FOX Soccer Exclusive
Madrid, Juventus still in second gear
Wednesday’s Champions League Group B clash between Real Madrid and Juventus at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu (live, Wednesday, FOX Sports 2, 2:30 p.m. ET) brings together two of European football’s authentic giant clubs -- and two teams still waiting to really get their seasons started.
Madrid has breezed through its two group games and sits atop Group B on maximum points, but has been stumbling in La Liga with new coach Carlo Ancelotti still searching for tactical balance in his team and incoming record signing Gareth Bale yet to find his fitness.
Meanwhile, UEFA’s stats show that Juve took 52 shots at goal in its opening two European games -- but only scored three goals in surprising draws against expected group also-rans FC Copenhagen and Galatasaray.
The Spanish side had an easier warm-up for this week’s game -- cruising to a straightforward 2-0 win over a weak Malaga side at the Bernabeu on Saturday to remain third in the La Liga table, in the process closing the gap on leaders Barcelona to three points.
$130 million summer signing Bale -- whose back injury was the subject of heated media debate pregame -- played the final 15 minutes and somewhat fortunately won the penalty which Cristiano Ronaldo converted to seal the win late on.
Speaking after the game the former Tottenham winger followed Ancelotti and Madrid president Florentino Perez in rubbishing a recent Marca story that he would need an operation to fix a slipped disk in his back. But he did not sound confident of being 100 percent fit to face Juventus.
"I have to take things one step at a time,” Bale said. “I have not had too much training or games, it is all about building me up now. Obviously I will do what the manager says, but yeah I just need to introduce myself now and prepare myself right for the rest of the season."
Bale should really be eager to feature as this is just the type of game he moved to Madrid to play in. Through the decades these teams have met 14 times in Europe’s top competition, most famously when Predrag Mijatovic’s only goal of the game brought a seventh European Cup trophy for Madrid in the 1997-98 final.
Wednesday's fixture also reunites many old friends. Ancelotti coached Juventus between 1999 and 2001, when current Bianconeri boss Antonio Conte played in midfield alongside Zinedine Zidane -- who is now Madrid's assistant coach. The current squads also share many links, and Juve captain Gianluigi Buffon spoke this week of his respect for Madrid counterpart Iker Casillas.
While Casillas looks set to start on Wednesday as Ancelotti continues to rotate his goalkeepers, questions over Buffon’s current form surfaced again on Sunday -- when the 35-year-old goalkeeper was at fault as his side threw away a 2-0 lead to lose 4-2 at Fiorentina.
Conte was outraged that his side, often praised for its mental strength and ability to close out games, had somehow sabotaged a winning position to slip five points behind early Serie A pace-setters Roma.
"Something strange and unthinkable happened," the coach said afterwards. "We lost a match that we had been dominating. In 10 minutes we destroyed all the hard work, both during and before the game. We have to take these 10 nightmare minutes and learn from them."
Madrid is also currently in a learning phase, surprisingly for a team featuring the world’s two most expensive players, and with such an experienced coach. But its youthful starting lineup on Saturday featured four of Spain’s current European Under-21 champions, including center-forward Alvaro Morata and right back Dani Carvajal.
Ancelotti was cautiously positive afterwards, suggesting his players now realized what he wanted from them. "I liked the attitude of my players," he said. "I expect to see the same attitude in the coming games. We worked harder in defense and were more focused. That was the difference."
Even with this improvement it is likely that experienced heads Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and Alvaro Arbeloa will come back into the side on Wednesday, while pivotal midfielder Xabi Alonso returned to training on Monday morning and could be set for a place on the bench alongside Bale.
Conte also has selection decisions to make, with Spanish striker Fernando Llorente yet to really convince since his summer rivals, and key Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal now a doubt for the game with a muscle problem.
Given their greater need for the points, and greater all-round cohesion [last weekend aside] the Italian side look slight favorites for Wednesday’s game. But predictions are tough given the many question marks around both teams.
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