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First or second, Real Madrid’s path to Cardiff is not easy

Drawing Arsenal would be unideal

UEFA Champions League: Arsenal v Real Madrid
Real Madrid don’t have good memories from playing Arsenal in the Round of 16
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Aubamayeng had just broken free in-behind Sergio Ramos. Deceptively onside, his run fooled everyone, and what started as a routine attack for Real Madrid ended in a conceded goal which alters their destiny in this year’s Champions League - or at least alters their path to destiny. When Emre Mor picked Marcelo’s pocket in the 89th minute, he also left him for dead - bleeding-out in the final third of the pitch and helplessly caught up the field with no cover. The Brazilian watched in horror as his team went from first place to second in seconds. What a gong show.

The ball from Mor was sublime, as was the devious run from Aubamayeng whose pace blitzed Zidane’s backline with ease before sliding a square ball to Marco Reus en route to Dortmund’s equalizing goal at the Bernabeu. 28 minutes earlier, Aubamayeng had started the comeback after Carvajal fell asleep and Real Madrid’s defense was obliterated by a Julian Weigl special.

That Aubamayeng is something, isn’t he. Beyond being a rising fashion icon within a sport where he regularly humiliates defenders for a living - he’s a good cat. There’s something mysterious with how he thrusted his team into salvaging a draw and topping the group yesterday. Was he really doing Madrid a disservice, or was he simply doing his part and allowing them to carve out an easier path to the final? He is Madridista, after all. After the match, he reiterated his childhood dreams again: "Yes [I still want to play for Real], it's a promise I made to my grandfather."

And who’s pulling their hair out because of Aubamayeng’s performance, exactly? Zidane says he’s “angry”, and that this match was “a final” - but how much sleep is he really losing here? He should be angry, to be sure. Real Madrid could have cushioned themselves into a three-goal lead. Instead, their wing-backs made schoolboy errors and his midfield anchor showed why he’s so good yet so bad at the same time.

All it takes is one mistake - or two. Sharp focus for 89 minutes is rendered fruitless if oversight costs you in the remaining one. There are areas to improve regardless of who the opponent is moving forward, and an unbeaten run counts for nothing in the same way.

But that’s about what happened on the pitch - not so much the end product of the standings. Does first place really matter? Of course it does, but this season, it also doesn’t - not in this particular context anyway. The degree of how much it matters will ultimately come down to what Monday’s draw tells us. One way or another, the draw could swing the opinion of either side. If Real Madrid draw Arsenal or Juventus, suddenly Reus’ goal becomes more disastrous, all the meanwhile the egg that More cracked on Marcelo’s head goes from quail-size to Humpty Dumpty proportions. Of course, if Real Madrid draw Leicester while Dortmund draw Manchester City, a sigh of relief will waft over Paseo de la Castellana.

It’s a numbers game. In theory, Real Madrid can beat anyone, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, Arsene Wenger and Massimo Allegri are sweating too, while Carlo Ancelotti can rest his eyebrow.

"Of course I don't want to face Real Madrid, but we have to wait to see,” Ancelotti said. Wenger, meanwhile, can’t fool anyone: "You can take Real Madrid, one of the favourites to win the competition, even against them we will have a chance of qualifying.”

God love Arsene, seriously. In a league defined by the charisma of its managers, Wenger remains the most interesting to me.

What Wenger says isn’t wrong, of course. Fans got so enraptured in the ghastly teams seeded in 2nd place - Bayern, City, PSG - that they overlooked the behemoth in Group A playing with a chip on their shoulder. Perhaps there are fewer ‘challenging’ outcomes in Real Madrid finishing 2nd, but this precarious scenario could also potentially bring the most challenging match of them all.

You can make a case for Arsenal being the de-facto most difficult matchup Real Madrid could have drawn - first or second be damnned. Pound-for-pound, they’ve been more impressive and more consistent than Juventus, Bayern, City, or PSG.

The Gunners went from having an off-season of forlorn to one of the best of any big team in Europe after wrapping up Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez. That’s quite a bolstering of depth, right there. Perez hasn’t played much due to injury and due to Alexis being a complete assassin at the 9 - but he gives Arsenal a different look off the bench than Olivier Giroud does and is a welcome addition.

