Watch out Europe - Madrid are on form

Posted by Nick Rigg

La Decima is a step closer for Real Madrid after Los Blancos brought their Champions League group stage campaign to a close in record-breaking fashion in Copenhagen on Tuesday night.

A trip to Denmark may not usually bring the trepidation that accompanies the traditional European giants such as Juventus, Barcelona or Manchester United, but Copenhagen had not been beaten at home in the group stages, not until Carlo Ancelotti's men, already having booked their qualification for the knockout stages, rolled into town.

Goals from Luka Modric, a superb solo effort, and Cristiano Ronaldo, smashing another record as the first man to score nine goals in the group stages, taking his tally to 15 for the calendar year (yet another record), helped make Madrid's casing thus far a near-perfect one. Madrid also became the first club to score in 31 successive Champions League matches, beating Barcelona's 30, and were just one goal away from breaking the competition's group stage scoring record.

Not a bad start in the quest for La Decima, Carlo.

Madrid's success so far in Europe, coupled with their ever-growing form in La Liga, has left many believing this is the year for the 10th European crown. Ronaldo is favourite to win the Ballon d'Or and Gareth Bale is proving an equal nuisance on the other flank. Madrid's strength in depth is frightening, they have an experienced Champions League winner at the helm and the camp is a happy one. Madrid are firing -- watch out Europe.

So when the draw for the knockout stages is made on Monday, Madrid need fear no one. Los Blancos will be the last team the other 15 want to pull out of the hat for the 'business end' of the competition.

Bayer Leverkusen, Olympiakos, Manchester City, Arsenal, Zenit St. Petersburg, Schalke and AC Milan are Madrid's possible opponents in the round of 16. All tricky in their own respects, but some more so than others. Last season's finalists, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, were not too far off being in that list, either. Madrid will probably be grateful for their absence from it at this stage.

That's not to say they'll look forward to facing some of the competition's big-hitters such as City, Arsenal and Milan, but on-song Madrid won't fear them, either.

The Premier League duo will probably be the toughest draw out of the seven possibilities. Arsenal top the English league thanks to a fine start to the season and have come through the toughest group, beating Dortmund and Napoli along the way. A certain Mesut Ozil will be keen to prove his worth with a potential clash against his former employers, too. City have looked formidable at home domestically, racking up the goals, but have struggled more on their travels. That said, a 3-2 victory at Munich was impressive and City caused Madrid plenty of problems in last seasons's competition. Both sides have improved since then. For Ozil, include Manuel Pellegrini in the revenge stakes for that potential tie, too.

Milan facing Madrid would be a tie for the football traditionalists, the competitions's greatest two clubs going head-to-head. It will probably be billed as one of the ties of the round but the Rossoneri are struggling domestically and will be unfancied over two legs against Madrid. Despite their struggles on home soil, Milan are the only Italian side to progress, with Juventus and Napoli, both vastly superior in Serie A, bowing out in dramatic fashion.

While Los Blancos struggled against Dortmund last season, Leverkusen are coming between Germany's big two this season, with Sami Hyypia's side sitting second in the Bundesliga, with a recent victory over Dortmund cementing their spot as playing second fiddle to Bayern. They're not setting Europe alight, however, and got thumped by Manchester United in the group stages. Maybe success domestically and on the continent is a step too far this season, but Madrid should not, and will not, underestimate them.

Olympiakos, Zenit and Schalke present probably the more comfortable matches for Ancelotti and his men to contend with, on paper at least. A trip to Russia will be far from ideal, though Zenit slugged their way through their group, and the Greeks' welcome is traditionally a warm one, but a draw against any of this trio will be looked at as a favourable one for Madrid.

That aside, last season Los Blancos would have feared a Champions League knockout match against one of Europe's big boys, but a year on it will be Europe's big boys fearing them.


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