Real Madrid en­joy­ing win­ning run

Cham­pi­ons League knock­out stage set to be­gin Tues­day

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - Sports - By Ciaran Fa­hey

Three-time de­fend­ing cham­pion Real Madrid ap­pears to have hit its stride again just in time for the re­turn of the Cham­pi­ons League.

The knock­out stages be­gin Tues­day with Manch­ester United host­ing Paris Saint-Ger­main and Porto go­ing to Roma in the first leg of the round of 16 games.

Madrid, con­fi­dent af­ter six wins and one draw from its last seven games across all com­pe­ti­tions, vis­its Ajax on Wed­nes­day, when the Span­ish side will hope to record its sev­enth suc­ces­sive win over the Dutch club.

Also Wed­nes­day, Tot­ten­ham hosts Bun­desliga leader Borus­sia Dort­mund.

Madrid’s hopes of claim­ing a record-ex­tend­ing fourth straight Cham­pi­ons League ti­tle ap­peared fan­ci­ful ear­lier this sea­son af­ter a run of five losses in seven matches across all com­pe­ti­tions, cul­mi­nat­ing in the 5-1 de­feat at Barcelona that left the side ninth in the Span­ish league and saw Julen Lopetegui dis­missed as coach.

Lopetegui’s suc­ces­sor, San­ti­ago So­lari, en­dured a dif­fi­cult start but he fi­nally ap­pears to have turned the side around with a run of good re­sults.

Satur­day’s 3-1 win at Atletico Madrid moved So­lari’s team into sec­ond place in the Span­ish league, just a few days af­ter Madrid took a 1-1 draw at Barcelona in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi­fi­nal.

So­lari, a mem­ber of Madrid’s 2002 Cham­pi­ons League-win­ning team, has got Croa­tia mid­fielder Luka Mo­dric back to his best af­ter his lack­lus­ter start to the sea­son. The 2018 Bal­lon d’Or win­ner was a piv­otal fig­ure in the win over Atletico.

So­lari’s de­ci­sion to pro­mote young play­ers like 18-year-old Brazil­ian Vini­cius Ju­nior and 22-year-old Span­ish left back Ser­gio Reguilon has also paid off.

While Madrid has been im­prov­ing, Ajax has been go­ing in the other di­rec­tion. Its de­fense has strug­gled since the Ere­di­visie re­sumed af­ter its win­ter break, con­ced­ing four in a draw with Heeren­veen and crum­bling even fur­ther in a 6-2 de­feat at ri­val Feyeno­ord.

Ajax bounced back with a 6-0 win over VVV Venlo but slumped to a 1-0 de­feat at Her­a­cles Almelo on Satur­day.

Ajax mid­fielder Frenkie de Jong will get a taste of things to come against Madrid af­ter agree­ing to trans­fer to Barcelona next sea­son in a deal that could cost 86 mil­lion eu­ros ($99 mil­lion). De Jong was sub­sti­tuted late in the sec­ond half Satur­day, but did not ap­pear to be se­ri­ously in­jured.

MAN UNITED VS. PSG: When Jose Mour­inho was fired in De­cem­ber, it looked like Manch­ester United could need to win the Cham­pi­ons League as the only way to qual­ify for the tour­na­ment next sea­son.

But Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer has reignited United’s top­four chal­lenge since be­ing ap­pointed man­ager un­til the end of the sea­son.

Lift­ing the Euro­pean Cup, just as Sol­sk­jaer did as a player with United in 1999, would make it hard for the club not to hand the job to the Nor­we­gian on a per­ma­nent ba­sis.

United was 11 points off fourth place when Mour­inho was fired, but the side has only dropped two points since then, and beat Ful­ham 3-0 on Satur­day.

PSG coach Thomas Tuchel has a ma­jor dilemma with star for­wards Ney­mar and Edin­son Ca­vani both out in­jured. Tuchel has to de­cide whether to pair French league top­scorer Kylian Mbappe with the in­ef­fec­tive Eric-Maxim Choupo-Mot­ing — who has scored only one goal in 12 league matches and was poor in Satur­day’s 1-0 win over Bordeaux — in a 4-4-2 against United. Tuchel could push Ju­lian Draxler fur­ther up in a 4-5-1, with Draxler ef­fec­tively op­er­at­ing as a play­maker be­hind Mbappe.

Draxler could also find him­self in a cen­tral mid­field role if Marco Ver­ratti is un­able to play against United. Ver­ratti only just re­turned from a sprained an­kle and played about an hour of the game against Bordeaux.

If Ver­ratti doesn’t play, Tuchel is likely to put cen­tral de­fender Mar­quin­hos as one of his two hold­ing mid­field­ers along with ei­ther Draxler or the newly signed Le­an­dro Pare­des.

ROMA VS. PORTO: The trip to Rome should hold no fear for Porto af­ter an im­pres­sive cam­paign so far. Group D win­ner Porto is un­de­feated in the Cham­pi­ons League since los­ing to Liver­pool in the first leg of last sea­son’s round of 16, while it hasn’t lost in the Por­tuguese league since a 1-0 de­feat at Ben­fica in Oc­to­ber.

Porto has won its last five Cham­pi­ons League matches to match a club record and claimed 16 points — more than any other team — in the group phase.

Roma had a seven-game win­ning Euro­pean run at the Sta­dio Olimpico un­til it was ended by a 2-0 de­feat to Madrid in Group G.


DORT­MUND: Dort­mund’s Cham­pi­ons League am­bi­tions could be un­der­mined by its propen­sity to con­cede late goals in games most sides would con­sider wrapped up and won.

Dort­mund squan­dered a 3-0 lead to draw 3-3 with Hof­fen­heim in the Bun­desliga on Satur­day, al­low­ing its league lead to shrink to five points. Lu­cien Favre’s side trav­els to London hav­ing failed to win any of its last three games, and it has in­jury wor­ries over cap­tain Marco Reus.

Reus, Dort­mund’s best player this sea­son with 13 goals and nine as­sists in 19 league games, has a mus­cu­lar in­jury picked up in the Ger­man Cup exit to Werder Bre­men last week.

Tot­ten­ham is def­i­nitely with­out top striker Harry Kane due to lig­a­ment dam­age in his left an­kle and mid­fielder Dele Alli due to a ham­string prob­lem.

But at least the side has Chris­tian Erik­sen, who cre­ated the opener be­fore scor­ing him­self as Tot­ten­ham warmed up for Dort­mund’s visit with a 3-1 win over Le­ices­ter on Sun­day.

Though it was third­placed Tot­ten­ham’s fourth suc­ces­sive Premier League win, coach Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino was un­happy his stretched squad had to play a day af­ter Dort­mund.

“I can­not un­der­stand why we’re play­ing with a mas­sive dis­ad­van­tage,” said Po­chet­tino, whose side is chas­ing a first tro­phy since 2008. “Twenty-four hours in this type of com­pe­ti­tion, the last 16, is a mas­sive dis­ad­van­tage.”

The game will be played at Wem­b­ley as Tot­ten­ham’s new sta­dium at White Hart Lane is de­layed.


Real Madrid de­fender Ser­gio Ramos cel­e­brates at the end of the Span­ish league foot­ball match be­tween Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid CF at the Wanda Metropoli­tano sta­dium in Madrid on Satur­day.


Paris Saint-Ger­main for­ward Kylian Mbappe, right, takes part in a train­ing ses­sion last week at the team’s Camp des Lo­ges train­ing grounds west of Paris.

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