REAL MADRID - WOLFSBURG
'Noventa minuti in Bernabéu' still remains a Real long time
Real Madrid's season is on the line as Zinedine Zidane prepares to name his El Clásico XI for Los Blancos' crunch Champions League clash with Wolfsburg.
Comebacks are all about anticipation, excitement and emotion, but nowadaways they are all about the digital age too - and yesterday, Real Madrid's players took to social media to spread the message of hope and optimism ahead of tonight's Champions League quarter-final second leg against VfL Wolfsburg, which they go into trailing 2-0 from the opener.
And, in the same vein, it's Twitter, Facebook et al that have brought together the supporters to march together alongside the team bus; a gathering of fans scheduled in a spirit lying somewhere between supporting their heroes and demanding a result from them.
What's clear is that the time-old formula of call to honour + testosterone + a Bernabéu turned up to fever pitch - Real's traditional formula - is now a little past its sell-by date. That's also how boss Zinedine Zidane sees it.
Speaking before the crunch clash, Los Blancos' head coach - who did appear to be relishing the all-or-nothing nature of their assignment - repeated on several occasions that they'll only come out of this alive "with football and with the ball".
During the run-up to the last-eight return, Real have set about gathering a raft of evidence that their goal is within reach. Of the team's nine home results so far under Zidane, six would send them through and one would force extra-time. Madrid's goals-per-game average has been 4.1, while in the four Champions League matches they've played on home turf they haven't conceded once - and have scored 15.
On top of that, visitors VfL Wolfsburg are an outfit that don't travel well at all; to the extent that only Eintracht Frankfurt have a worse away record than Dieter Hecking's men in the Bundesliga this term.
The indications are that, despite Real's need for goals, Casemiro will play in midfield. Put simply: a coach doesn't heap the kind of praise on a player that Zidane did yesterday if he's going to be sitting next to him in the dugout. It almost went without saying that the game plan encompasses the full ninety minutes; no room for furious initial fifteen-minute onslaughts followed by an hour and a quarter of frantic, mismanaged haste.
'Zizou' will approach the affair with much his usual idea: with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric creating and, with Karim Benzema fit again, the BBC up front. Benzema is operating at two goals a game at home in the Champions League, a strike rate matched by Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese ace's European Cup voracity.
So, the XI that won El Clásico, Real's most commendable performance so far this year, are set to play. With Dani Carvajal at right full-back, of course; because he's better than Danilo, and because you can't ask the crowd to back you to the hilt and then leave them in a state of extreme vexation at the same time.
Wolfsburg, meanwhile, have a few trump cards to play, the chief ace up their sleeve being the two goals they take with them to the Spanish capital. To go with that, there'll undoubtedly be a behind-closed-doors motivational cry that Real and all that surrounds the club disrespected them by underestimating them from the moment the draw was made.
They've also sought protection via the preventive strike launched by Klaus Allofs (himself on the wrong end of a 5-1 Bernabéu beating by the Real of the Quinta del Buitre in the 1986 UEFA Cup final), the sporting director speaking of his wariness of the refereeing decisions that might be thrown up in Madrid. However, Hecking, well aware that UEFA do not take kindly to such warning shots, looked to play that down in his pre-match press conference.
If Naldo makes it (he trained yesterday), Wolfsburg will keep faith with the heroes from the first leg at the Volkswagen Arena. They'll once again set up without an out-and-out number nine (leaving their two top scorers, Max Kruse and Bas Dost, on the bench) and will place their counter-attack in the hands of the guile and invention of Julian Draxler and Bruno Henrique.
The Bernabéu has witnessed 22 comebacks and 16 failed attempts, which include their last five goes. Despite that, nothing suggests that Juanito's 'noventa minuti' do not remain as long a time as ever at the stadium. At the end of the day, that's the name of the game. To make them feel never-ending for Wolfsburg.