Madrid, Spurs to gamble on stars' fitness for CL clash
The Champions League quarterfinals kick off Tuesday with defending champions Inter Milan hosting a German team no one thought would be here (Schalke 04) and Spanish giants Real Madrid squaring off against surprise package Tottenham Hotspur.
REAL MADRID vs. TOTTENHAM (2.30PM EDT, Fox Soccer)
The two highest scoring teams left in the quarterfinals are set to clash in what promises to be the match-up of the day. But both teams enter battered by injuries and come off bad weekends - and each seems set to take major risks in this first leg tie.
Real Madrid’s long-shot La Liga title chase was effectively ended with a shock loss to Sporting Gijon that left them eight points behind Barcelona. It was the first home loss for a Jose Mourinho coached team in over nine years, and means that Madrid’s priorities have shifted from the league to hopes of European glory.
Marcelo and Karim Benzema are definitely out for the first leg and Angel di Maria is unlikely to feature. But Mourinho indicated on Monday that he may take a gamble on the fitness of Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been one of his team’s most influential players this season. Ronaldo has been sidelined by a thigh injury, and team doctors have advised him not to take part in the first leg. Without that quartet, the heavy lifting will fall to Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira.
Real did get a boost with the shock return of Gonzalo Higuain on Saturday; the striker was expected to be out far longer after back surgery took him out of the team last November.
Spurs drooped to a scoreless draw with Wigan Saturday that left them three points behind Manchester City in the race for fourth place and the chance to play in next year’s Champions League.
Their current form has been worrying, and it’s largely due to their lengthy casualty list: Steven Pienaar, Younes Kaboul, Jonathan Woodgate, Ledley King and Alan Hutton are all out, leaving just Michael Dawson and Sebastien Bassong as first-choice defenders. In addition, William Gallas is a major question mark, though the defender did travel.
Gareth Bale, recently sidelined by a hamstring injury, is now expected to play. That's a major boost to the club, but manager Harry Redknapp took pains to tell reporters Monday afternoon that the winger had only trained at about "80%." If Bale cannot play, a heap of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Aaron Lennon and Rafael van der Vaart, and Spurs may have to play a more compressed, clogging style.
INTER MILAN vs. SCHALKE (2.30PM, Fox Sports Network Regionals)
Inter Milan got whipped on Saturday by bitter rivals AC Milan 3-0 in a bruising loss that manager Leonardo must hope is not a harbinger.
The defending champs almost didn’t make it here of course, pulling out a breathless 3-2 win over Bayern Munich to stun the Germans in one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the Champions League. Much credit for that win was given to Leonardo’s tactical switch; however, after this weekend’s skunking those same attack-minded tactics are being criticized as naïve. More worrying is Leonardo’s own history: he has yet to win a home Champions League match.
What Inter does have is a fully fit squad, and loads of talent. Diego Milito is ready to make his return to the starting lineup, alongside Wesley Sneijder and the deadly Samuel Eto’o.
Schalke’s been called a lot of things this season. The press likes the term "schizophrenic," their fans are more likely to use the word "awful." The erratic Germans currently sit 11th in the Bundesliga and have no hope of European play next season. As a result, the club recently sacked manager Felix Magath for Ralf Rangnick and are in a transition period. They will be without the injured Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and the ineligible Anthony Annan, but Christoph Metzelder is expected to play despite breaking his nose on Friday.
In a somewhat bizarre side note, the result of that Friday game isn’t yet known. Schalke were leading at St. Pauli 2-0 on Friday when that game was halted by the referee after a linesman was struck by a glass of beer hurled from the crowd. The Bundesliga is set to decide whether the game will be played out or whether St. Pauli will forfeit.
The two teams of course have a tangled history: Schalke famously won the 1997 UEFA Cup on penalties over Inter in a major upset.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.