APOEL could be just the tonic for what's been ailing Real Madrid of late
A return to Champions League action away at APOEL Nicosia will provide welcome tonic for Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid after a goalless stalemate in the Madrid derby left the reigning Liga champions 10 points behind leaders Barcelona and six adrift of second-placed Valencia.
Madrid may be struggling domestically, but in Europe their fate remains firmly in their own hands. A 3-1 defeat by Tottenham was a setback but one counter-balanced by Borussia Dortmund's inability to claim more than two points in two meetings with the Cypriot champions: the Bundesliga side, runners-up as recently as 2012-13, are now obliged to win both their remaining matches to have any chance of progressing from the group. A Real Madrid victory in the GSP Stadium will end any lingering hopes Dortmund possess.
History is on the visitors' side. In seven games against Cypriot opposition, Madrid have never failed to win and have scored 37 times with just three conceded, and none of those away from home. Their scoring record under increasing scrutiny, it could be the perfect opportunity for Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to rediscover their touch.
The Portuguese has been enjoying midweek action this season, finding the net six times in the Champions League to top the scorer's table ahead of Harry Kane. Benzema also holds fond memories from Real's only previous visit to the home of APOEL, the striker grabbing a brace in a 3-0 victory in the quarterfinals in 2011-12.
Giorgos Donis' side are no pushovers, as Zidane noted in his pre-match news conference, but the Greek tactician, in his second spell at the club, will be without keeper Boy Waterman and experienced Bulgaria international defender Zhivko Milanov on Tuesday. In their two previous European home games, APOEL have lined up in a 4-2-3-1, which played into Tottenham's hands as Mauricio Pochettino's blueprint punished their ambitious approach. Against Dortmund, Donis ensured his side were more compact but still they led for only five minutes before Sokratis Papastathopoulos cancelled out Mickael Pote's strike.
Donis may opt for the five-man defence he deployed in the return game at the Westfalenstadion, which threw up two statistics to have Real Madrid rubbing their hands together in anticipation: Dortmund racked up 30 shots during that match, with nine on target, the same number APOEL have managed at the other end in four Champions League games.
Zidane is unlikely to spring too many surprises in his team selection. Other than the enforced absence of Sergio Ramos, who suffered a fractured nose courtesy of Lucas Hernandez's boot during the derby, the same side that started in the Metropolitano will do so in Nicosia. The Real boss is still missing Keylor Navas, Gareth Bale and Mateo Kovacic but travelled to Cyprus with a 20-player squad including under-19 keeper Moha Ramos, who has been installed in recent weeks as deputy to Kiko Casilla while Luca Zidane recovers from a shoulder operation.
Nacho is likely to deputise for Ramos in the heart of defence alongside Raphael Varane with Marcelo and Dani Carvajal either side, although it remains to be seen how long the Spain international is called on to play after coming back into the side at the weekend after six weeks out with a heart condition.
Isco will be charged with picking a way through the APOEL back line in support of Ronaldo and Benzema with Zidane's preferred midfield of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric behind the in-form Malagan.
After the travails of recent games in La Liga, a solid performance in Nicosia will be the minimum requirement laid out by Zidane. Real face a challenging domestic calendar in the coming weeks that includes a trip to San Mames and the visits of Sevilla and Barcelona to the Bernabeu.
Securing Champions League knockout-round qualification at the earliest opportunity will allow Zidane to concentrate on reeling Barcelona and Valencia back in the league while also giving him a timely opportunity to hand his younger players some experience at European level in the final group game, which victory over APOEL will render academic for both Dortmund and his side.
"In our play we are not bad, we are improving. But we need to score one, or two, and then the run changes," Zidane said. "Tomorrow we hope it is a game to change this."
Real won the reverse fixture 3-0 with some degree of comfort. Both the Frenchman and his players need a similar result in Cyprus to avoid further awkward questions being asked before what should be an opportunity to get back on track in La Liga at home against Malaga on Saturday.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.