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Real Madrid, Champions League 2014 semifinalist

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Today, Real Madrid’s website provided an updated report on Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury by stating: Medical tests performed on Cristiano Ronaldo have revealed an injury to the player's left biceps femoris muscle. [He is] Pending a medical evaluation.

The injury, the one that kept Ronaldo out of the second leg of his team’s Champions League quarterfinals against Borussia Dortmund, seems to have grown from a nothing special status to a real concern. Real coach, Carlo Ancelotti, felt his team “suffered” during that important game and is praying that his star recoups soon. It would be a real blow to Madrid’s title hopes if Ronaldo does not recuperate soon with the finals of the Copa del Rey coming next week, and the semifinals of the Champions League looming, just as the clinching last handful of La Liga matches also stretch before them. His health is the key to Madrid’s future.

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Yesterday, the final two teams to make the Champions League 2014 semifinals, Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich were celebrating their recent victories. But they will have a single day for that before finding out who they would play next. That announcement is expected at 6 AM EST tomorrow.

Three of the four surviving teams—Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Chelsea--are formidable European powerhouses that can boast of long winning traditions, superb rosters and high caliber coaching. The fourth, Atletico Madrid, is arguably playing at their betters’ level. Tomorrow they will begin plotting how to eliminate their potential opponents. In a two-part series, we look at how the two Spanish Football teams play and match-up against their potential opponents. In part two, we conclude with Real Madrid.

Real Madrid is living a period of recalibration. After the clubhouse revolt that led to Jose Mourinho’s early departure to England’s Chelsea, club president, Florentino Perez, was left with his own mess to clean up and he did it his unique way.

What he wanted was a known quantity, a world class coach with a European pedigree and a more malleable personality than Mou’s. He also wanted an assured successor, to whomever he hired, to be sitting on the bench with the new coach. That second in command was preordained, not chosen by the incoming coach, and it had to be none other than Zinadine Zidane.

What Perez got was tailor made and bore fruit from game one of his so far 50 at the helm. Carlo Ancelotti’s first job was to ensure Perez’s frayed ego was assuaged. The coach did that by sacrificing Iker Casillas, one of the clubhouse revolt leaders, while also getting rid of one of Mou’s pets Mesut Ozil, and handling one of Perez’s failed galactico strategy acquisitions, Kaka.

Kaka, of course, failed only because he was on Mou’s black list, but that did not matter to either Perez or Ancelotti. Fortunately, Kaka was liked enough to land in his previous home, AC Milan, where he has flourished. Ozil, ended up at Arsenal, where he has had stellar stints. That Casillas has been spectacular while sparsely used seems not to be of import, but that Diego Lopez has been very good in regular La Liga starts, has been used to excuse Iker’s substitution.

With the upstairs politics handled Carlo focused on the downstairs trying to appease the Portuguese and Spanish factions of the Madrid squad while getting the best out of those, such as Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Angel di Maria, and Karim Benzema, who fell into neither camp. Playing all of them, the Portuguese-Spanish duos of Pepe and Sergio Ramos, Fabio Coentrao and Xabi Alonso, Ronaldo and Isco, has actually been beneficial to the team, as has playing Bale for Perez, Modric and di Maria for their talent, and Benzema to make Zidane happy. Ancelotti’s good fortune is that all of these mentioned players are stars in their own right and picking any one of them to play their position is not an undue challenge. As long as the opposition is only so much so the stars will prevail.

But the price of coaching via politics as much as strategically has put the Italian minder in a bit of bind. He lost the pole position for La Liga and some might argue his game tactics and roster choices had something to do with that. He might have to play the Copa del Rey final next Wednesday without his major star, and how often he, or any previous coach, plays or rests Ronaldo has long been an issue.

Finally, Ancelotti is now about to face one of three tough teams just to get to the chance of competing for La Decima. If he does not make it to the Champions League finals, or loses to either Chelsea or Atletico, he may be out the door by the summer. On the other hand, even if he loses both domestic titles he would ensure a positive image, and continued employment, if he gets Madrid its tenth European title.

If Real Madrid plays without Ronaldo any one of the three teams they could face have at least an even chance of beating them. In the case of Bayern, Real loses without Ronaldo. So what if the Portuguese star is fit? Now we have some interesting match-ups.

If Real play Atletico, Real will win a very hard fought and tie-breaking battle that has been waged to Atletico’s favor in La Liga and Real’s favor in the Copa. With both teams playing their best games the deciding factor will be a single player’s inventiveness, and as good as Diego Costa and David Villa are, if the coaches use their strongest rosters against one another it will be Ronaldo who rules.

If Real play Chelsea, the Madrid players will have a field day going against their former boss. Just imagine how Casillas will feel if his performance helps eliminate Mou’s new team. The motivation will be strongest for Real and that alone will make this a good contest. But despite the fact that Chelsea’s style will negate much of Real’s strength, and Mou’s mind will outsmart Carlo’s, it will again come down to Ronaldo. He is the deciding factor, whether scoring, setting his teammates up, or simply being the decoy you can’t ignore. Real will beat Chelsea.

Bayern Munich, the one that was there before Pep Guardiola got hired, the one that was winning it all just as Guardiola finished his sabbatical, is the strongest team in Europe right now. It will take a tremendous game from any one of the remaining other three to defeat the German Giants. If one team left can do it, it would be Real. Again, the Madrid performance would have to be superb and the defensive blunders that Barca managed last Champions League campaign cannot be repeated by Real, but if di Maria and Ronaldo, Xabi and Ramos, and above all Casillas is in form, the Madridistas have reason for hope. In an even, well-played match Real wins, but if the Merengues slip once, in any category, Bayern repeats.

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