Real Madrid and Wolfsburg both won on the road to open their round-of-16 ties in the Champions League, writes Liviu Bird.
Late drama on Wednesday gave Gent a chance in the second leg of its Champions League round of 16 match-up against Wolfsburg, while Real Madrid used two second-half goals of its own to get a leg up on Roma in their series. Wolfsburg still took an away victory, 3-2, while Madrid did the same by a 2-0 score.
Gent nearly conceded just seconds into its match, and Julian Draxler scored on either side of halftime before Max Kruse seemed to finish the series prematurely on the hour mark. However, the character of Gent wouldn’t allow it to lose without a massive fight, and Sven Kums and Kalifa Coulibaly scored in the 80th and 89th minutes, respectively, to keep the series within a goal.
In Rome, a nail-biting first half finished without either side getting a clear chance on goal. Roma stifled Madrid’s attack with a disciplined defensive block before Cristiano Ronaldo finally broke through in the 57th minute to give his side an important lead.
Jesé, off the bench four minutes earlier, added a second in the 86th to calm the team’s nerves heading into the home leg of the series.
Here are a few observations from Wednesday’s first legs:
Player of the Day: Julian Draxler (Wolfsburg)
Draxler, the German who executes moments of technical brilliance quite regularly, had two more on Wednesday. The way he turned a defender on the flank and calmly finished his first, then picked off a stray pass and chipped his finish over the goalkeeper for the second looked smooth and effortless.
Vieirinha’s assist on the first goal was equally as sublime, his run angled slightly wide to draw two defenders and open space in the center for Draxler to cut into and receive the return pass. That kind of awareness and execution is what made Draxler and Germany a world champion in 2014.
Roma’s attacking midfield workhorse Radja Nainggolan deserves an honorable mention here. His defensive work, supporting Roma’s forward press from the second line of defense, ensured Madrid couldn’t find any meaningful possession in midfield. He also broke forward into the attack as Roma countered, though he couldn’t help his team find an end product.
Moment of the Day: Ronaldo nets his away goal
It’s been replayed enough times over the past day or so, so it’s hardly worth recapping Ronaldo’s reaction in the pre-match press conference to a question of why he hadn’t scored on the road since Nov. 29, 2015. After some verbal sparring, he grabbed his jacket off the chair next to him and walked out purposefully, a gleam in his eyes suggesting he would rather let his actions do the talking.
For most of the first hour against Roma, Ronaldo’s game could be described as frustrating. Starved of service, he was booed mercilessly by the home fans anytime the ball came near him. The boos abated, though, after his goal in the 57th minute.
Marcelo played him behind on the left wing, and Ronaldo cut inside past Roma right back Alessandro Florenzi to get into a shooting position. Florenzi recovered enough to get a piece of Ronaldo’s shot, but he could only help the ball loop over the goalkeeper and inside the far post.
Not bad for an away goal, and it was one that his team desperately needed after being stifled by a strong Roma defense.
Both of Draxler’s goals were also worthy of the award on Wednesday. It’s hard to beat Ronaldo silencing the critics with one swing of his right leg, though.
Major Takeaway of the Day: Zidane’s midfield isn’t working properly
From the start, it was quickly apparent that the problems with Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane’s team structure that have barely cost it yet in league play would be an issue against Roma. Once again, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos stayed low, almost on top of the center backs, and stifled the build-up play.
Coupled with Roma’s excellent forward press from its front three and Nainggolan supporting from the second defensive line, Madrid was reduced to largely meaningless possession. Real kept the majority of the ball, but it couldn’t break the first line of pressure despite the numerical superiority because of Roma’s positional superiority—an important distinction in the effectiveness of any team’s spacing in possession.
The resulting ball circulation was largely in a “U” shape, from wing to wing through the center but never threatening to get into the dangerous central spaces. Neither team managed a shot on target in the first half, Madrid because it couldn’t access those spaces and Roma because it played largely on the counterattack, although Madrid got five on target to lead the category, 5-1, at full time.
Of course, Ronaldo’s goal didn’t need access to the central area in the build-up, and he created what little he needed with his one-on-one ability. Similar could be said of Jesé, who drove into the right-side half-space on the dribble before finishing powerfully. Still, against the type of teams that Madrid will face in the quarterfinals, semifinals and final—the likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona specifically—the midfield could be a real problem area.
How the Second Legs Shape Up
Gent’s dream Champions League run looked all but over until the final 10 minutes of its game. Wolfsburg scored three away goals and hardly looked uncomfortable on Wednesday until the 80th minute, its skill from the group stage that saw it eliminate Manchester United carrying over into the knockout round.
However, Kums and Coulibaly’s late goals changed that story. Gent has proven it can pull off miracles, and surmounting a three-goal deficit would clearly count as another chapter in the story that has been its incredible season. It’ll be difficult, though, heading away from home needing a result in Wolfsburg.
In the other series, Real Madrid certainly holds the advantage heading into its home match, especially after scoring two away goals. Roma would have needed to get something out of the game at the Olimpico—preferably a victory without conceding—to have a decent chance at the Bernabéu.
The late goal by Jesé probably sealed this result as well. Now it’ll take two goals to force extra time, and even if Roma scores early, it would still have to play an open game and risk being countered to equalize.