On the surface, this game was slated as monotonous as a Tuesday at the office. Club Brugge was eliminated from the Champions League and Real Madrid had qualified for the Round-of-16 before kickoff. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity for second-string players to showcase their zeal and progress to Zidane. Behind goals from the Brazilian duo Rodrygo Goes and Vinicius Jr. and former Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modrić, Real Madrid closed out the group stage with an honourable 1 - 3 away victory.
Zinedine Zidane’s rotation of nine key starters paid off. Despite a muted first half where there were few contentious interventions and goal opportunities, Real Madrid tapped the gas pedal twice with brilliant one-touch finishes by Rodrygo and Vinicius Jr in the second half. Isco hovered in front of the box as usual attracting attention while Casemiro provided the typical stability in the middle of the park. The only major blunder was Eder Militão recklessly giving up the ball under no pressure to Nigerian forward Emmanuel Dennis which led to the equalizing goal by Hans Vanaken. All things considered, it was another solid road performance to bid farewell to Club Brugge, who will compete in the Europa League Round of 32 in 2020.
The situation at Real Madrid has changed dramatically from red alert to tranquility within two months. It is a testament to how a European soccer season is an arduous marathon. On the flight to Istanbul in October, Zidane was hanging onto a lifeline in the press’ eyes. However, a resurgent finish to the group stage and maintaining a share of first place in La Liga shows that the team has responded well under his direction in the face of this early adversity.
This confidence and excitement exhibited by the players and coaching staff have also permeated into international Madridismo. On the final day of the Champions League group stage, I asked 30 senior Peña Members from 15 countries the following question:
Between Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Juventus, Liverpool, and Leipzig, which team do you want as Real Madrid’s Round-of-16 opponent?
Over 36% of respondents chose six-time Champions League winners Liverpool. This exuberance to prefer the current title holders was summed up the best by former Chairman of Peña Madridista San Francisco Bay Area Kenneth Jamora:
“We are Real Madrid and we fear no one. We’re not trapped inside with them, but rather they are trapped inside with us!”
It would be the dream scenario to knock out the defending champions en route to a record 14th European crown. As the old saying goes, “in order to be the best, you have to beat the rest”. The draw for Round-of-16 matchups will take place at 12:00 CET in Nyon, France next Monday. One thing is certain, whoever gets Real Madrid will come up against a manager with a perfect knockout record.
Christian Paredes (@Xian_D_Paredes) is a Founding Member and former Chairman (2012-2016) of La Peña Madridista Sur de California (@RmSurCalifornia)