Real Madrid go into the second Leg of their Champions League semi-final with Manchester City as favourites to reach Milan later in the month. It promises to be an electric night at the Santiago Bernabeu and one that will go a long way to defining their season.
Defeat is almost unthinkable. Although they have closed the gap on Barcelona since Zinedine Zidane took charge and won all of their last 10 League matches, the reality is that Madrid are still highly unlikely to finish third in La Liga, even if they win their final two domestic games, and that – to put it – bluntly represents failure for a club of their stature.
Therefore Europe’s premier club competition is, as it so often has been, Madrid’s shot at glory this season, and it promises to be a key night in the careers of one or two of their current protagonists.
Zidane, for one, would surely guarantee his future at the helm by leading Madrid into their 14th European final, 14 years after he did likewise as a player. Failure to get it right, though, on his biggest night yet as head Coach may raise one or two questions once more about his long-term credentials, particularly against a Manchester City side who have flattered to deceive for most of the campaign.
On the pitch, this is a massive night for Gareth Bale, who has really stepped up to the plate over the past fortnight in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Welshman has netted crucial winners in late victories over Rayo Vallecano and Real Sociedad in the club’s last two League matches, but he has a real point to prove in this competition.
He has netted just two goals in 16 Champions League matches since helping Los Blancos win the 2014 final. Over the same period, Cristiano Ronaldo has netted a remarkable 26 times, and with the Portuguese star not yet 100 percent fit, there is extra onus on Bale to deliver the goods and prove he is capable of both emerging from Ronaldo’s shadow and ultimately filling his boots as the talisman of this team.
A further intriguing sub-plot involves James Rodriguez, who may get 90 minutes to salvage his Madrid career. Injuries to Karim Benzema and Casemiro mean he is likely to start the game, and the Colombian – perhaps more than anyone – needs to put in a big performance as he looks to prove he has a long-term future at the club.
The injury to Benzema could also give either Lucas Vazquez or Borja Mayoral the biggest night of their young careers so it promises to be a fascinating evening at the Bernabeu, which will be rocking again as it did against Wolfsburg in the quarter-final second leg. The task here, in theory at least, should be simpler, with the teams level at 0-0, but one moment of magic from a Sergio Aguero or Kevin De Bruyne and this tie would be on an absolute knife-edge.