target or so tame they were mere catching practice for Roma keeper Wojciech Szczesny.

When he was finally beaten, it was by Ronaldo, of course. A week or so back, when some in Madrid’s media were prematurely calling time on Ronaldo’s career, his response was to tell them to look at the statistics because they never lie.

Ronaldo was booed by a sizable portion of the crowd Tuesday, but in a handful of minutes, between the 64th and 68th, he scored the first goal and set up the other by James Rodríguez.

Neither finish was a work of art. Rodríguez’s shot went straight through the legs of the goalkeeper, and Ronaldo’s was tapped in from close range, although it did require him to think and move quickly to reach the low cross by Lucas Vázquez.

Vázquez is that rarity, a player actually produced by the Real Madrid youth system. The 24-year-old had to wait a long time for his breakthrough season in Real’s white, and he spent last season at Espanyol, the other club in Barcelona. Vázquez’s role on Tuesday was to come off the bench and replace Gareth Bale — recently returned from injury — once he tired.

After linking up with Luka Modric, Vázquez danced past a defender and demonstrated that he had the talent to shine, if his club allowed him to show it.

Ronaldo now has 353 goals in 336 games with Madrid, and no one would deny that he is a superstar. Yet, the Madrid fans boo him. The older supporters look beyond the goal totals and want less hubris. They saw it in previous stars like Alfredo Di Stéfano and, later, in Zidane.

And Tuesday, the crowd that harangued Ronaldo gave a standing ovation to a man who never played for them. As the game neared its end, Roma sent it its longtime magician, Francesco Totti.

Now 39, Totti first wore Roma’s distinctive purple and golden yellow when he was 16. Real once bid for him, but Totti always was a one-team kind of a guy.

He can no longer inspire his beloved team to victory, as he once could with instinctive and almost insolent guile.

But as he made a cameo during his 595th game for Roma — most likely his last appearance at the Bernabéu — Totti was given the ovation denied to the man who scored the game winner, Ronaldo.

Spalletti reiterated after the contest that his team needed, somehow, to toughen up on the mental side of the game, something Totti never had a problem with.

But by fielding Totti at the end, he demonstrated that Roma is also woefully short in what Madrid has in abundance: the ability to score goals. And Real, which has no chance to win its league and has only the Champions League left to play for, advanced to the quarterfinals for the sixth year in a row.