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Real to push CR7's Ballon d'Or claim
With Real Madrid’s qualification for the Champions League last 16 all but secured, Group B's clash with Galatasaray (live, FOX Sports 2, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET) at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu was set up as a night to support star attacker Cristiano Ronaldo’s claims for the 2013 Ballon d’Or.
A rally, organized by two Blancos supporters' groups and promoted by "mad Madridista" pundit Tomas Roncero, was planned as a retort to FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s infamous impersonation of Ronaldo at Oxford University -- and a perceived bias against their hero among those organizing the top individual prize in world soccer.
Even after FIFA extended the deadline in voting for the award, boosting Ronaldo’s chances of winning, 45,000 Cristiano masks are to be handed out to fans at the door on Wednesday night, and a huge banner acclaiming their hero unfurled pregame across the Bernabeu’s Fondo Norte end.
The only slight hitch is that the player himself -- who has staked his claim for recognition with a startling 32 goals in 22 games this season, including eight in the first four Champions League matchdays -- will miss the game through injury.
Ronaldo stepped out of Saturday’s routine 5-0 La Liga win at Almeria having felt pain in his thigh. Although he and coach Carlo Ancelotti both suggested immediately that the issue was not serious, a club statement released after tests on Monday confirmed a hamstring problem had been detected and the Portugal captain is set for some time on the sidelines.
His absence means that -- while fans dress up as CR7 in the stands -- his place on the pitch will be taken either by fit-again Argentine winger Angel di Maria or 20-year-old home-grown attacker Jese Rodriguez, who boosted his chances of a start with an impressive display at Almeria last weekend when he replaced Ronaldo and supplied two assists.
Ancelotti also has a decision to make in midfield, where Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti had fixed on his preferred shape and personnel, but has now been forced into a rethink by the knee injury which has likely ended Germany international Sami Khedira’s club season.
The Almeria game saw summer signings Isco and Asier Illarramendi given a chance, and both took advantage. Isco assisted Ronaldo’s opening goal and later netted a fine strike himself, while Illarra added extra balance alongside Xabi Alonso in the midfield engine room. With Luka Modric suspended on Wednesday, both emerging midfielders could start again here in an XI blending youthful energy with the experience of regulars Sergio Ramos, Iker Casillas and company at the back.
"We want to first assure qualification," Ancelotti told reporters during Tuesday’s press conference. "We have two games left and want to win them both. We need to be very intense [Wednesday], whoever plays. We have professional players who understand how difficult it is to pick the team here. They are all motivated, they all know they can play."
Galatasaray arrive in the Spanish capital still smarting from the Ronaldo-inspired 6-1 humbling they received at Madrid’s hands in the group’s opening game -- while knowing that score did not fairly reflect a game which was quite even in the first half.
However, the final score was an embarrassment and Lions coach Fatih Terim was fired soon after that defeat. Replacement Roberto Mancini, beaten 3-2 here last season with Manchester City, will want his two aging high-profile attackers to roll back the years if he is to get anything from the return fixture.
Didier Drogba knows Ancelotti well from their two seasons together at Chelsea, where they won Premier League and FA Cup medals, and will no doubt be keen to get one over on his old colleague. Wesley Sneijder, who spent a frustrating two seasons at the Bernabeu earlier in his career, will also be hoping to do better than his subdued display when Gala were beaten 3-0 at the Bernabeu in last season’s last 16 first leg.
The Turkish champions still have hopes of reaching that stage again this year. Qualification will likely be decided when they host Juventus in Istanbul in the group’s final game on Dec. 10, but Mancini says his team must now fight for every point they can get.
"I am still confident of qualifying," he said. "I am hopeful of a good result at Madrid. Then we will have everything to play for [against Juventus]. As they say in football, never say never."
The odds are against Mancini’s side, but with 45,001 Cristiano Ronaldos in the stand, and Drogba and Sneijder on the pitch, the visitors have at least a fighting chance.
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