Champions League: Zidane makes European debut

Zinedine Zidane, who was a decorated player for Real Madrid in the competition, makes his bow in the Champions League as a coach and his first assignment is a tricky trip to Rome.

Zinedine Zidane, making his bow in the Champions League as manager, will bank on this season's top-scorer Cristiano Ronaldo (11 goals) to deliver the goods yet again.   -  Getty Images

Luka Modric seems to be flourishing under Zidane and has been in spectacular form, even helping himself to a stunning goal at Granada.   -  Reuters

Edin Dzeko, who recently ended his goal drought in Roma’s 3-1 win at Capri on Friday, will be expected to lead the line against Real Madrid.   -  Getty Images

The big fixture tonight will see Real Madrid travel to Roma in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16. Eliminated from the Copa del Rey and four points behind leader Barcelona, which has one game in hand, the Champions League presents the perfect distraction for Los Blancos and possibly its only shot at silverware this season.

Zinedine Zidane, who was a decorated player for Real Madrid in the competition, makes his bow in the Champions League as a coach and his first assignment is a tricky trip to Rome. As always, he will bank on this season’s top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo (11 goals) to deliver the goods for Madrid. The Portuguese superstar is in sublime form, having notched up seven goals in the last five league encounters. Ronaldo does have priors with Roma, having scored a bullet header at Stadio Olimpico in 2008 for Manchester United at the quarterfinal stage.

Little magician

However, there is more to this Real Madrid side than just the Portuguese. Playmaker Luka Modic is the spine of this Madrid side and under Zidane has been in sensational form, ensuring the frontline of abundant service. The Croat even scored a stunning winner at Granada and could be the key to Real’s pursuit of the Champions League. > Read: 'Ronaldo welcome at Roma'

 

Real Madrid seems to be the clear favourite and is expected to come out unscathed from this fixture and figures seem to back the narrative.

Real Madrid leads the five major European leagues in goals (70), shots (469), shots on target (187) and chances created (364) in league play this season. Its 19 goals in the group stage is the most in the competition, matched only by Bayern Munich.

Roma will need to improve its defence for any chance of progression to the next round having conceded 16 goals in the group stage, tied for the second-most in the competition. Roma is the basement boy in this cluster of teams as it has conceded six more than any other side that has reached the round of 16.

New bosses

>Just like Zidane, Roma also has a new-appointed coach in Luciano Spalletti who, like the Frenchman, commands only one month experience with his team. However, this is his second stint at the club.

Spalletti obviously has his task cut out and will hope Edin Dzeko, who recently ended his goal drought in Roma’s 3-1 win at Capri on Friday, and speedy winger Mohamed Salah nag Real’s defence. > Read: 'Roma won't put a cage around Ronaldo'

Roma doesn’t have a good history with Spanish teams this season, having endured an embarrassing 6-1 drubbing at Nou Camp in the group stages. However, it can seek inspiration from the past as the last time the sides met in competitive action, the Romans, incidentally under Spalletti in his first stint, knocked out Madrid in the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2008, courtesy of a 4-2 aggregate win.

Zidane is without Pepe (foot) and Gareth Bale (calf), although Marcelo is back in the squad following a shoulder problem. The experienced duo of Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi, who both played in the 2008 encounter, are expected to return for Roma following calf troubles.

Gent v Wolfsburg

While all the attention focuses on the Madrid-Roma game, Belgian side Gent will go about the formalities welcome Wolfsburg, at the Ghelamco Arena, in a match that looks like an optimal draw for both teams, with the Germans edging out as the slightest of favourites.

Wolfsburg’s forte is in the air and it will look to put balls in the box, having completed and attempted the most crosses in Bundesliga and the highest percentage in the competition (31 per cent). This advantage is multiplied by the fact that Gent is susceptible to crossers from opposition flanks, having allowed the fourth-highest completion percentage on crosses.

Wolfsburg’s striker Julian Draxler, replacement for Kevin De Bruyne, has had an average season so far but will like to build on his two goals in the last three league games.

For the home side, the go-to guy will be midfielder Danijel Milicevic, who created 15 chances in the group stage, nine more than anyone else on the team. He is also the top-scorer for Gent, scoring three of the team's eight goals during the group stages. His midfield partner Sven Kums, who recently signed a new contract until 2019, will also be pulling the strings from the centre of the park.

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