x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Real Madrid need to hurdle their Champions League stumbling block

Real Madrid may be a wealthy football powerhouse, but the Spanish giants have been unable to get beyond the Champions League last 16 since 2004.

Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain tumbles over during a draw with Lyon last March.
Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain tumbles over during a draw with Lyon last March.

Real Madrid recently topped football's rich list for the sixth year in a row. Their annual revenues of €438.6 million (Dh2.2 billion) saw them finish above their domestic rivals Barcelona and the English giants Manchester United.

Real were helped by the strength of the Euro against the British pound and a huge domestic television deal, but the result still surprised because for the sixth successive season, riches from the latter stages of the Champions League eluded Real.

They may be a wealthy football powerhouse, but Real have been unable to get beyond the last 16 since 2004.

It is a freakish statistic which has seen them eliminated by Juventus, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Roma, Liverpool and then Lyon last season.

Real have often powered through the group stages, but they keep tripping up at the same point, a gross underachievement for a club of their stature. Twenty different clubs have reached the last eight since Real last played there, many clubs with average crowds a third of those seen in the Bernabeu.

Real may point to bad luck. They were eliminated by Juventus in extra time over two legs in 2005.

The away goals rule saw them eliminated in 2007 by Bayern Munich, but much better is expected of the club which won the first five European Cups and have lifted the trophy a record nine times.

In Jose Mourinho, their coach, they boast someone who has won it twice, with Porto in 2004 and Inter Milan last season, both times when the odds were stacked against him.

Mourinho thrives in adversity and is nothing but meticulous. He has watched French team Lyon, his side's opponents in the last 16 tonight, three times in person since December's draw again paired the teams together.

Lyon triumphed last season, a result effectively condemned Manuel Pellegrini's to just the single season as coach at the Bernabeu.

Remember this is a club which sacked a manager - Vicente Del Bosque in 2002/03 - even though he had won the Spanish league title, such is the importance they place on the Champions League (they had won it under Del Bosque in 2000 and 2002).

Mourinho is the ninth coach to attempt to get Real into the last eight for the first time since 2004.

Real play in the always lively Stade Gerland tonight against a Lyon side who are fourth in Ligue 1. The sides have met four times and the Spaniards have never won, drawing twice at home and losing twice in Lyon. With domestic league success unlikely this season for Real, given Barcelona's dominance, tonight needs to be different and all the noises emanating from the Bernabeu are of confidence.

"I am looking forward to facing Lyon and to beating them," Karim Benzema, Real's former Lyon striker, said.

His place in any starting line-up would have been in doubt only two weeks ago, but he scored again on Saturday as Real beat Levante 2-0 to keep up some pressure on Barcelona at the top of the league. Real rested Xavi Alonso and Mesut Ozil.

Benzema's former side are much changed from the one he left in 2009, but he knows it will be tough.

"Lyon are a good team, but so are we," he said. "We are in good form and I hope that continues against Lyon."

He added: "Claude Puel is a very good coach. He works for a club that demands titles and participation in the Champions League year after year. Real have been favourites to go through in each of their last six fateful seasons, but Mourinho knows it is his biggest test so far as a coach in Spain.

"Every since we drew Lyon, we have been studying and learning about them," he said. "It's been years since Madrid made it past the last 16 and Lyon were the reason last year. We have studied all Lyon's possibilities and we are prepared for everything and anything."

Real's mental resolve appears far stronger under Mourinho. Saturday's win against Levante extended his personal unbeaten home run to nine years in league matches and only Barcelona are more fancied to win the Champions League.

It is hard to envisage a repeat of last season when Lyon scored a 75th- minute equaliser at the Bernabeu to silence the crowd and crush the players.

Their deflated actions revealed all the insecurities that accompany their disappointing results in the competition.

"We're going to play well and win," said a supremely confident Cristiano Ronaldo, the one player who is most likely to settle the tie.

He was bought from Manchester United to score the goals to settle such ties - as he did in United's triumph in 2008 - and will be judged by his actions rather than words.

 

sports@thenational.ae