Real Madrid take shaky first step towards home final
Having spent 250 million euros on reinforcements and with the final due to be staged at their own Bernabeu stadium, winning the Champions League is seen almost as an obligation for Real Madrid this season, at least by much of the Spanish media.
Kicking off their campaign, perhaps appropriately, in one of Europe’s most expensive cities, Real showed flashes of what may be to come, both in terms of attacking inspiration and defensive vulnerability, as they beat Swiss champions FC Zurich 5-2.
Cristiano Ronaldo was his old self, firing in two free kicks at decisive stages of the game, performing a few trademark shimmies and stepovers and remonstrating with the referee every time he was tackled by an opponent.
There were tantalising glimpses of the potential offered by his parternship with Raul and former World Player of the Year Kaka, although Real often gave the impression that they are still finding their feet with so many newcomers.
The unsung Gonzalo Higuain was just as influential as the Portuguese, setting up the second goal for Raul and scoring a superb third himself as he burst past a defender and then scored with a low shot into the far corner. It remains a mystery as to why Higuain has not been given a look-in by Argentina coach Diego Maradona.
Their defensive problems, however, show no sign of letting up. Having led 3-0 at halftime, Real had to sweat through the last 20 minutes after the unrated hosts scored twice in two minutes to bring it back to 3-2. Iker Casillas upended Alexander Alphonse to give away a penalty, they Silvio Aegerter was allowed to head in another at the near post.
Two late goals, including Ronaldo’s second free kick, gave the visitors a somewhat flattering win.
To put it into perspective, Grasshoppers, who may be forced to drop into the Swiss third division next season because of chronic financial problems, managed to put three past Zurich last Saturday and had a further goal controversially disallowed, although they conceded four in the progress.
One thing which money cannot buy is passionate support. The large contingent on Real fans sat silently through Tuesday’s match, stirring only with a few cries of Madrid after their team scored and a half-hearted version of Viva Espana late in the first half. Zurich’s South Curve never stopped singing, even when their team were 3-0 down.
Brian Homewood, Zurich
PHOTO: Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring during their Champions League soccer match against FC Zurich (FCZ) at the Letzigrund Stadium in Zurich September 15, 2009. REUTERS/Miro Kuzmanovic