PARIS: Cristiano Ronaldo is returning to Madrid with his Juventus side hitting its stride at just the right time and Atletico Madrid should be worried.
The former Real Madrid forward has scored 22 goals in 31 matches against Atletico and looking to bury the demons of his nightmare Champions League debut for Juve on Wednesday against one of his favourite victims.
Ronaldo was sent off after 28 minutes in his first European game for Juventus in Spain last September against Valencia but the Italians went on to win 2-0 even without the Portuguese star.
Massimiliano Allegri’s side play their Champions League last 16, first-leg tie against Atletico at the Wanda Metropolitano as they continue their push for the European title which has eluded them for over two decades.
Juve are pinning their hopes on their 100-million-euro ($117 million) summer signing to give them a first European win over Atletico.
It will be a homecoming of sorts for the 34-year-old Ronaldo who lived a stone’s throw away from Atletico’s training centre.
Juve signed Ronaldo because of his Champions League credentials. No player owns as many Champions League titles as Ronaldo who has won five, four with Real Madrid and one with Manchester United. He has scored a record 121 goals in the competition and of these 57 have proved decisive.
“We have to score at least one goal in Madrid, our qualification depends on this,” warned Allegri. “The two teams are evenly balanced.”
The Bianconeri are on a seemingly unstoppable march to a record-extending eighth successive Serie A title and could be forgiven for relaxing slightly.
While the 3-0 defeat at Atalanta in the Coppa Italia ended their chances of a treble, followed by a 3-3 draw against Parma, it appears to have been just a blip with Juve then beating Sassuolo and Frosinone, 3-0 each time.
“Yes, we are in a good condition,” Allegri said. “Apart from the setback against Parma we are doing well, and we are at a particularly important moment.”
Ronaldo scored again against Frosinone on Friday to take his tally to 19 in Serie A. He also showed as good an understanding with Paulo Dybala as he has had with Mario Mandzukic, who joined Juventus from Atletico in 2015.
Allegri was able to rest several players for Friday’s match while also giving a run to key defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, back from injury.
Atletico have not looked convincing in La Liga, scraping a 1-0 win at relegation-threatened Rayo Vallecano on Saturday after two defeats.
Juve and Atletico have reached 12 European Cup finals between them, with last season’s game in Kiev the first in five years in which neither had featured.
Atletico went on to win the Europa League instead, proving themselves too strong for Europe’s second-tier competition, while Juve were dumped out by eventual winners Real Madrid, undone by a controversial Ronaldo penalty in the 98th minute.
It was Ronaldo’s 10th goal in seven games against Juventus, having scored twice in the first leg and twice in the final in 2017 too. Juve beat Real in the semi-finals two years earlier but even then, Ronaldo managed a goal in each leg.
There was understandable relief, as well as joy, when the Portugese switched sides last summer and now, there is belief. Ronaldo has not finished in single figures for goals in the Champions league since 2011.
CITY TRAVEL TO SCHALKE
In Wednesday’s other clash, Manchester City travel to Gelsenkirchen to face Schalke 04 in what could potentially be a one-sided clash.
City were given a kind draw against a Schalke side clearly struggling in its second season under coach Domenico Tedesco.
Saturday’s 0-0 draw at home against Freiburg was indicative of Schalke’s season to date — an unattractive game of few chances with midfielder Suat Serdar sent off before the break for a studs-up challenge.
Schalke have won only six of their 22 league games so far and languish in 14th place in the 18-team standings. It could yet be drawn into a relegation fight before the season is out.
The contrast could hardly be greater.
City, in their Premier League title defence, are ahead of Liverpool at the top on goal difference.
Coach Pep Guardiola had the luxury of resting some leading players on Saturday for the FA Cup win over fourth-tier side Newport. Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva were not summoned from the bench and Sergio Aguero had the afternoon off entirely.
The team was back in training on Sunday ahead of the trip to Germany.
A European trophy has eluded City since the Abu Dhabi takeover 11 years ago, with the semi-finals the furthest the team has progressed in the Champions League.
“If you want to be in the international elite ... you need to clinch this trophy,” midfielder Ilkay Gundogan told UEFA.com. “I think that, if we were to win it someday, the club would enter a new era, the same level as Real [Madrid], Barca, Bayern or Juventus, clubs that are maybe a step above us. Maybe not in the way they play football, but as a club at least.”
Schalke last reached the Champions League quarter-finals in 2011 when ex-Real legend Raul inspired their run before losing in the last four to Manchester United.
Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2019