Real Madrid in last eight, but there is still much work to be done
Madrid — Cristiano Ronaldo is setting records again and Zinedine Zidane is back in favour after Real Madrid brushed aside Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) to reach their eighth consecutive Champions League quarterfinal.
After a bruising few months, in which Real have limped out of the running for every domestic honour, they saved their best for the Parc des Princes and what defender Sergio Ramos described as the club’s "favourite tournament". Their 5-2 aggregate victory over PSG was as convincing as it was comfortable. An unprecedented third straight Champions League triumph, the fourth in five years, is now within reach.
Ronaldo’s form this season has matched that of his team. Initially below his own high standards in La Liga he has sustained his performances in Europe and hit a peak in recent weeks. The Portuguese’s opener in Paris means he now has 15 goals in his last nine games overall and, in the Champions League, has scored in nine consecutive matches, equalling the record of Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Zidane, disregarded in February, is top dog in March, lauded for his tactical acumen and strength of character for picking a bench that included Gareth Bale, Isco, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.
But Real must turn their revival into something more concrete. Lose in the quarterfinals and the success over PSG will quickly retreat from view.
A squad that won the league title last season and owns three Champions League triumphs has lacked edge in the campaign’s early stages, but is sharpening with the major prize in sight.
"We’ve had difficult moments in the Liga and Copa del Rey, but it’s always difficult to maintain the same level while playing every three days," Zidane said.
"You can’t always win everything, but we’re winning now in the Liga and we have to look ahead to our game with Eibar on Saturday."
Zidane has treated domestic games almost like trials for Europe, rotating key players or trying others in unfamiliar positions. That strategy will be tested in April, given Real host city rivals Atletico Madrid in La Liga the weekend before their quarterfinal second leg.
By then, Bale will hope to have played his way back into favour. He was left out of the starting line-up in France, just as he had been for the first leg in Madrid three weeks before. Snubbed for Real’s two biggest games of the season so far, the Welshman would appear to have reached a crossroads in his relationship with Zidane, whose explanation afterwards was brief but revealing.
"Today it was important to have two lines of four, to defend well against their wide players," he said. "For sure Gareth would prefer to play more. All the players are important here, which is what I look at. He is one of them."