Football: Italian test for Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane

In his Champions League managerial debut, Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane (centre, with ball) will be hoping his team's unbeaten run under his stewardship will continue as they take on Roma in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 clash t
In his Champions League managerial debut, Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane (centre, with ball) will be hoping his team's unbeaten run under his stewardship will continue as they take on Roma in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 clash tomorrow.PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY, REUTERS

He is aware of Madrid's poor record against Italian clubs as he leads Los Blancos in Europe for first time

ROME • Today's Champions League first-leg, last-16 tie between Roma and Real Madrid will pit together two managers who have turned their club's fortunes around.

Real were unbeaten in the group stage under Rafael Benitez, but the Spaniard lost the fans, the dressing room, then his job.

Former Roma boss Rudi Garcia's tenure effectively ended with the 1-6 drubbing by Barcelona in this competition, a result they will want to put firmly behind them today. That would require Luciano Spalletti to outwit Zinedine Zidane on the Frenchman's managerial debut in the Champions League.

Under Zidane, Real are unbeaten in six Primera Liga matches, scoring 23 goals while conceding five.

Since his appointment, Los Blancos have also recorded the highest shot conversion rate - 27 per cent - in the top five European leagues.

Real striker Karim Benzema believes that Zidane has boosted the morale of the team.

WEALTH OF KNOWLEDGE

He gives us confidence and his ideas on how to play, and that's all positive for us... because he knows a lot about the game.

KARIM BENZEMA, Real Madrid striker, on the impact his coach Zidane has had since taking the helm.

"He offers the team a lot - he gives us confidence and his ideas on how to play, and that's all positive for us," the France international told bwin.

"I'm learning a lot from him every day. And it's not just me. That goes for the whole team, because he knows a lot about the game."

Zidane, who won the 2002 Champions League with Real as a midfielder, will know that the club have a miserable record against Italian teams in European competitions. In their last eight meetings against Serie A sides in European Cup, Uefa Cup and Champions League games, Real have never come out tops.

Spalletti was at the helm when Roma prevailed over two legs at this stage of the Champions League in 2008. They beat Real 2-1 at home, a score they would repeat at the Bernabeu.

In his Champions League managerial debut, Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane (centre, with ball) will be hoping his team's unbeaten run under his stewardship will continue as they take on Roma in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 clash t

NO SPECIAL PROVISIONS

I won't make a cage around him, I won't use three players to mark him.

LUCIANO SPALLETTI, Roma coach (above), on how he won't single out Real's top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo for special treatment.

"That Roma team was a much more seasoned and experienced one compared to this side," Spalletti told a press conference, with midfielders Francesco Totti and Daniele de Rossi among the survivors of that squad.

"Currently, we are on the road to getting there and are trying to improve the group. I think that this is a suitable match though to see where we are at this stage of our development. I'm confident and my players are ready.

"I also don't believe that either team is favoured going into this time. I think that both of us have a 50 per cent chance of reaching the next round."

Under the Italian, Roma claimed a fourth consecutive league win last weekend for the first time since October. Spalletti should have de Rossi, Totti , and Mohamed Salah available following their recent injury problems.

Zidane will be without Welsh winger Gareth Bale (calf strain) and centre-back Pepe but left-back Marcelo is back from the sidelines.

Isco looks certain to play in central midfield with Zidane saying he gave Mateo Kovacic a game against Athletic Bilbao to rest the Spaniard, who has been a regular alongside Toni Kroos and Luka Modric under the Frenchman.

Cristiano Ronaldo - the Champions League's all-time record scorer with 88 goals and this season's top marksman with 11 - scored twice in that 4-2 La Liga win.

While the Portuguese striker will be fancied to extend his haul against Roma, whose tally of 16 goals conceded in the group stage is more than any other side through to the knockout stages, Spalletti is making no special provisions for Ronaldo.

"He's a modern player: strong, fast, and able to score a lot of goals. But I won't make a cage around him, I won't use three players to mark him," said the 56-year-old. "The player to counter Ronaldo must be - among other things - quick. Alessandro Florenzi could be an option."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ROMA V REAL MADRID
Singtel TV Ch112 & StarHub Ch212, tomorrow, 3.40am

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2016, with the headline 'Italian test for Real boss Zidane'. Print Edition | Subscribe