Mustafi, meanwhile, partners Laurent Koscielny to solidify one of the best center-back partnerships across the board.

Mesut Ozil is on fire, enjoying the peak of his career. This season he’s even taken a leap as a goal-scorer and is posting his best goal / per 90 metrics ever. He also refuses to score anything but golazos. To wax this situation even hotter - Theo Walcott’s corpse was brought back to life by unknown supernatural forces, and Alexis Sanchez is about as close to being a top-5 player now than he’s ever been.

Then there’s Hector Bellerin - the young stud breathing down Carvajal’s neck in the national team. Phenomenal going forward with the ball and in creating danger, he will be a handful for Marcelo to deal with. Should this heavyweight brawl go down, Real Madrid will need a healthy Bale or Isco to lend Marcelo a hand on that flank and keep the Spanish right-back honest.

A lot can happen from now until February 14th - the date which Champions League football resumes. Health fluctuates - as does form. The Arsenal we see now could be drastically different in February. After all, that is the Arsenal way. But there is something eerie about potentially drawing them. There’s a running joke that Arsenal will inevitably draw Bayern or Barcelona and go crashing out - rendering all their form and previous achievements torpedoed. Against Real Madrid, at least their conscious would be clear of those psychological barriers.

Arsene Wenger is a mixed bag though, which should be stated. Like Zidane, you can’t quite tell what Wenger will roll with from match-to-match. While Granit Xhaka has certainly done enough to start regularly, he hasn’t yet earned the full trust of Wenger. How good Arsenal would be in a potential encounter could come down to what Wenger provides his team with in central midfield. Santi Cazorla - currently sidelined since mid-October but expected to be back by February - is typically deployed in the central midfield and does better than what one might expect there. Francis Coquelin is another favorite of Wenger but has a love-hate relationship with the fans.

Coquelin is Casemiro’s long-lost spiritual doppleganger. Both were fathered by Thomas Gravesen, probably. Like Casemiro, Coquelin does some things well, and others not nearly as well. Like Casemiro, he’s a ball-winner half the time, and a bone-crunching criminal at others. Like Casemiro, he’s not as technically gifted as his midfield partners, and can be a black hole offensively.

That Arsenal is the toughest possible opponent is entirely subjective, but the case is there to be made. What’s clear is that there isn’t much of a drop-off - if any - if Real Madrid draw Juve instead. They are a sleeping giant who are barely sleeping at all. In fact, they’ve probably already woken - topping their group whilst simultaneously topping their league.

In the Sanchez Pizjuan, Juventus were bested in everything besides the scoreline - something Barcelona know far too well - and overall, it’s taken Allegri’s men some time to get going. Higuain has played sporadically - relative to the heavy minutes he received at Napoli - but still scores plenty. No doubt, him and Dybala would threaten Real Madrid’s backline as much as any other strike partnership in Europe - even if Higuain has a knack for drawing blanks in big matches.

Juve has a knack for continuing their stability long after jettisoning superstars from their midfielder to other pastures. It happened with the departure of Pirlo, then again with Vidal and Pogba. Pjanic was the man signed to fill the glaring hole that Pogba left behind, and while he’s taking time to find his feet, he’s certainly getting there. Allegri has deployed Pjanic as a trequartista in the last couple matches, and Pjanic looks in his zone in that role. Drawing up assists on a silver platter for Higuain and Dybala while operating in the zone just behind them - but deep in enough to link the midfield - is his bread and butter, and it’s safe to assume Juve will discover even more ways to enhance their fluidity once February rolls around.

First or second, Real Madrid are in a difficult position. Bayern and City look daunting on paper, but it’s not clear they’re a more troublesome matchup than Arsenal (or Juve). If they are, it’s not apparent yet - not at this stage of the season anyway. If Real Madrid drew favorable match-ups all season during the Undecima run, they’re probably due for a leviathan match-up now. In any case, said opponent will surely - at the very least - be equally fearful and facing some sort of uneasiness over finishing first in their group.

Kiyan’s picks, from most favourable match-up to least favourable match-up:

  1. Leicester
  2. Napoli
  3. Monaco
  4. Juventus
  5. Arsenal

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