By Adam Szreter in Madrid
This was as much a public trial as a football match. Charged by their followers with neglecting their responsibilities, Real Madrid CF's superstars turned the tables on their inquisitors AS Roma with a dramatic intervention from their captain, and though the jury was still out at half-time, by the end the verdict was unanimous. Madrid are back in business.
If it was fitting that Raúl González, so often their talisman, came to their rescue with a deflected goal just before the break, Roberto Carlos's postscript could not have been more poignant. Berated by the fans for his perceived role in the club's recent demise, a trademark drive into the top corner put the seal on a brave performance from the Brazilian.
The atmosphere at the start was almost funereal. For the players, who had taken to the pitch barely noticed, the UEFA Champions League signature music must have sounded more full of foreboding than the customary anticipation. This was a test to see which of these two great clubs had sunk the lowest, and in the first 40 minutes the mighty Madrid won that contest, literally at a canter.
Heads bowed, body language all awry, they resembled a team full of overpaid misfits playing under their third different coach in the space of a few months. How Vicente del Bosque, the man who led them to two Champions League triumphs, must have been shaking his head at these battle-scarred gálacticos.
Zinedine Zidane, as his wont, strolled about, aloof and detached; Raúl himself looked as out of sorts as ever he has over the past 12 months; and Roberto Carlos was reduced to apologising to the crowd - twice - for the errors of his ways. Of the big names, only David Beckham in fits and Luís Figo in starts resembled anything like their usual selves.
Roma could hardly have believed their luck to find opponents in more of a mess than themselves. They took full advantage, going two goals up while their hosts sulked, and if their first goal owed a little to the roll of the dice, for their second they could not have been made more welcome by Madrid's generous defence.
But just as we might have been forgiven for wondering what it would take to arouse the sleeping giant, fortune smiled on Raúl and suddenly everything changed. The wake in the tribunes became a festival; Roberto Carlos started darting inside and out; Ronaldo began to move with menace; Figo looked like the best right-winger on the planet; and even Zidane broke into a trot.
Such is the pedigree of Madrid's players that once they had sniffed the scent there was no holding them. A fortuitous penalty never goes amiss, of course, but by then Roma had already lost their appetite. The third Madrid goal was almost vintage Raúl, gambling on a near-post cross from his mate Figo and arriving in time to finish with aplomb.
Before the match Madrid's latest coach, Mariano García Remón, had spoken of the need for the team to start functioning as a collective unit, and in this respect he will have been pleased by what he saw after their first goal. Now all he needs is a reliable catalyst for his expensively-assembled machine.
Roma, after a promising start when Francesco Totti, Antonio Cassano and Simone Perrotta all shone brightly, buckled rather alarmingly for one of Italy's leading clubs. For their current coach, Ezio Sella, the restoration work starts now.
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