Zinedine Zidane won’t admit it yet, but 10-time winners Real Madrid remain on course for a sixth consecutive Champions League semi-final appearance after a clinical 2-0 win at Roma in the first leg of their last 16 tie on Wednesday.
World Cup winner Zidane won the competition as a player with Real in 2002 and as assistant to former Carlo Ancelotti when the ‘Galacticos’ claimed their record 10th European Cup or ‘Decima’ in 2014.
On the night he made his debut as a head coach in the competition, the Frenchman who ended his career by being sent off for headbutting Italian Marco Materazzi in the final of the 2006 World Cup, was left rejoicing with his players on the touchlines as they underlined their status as co-favourites alongside Bayern Munich and holders Barcelona.
After weathering a frustrating first half in which an inspired Roma side failed to finish off a series of promising attacks, Cristiano Ronaldo broke the deadlock on 57 minutes when he ran on to Marcelo’s chip to beat Wojciech Szczesny with a shot that deflected off right-back Alessandro Florenzi.
It was the Portuguese forward’s 12th goal in seven Champions League games this term and lifted huge pressure off the shoulders off Zidane.
“Everyone expects Ronaldo to score, and he fulfilled expectations,” said Zidane.
To their credit, Roma dug deep in a bid to claim a share of the spoils and were unlucky not to earn a penalty when Florenzi went down under the studs-up challenge of Dani Carvajal.
Even after that decision, the hosts battled throughout a dominant late spell inspired by Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah, only to come up short.
It was inspiring stuff, but dozens of the 55,612 home crowd began leaving their seats five minutes from the finish when Jese flashed a shot across several defenders to beat Szczesny low at his far post.
The victory gives Real a huge advantage ahead of the return leg at their Santiago Bernabeu home in three weeks time.
But Zidane, who replaced sacked Rafael Benitez last month, said there is a long way to go until the May 28 final in Milan.
– ‘Stats don’t count’ –
“May 28 is still a long way off. We still have to think about the second leg and take it one game at a time,” he told media after the game.
Despite statistics suggesting Real have a 100 percent chance to go through to the last eight after a 2-0 first leg win, Zidane added: “Statistics don’t count, especially when there’s still another 90 minutes to play.”
As Zidane rejoiced, Roma handler Luciano Spalletti was left wishing he could have turned back time.
The Italian was in charge at Roma in 2008 when the Giallorossi beat Real 2-1 twice in succession in the last 16 on their way to a quarter-final defeat to Manchester United.
But despite dominating for long spells, Roma ultimately came up short in the final third of the pitch.
Spalletti hit the nail on the head when he said: “You give a player like Ronaldo an inch, and he takes a mile.”
He added: “The difference is in the fact that when you give players of Real’s quality an opening, they seize on it. We just didn’t put our chances away, and that’s the thing I’m most sorry about.”
The 50,000-plus crowd was a huge improvement on Roma’s usual attendences which have been hit by fans staying away to protest at new stringent security measures.
“Their applause (at the final whistle) was fundamental for us, because it means we’ve played well,” added Spalletti. “Our fans, who have seen great players at this club like Falcao, (Gabriel) Batistuta and (Francesco) Totti, know when they see good football.”
The odds are heavily against Roma, however, when they visit to the Spanish capital in a fortnight.
“The difference between us and them is that they reaped the biggest rewards with a minimum of work,” said midfielder Radja Nainggolan.
“We played well and didn’t make too many errors, but we go to Madrid knowing that it will be difficult to qualify.”