x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Benzema back where it all began

The striker's knowledge of his former club Lyon will be crucial for Real, who have lost all four previous encounters, as they travel to France.

Cristiano Ronaldo, centre, is Real Madrid's top scorer in the Champions League.
Cristiano Ronaldo, centre, is Real Madrid's top scorer in the Champions League.

Real travel to France inspired by prospect of a Bernabeu final When the draw for the last 16 was being made, Karim Benzema said he hoped Real Madrid would draw his former club Lyon. It was said in jest, but his wish was granted and he will return to his roots tonight for the first time in opposition colours. The French side took him in at the age of nine and moulded him into one of the world's most highly-rated striking talents.

Benzema is hoping to play after a muscle injury, but his knowledge of Lyon will be crucial. "They always stand up to the challenge of playing an important game," he said. "It may seem they currently have problems and focus mainly on defending, but we should watch out." Real have failed to beat Lyon in four previous encounters and, as mentioned constantly in the Spanish press, they have not reached the quarter-finals since 2004.

The pressure is immense, particularly with the final at their own Bernabeu stadium in May. Kaka, Real's Brazilian play- maker, said that has spurred them to emulate the 1957 side led by Alfredo di Stefano, which won the European Cup at their home ground. "This could be 10th time Real win the trophy and it is at the Bernabeu, and gives everyone great hope," he said. "It's a great motivation for the fans, the players and directors."

So too is a final showdown with their rivals for both Primera Liga and European honours. Kaka revealed: "If I had to choose a final opponent, it would have to be Barcelona. I'd rather play against a rival, than a team I played for like AC Milan." Lyon have their own ambitions and expectations. In the past few years, they have had the weight of a nation on their shoulders; desperate for the elite trophy to wipe away the memories of 1993 when winners Marseille had their victory spoiled by match-fixing allegations.

French football has suffered as the cash-rich teams have taken their most promising players each year. Benzema was the latest to leave for Madrid last summer. But a bigger stage has proved to be no stage at all for the frontman, who has struggled to settle and has been left in the shadow by the impressive form of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese's double against Xerez on Saturday made it 17 goals in 17 games.

"I played against him when he was at Manchester United," said the Lyon defender Cris. "It's not easy and you need a lot of experience. But we shouldn't think about all the great players Real have. We shouldn't be scared of them." With Benzema and Juninho, the Brazilian midfielder, gone, Lyon are no longer reliant on one or two match-winning individuals, but have a team that will provide a difficult test for Real.

Claude Puel, their manager, has been criticised for a defensive approach that has left them off the pace in Ligue 1, but it could suit them for the Champions League and counter the attack-minded style of Real. The midfielder Miralem Pjanic added: "We know we're not the favourites, but we also know we have enough quality to do something against them." @Email:akhan@thenational.ae Lyon v Real Madrid, 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport + 4