Roma prepared for CR7 threat

MILAN -The prospect of spoiling Zinedine Zidane’s Champions League soccer coaching debut with Real Madrid may be formidable, but Roma midfielder Seydou Keita believes his side can upset the 10-time record champions in their last 16, first leg clash.

“How we line up against them is down to the coach, but for me, we have to believe in ourselves and go on the pitch convinced,” said the Malian ahead of tonight’s tie in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.

Former Barcelona midfielder Keita knows his opponents well having won 11 matches with the Catalans in the 17 times he played against the arch Liga rivals.“This game will be difficult, but not impossible,” added Keita of Real’s miserable record against Italian teams in the competition.

Roma coach Luciano Spalletti said he won’t sacrifice players in a bid to shut down the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo when they host Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie tonight.

And the Italian insisted the belief and ambition of his players, and not the past history of either club, will be key they look to upset the formbook at the Stadio Olimpico tonight.

Real, who claimed a record 10th Champions League trophy in 2014, are among the favourites for this year’s title alongside Bayern Munich and holders Barcelona.

Although Welsh winger Gareth Bale is missing due to a calf strain, the world class trio of Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez lead their three-pronged attack.

Real have also welcomed left-back Marcelo, who missed a 4-2 win over Athletic Bilbao at the weekend due to a a dislocated shoulder, back to their matchday squad.

Ronaldo hit a brace at the weekend, when Toni Kroos and James were also on the scoresheet. But Spalletti said the Portuguese forward won’t come in for special attention, a tactic that could theoretically create space elsewhere on the pitch for Real to exploit.

“Ronaldo is one of the strongest players in the world and always makes a difference. He’s a modern day footballer, strong and fast and capable of scoring lots of goals,” said Spalletti.

“But I’m not going to use three of my players to close him down.”

Spalletti is in his second spell at Roma after replacing sacked Frenchman Rudi Garcia recently, and, among his other achievements, boasts the feat of steering Roma to consecutive 2-1 wins over Real in the last 16 in 2008.

Real have made it to the semi-finals of the competition for the past five seasons, claiming their historic “Decima” two years ago when current manager Zidane was assistant to Carlo Ancelotti.

Efforts to go one step further last year were rebuffed when Juventus claimed a 2-1 win in Turin and booked their final place against Barcelona thanks to a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu.

But Spalletti said past experience will count for little.

“People are talking about experience, but that doesn’t matter in games like this. What’s important is having the determination and courage to go out there with some ambition,” he said.

“We won’t feel sorry for ourselves if we get beat, but we will if we don’t give it everything.”Roma’s patchy domestic form has seen them concede 27 times in 25 games, an unenvious statistic that does not leave their defensive game in a positive light.

Spalletti admits it would be a surprise if they repeated their feats of 2008.

But the confidence that waned during the final weeks of Garcia’s tenure is re-emerging, especially after a 3-1 win at Carpi at the weekend that allowed Roma to secure a fourth consecutive league win for the first time since October.

“In 2008 we went through and created a surprise. This year, it would be an even bigger surprise, but we like this kind of challenge,” he added.

“We’re back to winning ways and I can see us making a further leap forward. I expect to see us battling all the way to the finish in Madrid, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise for me either if we went through.”

Spalletti was at the helm when the Italians prevailed over two legs in 2008.

Roma beat Real 2-1 at home, a score they would repeat at the Santiago Bernabeu before being humbled 3-0 by eventual winners Manchester United in the quarter-finals.

Real have made it to the semi-finals of the competition the past five seasons, claiming their historic 10th title, “La Decima”, in 2014 when current manager Zidane was assistant to Ancelotti.

Efforts to go one step further last year were rebuffed when Juventus claimed a 2-1 win in Turin and booked their final place against Barcelona thanks to a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu.

But there is little chance Zidane is entertaining another early exit and the former France and Juventus great comes to Rome with only one defeat from his six-game tenure so far, during which Real have scored 23 goals.

Despite it being his Champions League debut as coach, Zidane’s past experience in the competition gives him the knowledge of what it takes to succeed in Europe’s premier club competition.

“When you’re a player, you dream of playing in the World Cup, but you can dream of the Champions League every year,” said Zidane.

“We are prepared and we want to do something important in this competition.”

Although Welsh winger Gareth Bale remains sidelined with a calf strain, Real welcomed left-back Marcelo, who missed a 4-2 win over Athletic Bilbao at the weekend due to a a dislocated shoulder, back to their matchday squad.

With central defender Pepe sidelined, Raphael Varane will keep his place alongside Sergio Ramos despite being sent off in a poor display at the weekend when Ronaldo hit a brace and Rodriguez and Toni Kroos added their names to the scoresheet.

Benzema, who set up Ronaldo for his first on Saturday, admits it won’t be all plain sailing. “The key to the tie is us. If we are on top form we will win,” said the French striker.

“We have to take into account the speed of their forwards, but we are Real Madrid, for me the best team in the world, and we have the best defenders in the world.”

Roma, it seems, have been warned. Despite Keita’s call for confidence, fans will be hoping Roma at least produce the kind of display that held Barcelona to a 1-1 draw in the group stages earlier this season, and not one that led to a 7-1 humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich in Rome last year.

On the plus side, Roma claimed a fourth consecutive league win last weekend for the first time since October. Argentinian midfielder Diego Perotti admits, Bayern, Barcelona and Real are “all favourites for the title”.

But it seems Keita’s words are already rubbing off:

“They’re not going to find it easy against us. We’ll be giving it our all, and we have possibilities to cause an upset in this tie.”— AFP.

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