The group stage's leading scorers Real Madrid CF are taking shape under Carlo Ancelotti and are again among the favourites to lift European club football's biggest prize.
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The trophy cabinet inside No1 Avenida de Concha Espina glitters with Liga honours, UEFA Cups, Copas del Rey, Spanish Super Cups and a plethora of other titles won by one of the world's most famous teams over its 111-year history. Standing apart, however, is a formidable collection of nine European Cups. Adding a tenth – 'La Décima' – has become Real Madrid CF's raison d'etre since Hampden Park and that Zinédine Zidane goal in 2002.
The Spanish giants have come close, but ultimately three semi-finals in the last three campaigns was deemed not close enough. José Mourinho may have helped end Madrid's six-season round of 16 malaise, but with the club's eagerness to make that final step, Carlo Ancelotti – four-time European Cup winner as player and coach – was offered the chance to fulfil the Merengues' continental ambitions. Furthermore, the arrivals of Gareth Bale, Isco, Asier Illarramendi and Daniel Carvajal boosted an already fearsome side that, by the close of the group stage, looked to have clicked as an attacking force under their Italian taskmaster.
Story so far
If a bedding-in period was required for Ancelotti and company in the Liga, the same could not be said of their start to this UEFA Champions League venture. Madrid had advanced to the last four at Galatasaray AŞ's expense last term despite a 3-2 quarter-final second-leg reverse in Istanbul. On their return to the Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi in September, a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick fired Madrid to a 6-1 Group B win on opening night.
Dispatching the Turkish team again on matchday five enabled the Blancos to proceed as winners of a section that also featured comfortable triumphs – 4-0 at home and 2-0 away – against FC København. Madrid's mettle was tested by their coach's old club Juventus, who ran them close before succumbing 2-1 on matchday three before a 2-2 draw in Turin which proved one of the games of the group phase.
Be it 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, Ancelotti's efforts to find his side's most effective shape were hampered by the absence through injury of the man who glues the pieces together: Xabi Alonso. While recovering from a groin operation over the summer, the Spanish international suffered a broken foot. The 32-year-old midfielder's reappearance on the European stage, in the draw at Juve, heralded the return of a player whose intelligent tactical reading of the game, defending, link-up play and accurate passing should be crucial in the matches to come – particularly with Sami Khedira out for the season through injury.
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo was the UEFA Champions League's top scorer with 12 goals last term. The nine he registered in five appearances this autumn allowed the Portugal forward to set a goalscoring record for the tournament's group stage.
Rising star: Asier Illarramendi
A UEFA European Under-21 Championship winner with Spain last summer, Illarramendi landed at Madrid from Real Sociedad de Fútbol for a significant fee in July. The 23-year-old midfielder's work ethic, exceptional ball control and calm under pressure have combined to earmark him as a future Xabi Alonso.
The competition's leading marksmen so far with 20 goals, Madrid's second strike in the 2-0 matchday six victory at København was their 800th in European competition.
"The Real Madrid shirt motivates everyone; it ensures that players give their all in every match. Defensively we look very strong while we are scoring lots of goals. I am happy with our efforts."
Carlos Ancelotti sums up Madrid’s campaign until now.
Next challenge: FC Schalke 04
(Away: 26 February, home: 18 March)
If feeling pleased with themselves for having avoided Manchester City FC and Arsenal FC in the round of 16 draw, Madrid director Emilio Butragueño quickly brought fans back down to earth with a reminder of the recent consequences of the Merengues facing German teams. "There were stronger sides in the draw but every time we've played German opposition, we have struggled," he said. FC Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund curtailed Madrid's UEFA Champions League bid at the semi-final stage in 2012 and 2013 respectively.