Ronaldo-less Real to be put to the test

Posted by Rob Train

Real Madrid faces Galatasaray in the Champions League on Wednesday needing just a single point to ensure that they top Group B and, in theory at least, benefit from a more favourable draw for the last 16: theoretically, because there are a lot of quality sides that might be in the other pot on December 16th. But, as the old adage goes, you can only beat what's put in front of you. In the meantime, Roberto Mancini's side is fighting for their own chances of qualification and are unlikely to roll over as they did in Istanbul in September under Fatih Terim, where Real inflicted Galatasaray's heaviest European defeat to date in a 6-1 massacre.

Carlo Ancelotti will be without the prolific Cristiano Ronaldo for the match, the Portugal captain picking up a thigh strain in last weekend's 5-0 defeat of Almeria in the league. Fabio Coentrao and Raphael Varane have also been ruled out, but in the pre-match press conference on Tuesday, the Italian sprang a minor selection surprise by suggesting that Xabi Alonso might be rested. "We have to be careful with Alonso because he's just come back from an important injury. Playing two games in four days could be a problem, so there's a chance he will rest and Casemiro will play instead."

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With Luka Modric suspended, that will leave Real with a very green midfield anchor -- in Champions League terms -- of the Brazilian and Asier Illaramendi to handle the attacking threat of human battering ram Didier Drogba and Burak Yilmaz. It will, though, provide some much-needed European experience for the pair, who will be required more regularly this season than perhaps Ancelotti had envisaged due to the long-term absence of Sami Khedira. Casemiro arguably did more in his cameo on Saturday to warrant the Italian's attention than Illarramendi did in a longer rehearsal, and coupling the pair in the engine room will certainly be an interesting window into Real's future in that area of the pitch.

In any case, for the home side there is little to be concerned about even if they lose on Wednesday, but it is not as if Galatasaray's record against Spanish teams is exactly intimidating; last season's 3-2 victory over Real in Istanbul was its first in 13 matches against Liga opposition. Real will be assured of reaching the knockout stages whatever the result in Madrid if Juventus beats Copenhagen in Turin. In the case that Real loses to Galatasaray and Copenhagen, and the Super League outfit gets the better of the Serie A side in the final round of fixtures, Real's superior head-to-head record against both will still seal top spot. Galatasaray would need to beat Real by at least six without reply and then knock nine past Juve to nick top spot, while Copenhagen would also require the sort of results that only betting rings can conjure.

In short, Real is sitting pretty in the group. So it seems a little odd that Ancelotti also ruled out playing Gareth Bale on the left on Wednesday, unless the Italian was engaging in a spot of mind games with his compatriot Mancini. "Bale plays on the right to take advantage of his shooting ability; I prefer my players to play on a different side to their stronger foot," the Real coach said. It's often been stated that picking a team from an armchair is the simplest thing in football, but surely I can't be alone in thinking that the availability of Marcelo and the Welshman's prowess on the left flank is a footballing fantasy. Ancelotti's words will hardly have been music to the ears of fit-again Angel di Maria either.

Still, on paper, the clash should pose no significant problems for Real, even without the phenomenal scoring record of Ronaldo. Karim Benzema and Bale have chipped in nine of Real's 22 goals over the past five games and Isco, who conceivably may start on the left if Ancelotti's reasoning is to be taken at face value, found the net in the Almeria game. Galatasaray's first-choice keeper Fernando Muslera is ruled out with a fractured toe and Wesley Sneijder, recently recovered from an adductor strain, played no part in the weekend's 2-1 win over Sivasspor. However, the Turkish side has lost just four in their last 21 European away fixtures, winning 10, so the Bernabeu is hardly likely to overawe the visiting side.

It promises to be an open, attacking contest that will part-answer a few squad questions for Real, and test the ability of the home side to cope in the absence of its talisman Ronaldo, who has bagged eight goals in four games in the competition so far this season. I wouldn't lump the house on it, but 3-1 to the home side sounds about right.


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