Madrid aims to end APOEL's golden run

BY Jamie Trecker • April 3, 2012

Real Madrid looks to see off APOEL Nicosia Wednesday night in a game most consider to be a formality. The Spanish giants hold a 3-0 lead against the overmatched Cypriots, and are probably looking ahead to Bayern Munich.

In the other match, Chelsea looks to see out the job against Benfica and set up a meeting with Barcelona in the Champions league semifinal. It’s a pivotal evening for the Blues, who are looking to make the case that they once again belong among the top of the European heap.

Real, currently bidding for a La Liga, Champions League double in what might be Jose Mourinho's final season at the Santiago Bernabeu. With their complete domination in the first leg match in Cyprus, it‘s difficult to find a bookie willing to take a bet on the return game. Indeed, the only question seems to be whether Real will be looking for goals or merely content to play out the 90 minutes, while saving energy for what appears to be more significant tests ahead this month.

Mourinho's strike force is so dominant at home that it is likely one of the three members of the trident — Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuain, Cristiano Ronaldo — will score at least once. If that happens, this trio will hit the century mark this season.

If Ronaldo maintains his recent form — two goals, two assists in a 5-1 rout of Osasuna in La Liga last weekend — he could hit the half-century mark, himself, before the night is over. The former Manchester United star has registered 47 goals in all competitions this year, while clinging to a one-goal lead over Lionel Messi in the tight La Liga golden boot race.

Benzema and Higuain, who don't always play together, have 52 goals between them this campaign, many of which were created by Ronaldo. Not only is the Portuguese international scoring with machine-like regularity, he has effectively used his bursts of speed and made better playmaking decisions on the pitch. Right backs across Europe must dread the thought of facing him for 90 minutes this season.

This all added up to far more than APOEL could handle in the first leg. Even though the Cypriots come to Madrid as the longest shot of all long-shots, their arrival in a Champions League quarterfinal should not be put down to some strange quirk of fortune. Indeed, Mourinho praised his opponent after the first leg, when APOEL's rugged defense made Real wait until the final 15 minutes to make its territorial edge reflect itself on the scoreboard.

APOEL came into the competition and introduced several unknowns to European fans, as they swept into the knockout stage and got past Lyon in the first knockout stage. Goalkeeper Dionisios Chiotis has no doubt turned many heads, while midfielder Constantinos Charalambides has proved that he belongs in any alignment.

APOEL boss Ivan Jovanovic has also earned well-deserved praise for his tactics, utilizing an ultra-defensive formation balanced by the individual ability of Ailton and Ivan Trickovski to help prevent teams from flooding everybody forward. Jovanovic also substituted brilliantly in the earlier rounds, finding just the right moment to introduce Gustavo Manduca or Esteban Solari into a match when a tiring opponent could be exploited at the last moment.

Not surprisingly, none of that mattered when one of the game's true giants arrived in Cyprus. APOEL did not manage a shot on goal in that first leg. The trip to Madrid could be daunting, but for APOEL, should properly be seen as a reward for a job well done.

In Stamford Bridge, the conversation has shifted from “old guard” to “team,” as Chelsea battled having dirt shoveled on top of it just a month ago. Profiting from the swoon of Tottenham Hotspur and the ability of Arsenal to fall asleep at the least opportune times in the Premier League, Chelsea have a chance to slip into an automatic slot for next season’s Champions League.

There, of course, is the small matter of Benfica, a team which Chelsea can, and did, defeat but still cannot take for granted. There is also little doubt that Chelsea is a team filled with players nearing the end of their shelf life. You can speak all you wish about Frank Lampard and John Terry’s “will” to win for the veterans, but it’s hard to ignore their ages and accumulated mileage.

Fortunately, in Benfica, Chelsea’s seem to have found a team they can contain. Alex Witsel and Bruno Cesar were wholly ineffective in the first leg, the latter being removed after little over an hour. Current Blues manager, Roberto Di Matteo, smartly clogged the channels and both David Luiz and Ramires impressed in their shifts. Luiz unfortunately picked up an ankle injury against Aston Villa Saturday and is a big doubt, meaning Gary Cahill may have to slot in.

The Champions league quarterfinals conclude on Wednesday exclusively on FOX Soccer. Our coverage begins at 2 p.m. EDT and if you are away from your TV, you can also follow the match via FOX Soccer or our dedicated Twitter feed, @FoxSoccerTrax.


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