Unpredictable clashes add sizzle to Round of 16 slate
The UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 rolls on Wednesday with two intriguing and unpredictable matchups. Roma hosts Real Madrid in the marquee game of the day (live, FS1, FOX Sports Go, 2 p.m. ET), while the oddball pairing of Gent-Wolfsburg rolls out (live, FS2, FOX Sports Go, 2 p.m. ET) at the same time.
Real Madrid have it all to play for here. Four points behind arch-rivals Barcelona — who will play their game in hand on Wednesday — in a La Liga race that feels done and dusted, the European Cup is the biggest prize left available for new manager Zinedine Zidane. Zidane, 43, is making his Champions League managerial debut after he took over for the fired Rafa Benitez in January.
Since then, Zidane has seen his team fail to win just once in six games while pounding in the goals. Gareth Bale will be missing from Wednesday’s match but James Rodriguez appears to be back in form after enjoying a superb game against Athletic on the weekend. Where Real look to be thin is in the back, Marcelo returns but Pepe remains sidelined, meaning another outing for Raphael Varane alongside Sergio Ramos. Varane had a dreadful game on the weekend that saw him sent off late but praised the impact Zidane has made since taking the top job.
"He’s a coach who loves the sport and who likes to play attacking football. He likes to play quick possession football," Varane told UEFA.com. He’s added in more physical work in the training sessions, which is allowing us to press higher up the field. He’s close to his players. He likes to chat with us and show us videos so that we can improve the finer details."
He added: "The fact that he was a player and that he’s a young coach means that we have a close relationship. When I was a child I saw him play and he’s got an excellent reputation throughout the world and especially in France."
Roma are widely considered to be cannon fodder in this tie. Slinking into this stage courtesy of a weak group after winning just one match, Roma have slumped to fourth in Italy and fired manager Rudi Garcia four weeks ago. In his place came old head Luciano Spalletti, and he has righted the ship but their tendency to leak goals remains worrying. They coughed up more than any other team, 16, in this year’s group stages and will likely struggle to contain Cristiano Ronaldo.
Spalletti alluded to as much in his Tuesday press conference, saying "I’ve heard talk about sticking men on him but I won’t tell my players that three of them need to mark Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m not going to say to them that they’re worth a third of one Portuguese player, otherwise I would need a team of 33 to face a side of that quality."
What may make for a spectacle is the fact that both teams prefer to attack. Stephan El Shaarawy and Edin Dzeko can hurt you, and even with Bale sidelined, Real’s attacking trident is arguably only second best to Barcelona’s.
Gent-Wolfsburg is more of a curiosity, with two underrated teams facing off for a shot in the quarters. Wolfsburg will be missing a big threat as Bas Dost is expected to miss at least six weeks — and possibly require surgery — after teammate Dante fractured his left foot in practice. Despite scoring seven goals for Wolfsburg this season, Dost had fallen down manager Dieter Hecking’s pecking order, with Max Kruse preferred over Dost and Nicklas Bendtner.
Wolfsburg also have been sliding down the Bundesliga table. Currently eighth, they had won just one of their last five league games, that this past weekend over Ingolstadt. Gent, who are not a flashy side, are incredibly consistent. Sitting second in the Belgian league, they have continued the rich vein of form that made them surprise Champions League debutants this season.
Gent have never been to the Round of 16, and this is completely uncharted territory for the Buffalos. Gent have a couple decent players; Renato Neto is a decent playmaker; Kalifa Coulibaly can score goals. What they lack is experience and depth — but they are arguably catching Wolfsburg at the right time despite what Gent boss Hein Vanhaezebrouck told reporters on Tuesday
"I don’t believe that Wolfsburg are one of the weaker teams," Vanhaezebrouck said in a press conference. "None of the teams in the last 16 of the Champions League are weak. They finished runners-up in the Bundesliga, and for me that is the best league in Europe together with the Primera Division."
Information from FOXSoccer.com’s newswire services contributed to this report.