Real Madrid took a huge step toward the knockout stages of the Champions League on Wednesday night with a hard-fought 2-1 win over Italian champion Juventus at the Santiago Bernabéu. Cristiano Ronaldo provided both goals in the first half and, to an extent, ensured the result stayed as it was in the second period by engineering a straight red card for Juve's defensive marshal Giorgio Chiellini just a few minutes after the restart.
This obliged Juve coach Antonio Conte to haul off goalscorer Fernando Llorente and eschew further concerted attacks in favor of a counter-offensive blueprint. As Carlo Ancelotti said after the game, there was little need for his side to do much more than control the game from that point, but despite its numerical asymmetry the second 45 was well-matched. Real ran out of steam — "maybe they were tired," noted Ancelotti of his players — and ideas while Juve steadily grew into the game, even after the withdrawal of its midfield string-puller Andrea Pirlo, who received an ovation from both sets of fans; something of a lifetime achievement award for the graceful Italy international.
Karim Benzema got quite the opposite treatment from the Bernabéu after missing an open goal in the second half that would have made the match safe. Ancelotti continues to back his misfiring number 9 but the huge roar that greeted the introduction of the Frenchman's understudy was the loudest of the night; and Álvaro Morata, a youth-teamer born and bred in Madrid, almost capitalized on a defensive muddle to score, drawing a sharp save from Juve's dapper keeper, Gianluigi Buffon.
The result essentially guarantees Real a place in the last 16, with Galatasaray five points behind and Juve seven. Ronaldo, meanwhile, moves to the top of the scorer charts with seven strikes in three games, despite Zlatan Ibrahimovic's wonderful four-goal haul for PSG against Anderlecht in Group C.
Goals are in short supply at Barcelona at the moment — which will doubtless amuse Barça discard "Ibra" no end
Goals are in short supply at Barcelona at the moment — which will doubtless amuse Barça discard "Ibra" no end — and Gerardo Martino's side has now played out two ties in two games after Tuesday's 1-1 stalemate against AC Milan in the San Siro. Leo Messi, returning from injury for his first start since September 28, inevitably found the back of the net with a low drive to cancel out Robinho's well-worked opener. For Milan, Kaká put in a man-of-the-match performance, complete with a badge palm-slap and pirouette of applauding acknowledgement: clearly the former Real midfielder, who endured a torrid time in Madrid, is back in his element, and in a World Cup year to boot. Beaming at the cameras after the match, Kaká boldly forecast a 2-1 win for Real in this weekend's Camp Nou clásico, and if Barcelona doesn't relocate its scoring touch before then, he may not be far wrong.
Atlético, meanwhile, grabbed its qualifying group by the throat, with Diego Costa's gloved hands doing the damage in a 3-0 win at Austria Wien. The Hispano-Brazilian — who teasingly told reporters after the game that he has decided which country to play for, but won't be revealing it just yet — scored twice on his Champions League debut. The first was a devastating combination of pace, strength and the touch of a monarch's surgeon; his second a scrappy poacher's strike with his weaker foot.
With every game Costa's legend grows and unsurprisingly he is attracting the interest of Chelsea, among others. Atlético now leads Group G by five points from Zenit, which scored a surprise win at Porto's Estádio do Dragão to complicate matters for the Portuguese side.
Real Sociedad, on the other hand, is practically out of the competition after a 1-0 loss at Old Trafford that allowed Manchester United to move to the top of Group A while the Basques are rooted to its foot on zero points. Iñigo Martínez put into his own net in the second minute, a hammer blow to La Real's brittle confidence that it didn't recover from.
"When you concede that early it's difficult," said coach Jaboga Arrasate. "They were the better side and we can't argue about the result."