MADRID, Sept 12, (AFP): Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane has underlined the importance of welcoming back World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo for the holders Champions League opener against APOEL Nicosia on Wednesday.
Ronaldo has been suspended for Real’s last four games after pushing a referee in the Spanish Super Cup and has been badly missed as the European champions have been held at home by Valencia and Levante in their last two outings.
“He doesn’t just bring goals,” said Zidane on Tuesday.
“He is an important player in the squad, he is a leader. He always wants to win and he transmits that to the rest.
“Every time he is with us, I as a coach and the rest of the players are happy.”
Ronaldo’s absence has been felt even more acutely due to Madrid’s surprising shortage of striking options.
Real failed to replace Alvaro Morata following his £70 million ($91 million, 78 million euros) switch to Chelsea as they missed out to Paris Saint-Germain for French wonder kid Kylian Mbappe.
Mariano Diaz has also enjoyed a stunning start in France after being allowed to leave for Lyon.
And with Karim Benzema sidelined for a month, 20-year-old Borja Mayoral is the only natural centre-forward available to Zidane.
“When you look at the players we had like Morata and Mariano and you look now and there is only Mayoral, you could think we lack a number nine,” admitted Zidane.
“I would have liked Morata to stay, but you have to understand that he wanted to leave to play more and we respect that.”
Zidane will also be able to recall Keylor Navas, Raphael Varane, Casemiro, Luka Modric, Isco and Gareth Bale after they were all rested from the start against Levante at the weekend.
Pep Guardiola’s rampant Manchester City will be keen to keep the momentum going as they open the hunt for Champions League glory against a diminished Feyenoord in Rotterdam on Wednesday.
After mauling Liverpool 5-0 in the Premier League on Saturday, City now travel to face the Dutch champions — who face a daunting prospect after a 15-year absence from the group stage of the competition.
Eyes in particular will be on City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, whose sublime form played a major part in the Liverpool drubbing and who is sure to sniff out and exploit weaknesses in Feyenoord’s midfield and defence.
Feyenoord may have beaten Heracles 4-2 in a Dutch top-flight match over the weekend, but their opponents came dangerously close to scoring more goals — a fact no doubt that will play on coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s mind.
The Rotterdam club faced a further blow up front after leading striker Nicolai Jorgensen came off with a leg muscle injury 21 minutes into the Heracles game.
The 26-year-old Danish international — last year’s Eredivisie top scorer with 21 goals in 32 games — will not play in the City match which opens their Group F campaign, Feyenoord announced on Monday.
With Jorgensen out, former Dutch skipper and Arsenal midfielder Van Bronckhorst will now have to draw on every ounce of Premier League experience if he is to try and outfox Guardiola’s team.
City have spent more than £200 million ($264 million, 219 million euros) over the summer strengthening their squad after losing to Monaco in the last 16 last season.
Just eight years after starting life in the local leagues, RB Leipzig will enhance their rags to riches tale on Wednesday by hosting Monaco on the German club’s Champions League debut.
Backed by energy drinks giant Red Bull, who bought the licence of a fifth-division club, Leipzig began climbing Germany’s football pyramid in 2009.
They are widely unpopular with German fans, due to the commercialism they represent, but after four promotions in seven years they finished second last season in the Bundesliga to qualify directly for a Champions League place.
Leipzig make their debut against last season’s semifinalists Monaco at the Red Bull Arena and director of sport Ralf Rangnick is proud of their achievement.
“When you think we were still in the fourth division five years ago, then the Champions League is another promotion,” said Rangnick.
“Something like that has never happened before and most likely won’t happen again in the next 50 years.”
This is a step into the unknown for Leipzig with only four members of their squad having Champions League experience.
Swedish playmaker Emil Forsberg, plus new-signings Bruma, Jean-Kevin Augustin and Kevin Kampl are the only ones to have played at this level.
The quartet have a combined tally of 31 Champions League appearances.
In contrast, 17 of the Monaco squad have 236 Champions League appearances between them and last season’s semifinal defeat to Juventus is still fresh.
But Leipzig’s coach Ralph Hasenhuettl sees his team’s lack of experience as an advantage.
“We want to collect some experience for ourselves. It means you more alert, sharper, more focused,” said the Austrian.
Rangnick is confident of a win.
“If we can show our full power on the pitch, then we are capable of winning,” insisted the RB boss.
This is the first time for nearly 29 years that European football will be played in the former East German city.
Mauricio Pochettino has warned his Tottenham Hotspur stars that they must make a fast start to their Champions League campaign or risk another early exit.
Pochettino’s side failed to make it past the group stage of Europe’s elite club competition last season.
Tottenham’s downfall was triggered by poor results in their home games at Wembley, where they were beaten by Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen.
The north London club are back at Wembley this season while White Hart Lane is being redeveloped and they kick off their Champions League group fixtures against Borussia Dortmund at the national stadium on Wednesday.
Keen to avoid another disappointing European adventure, Tottenham manager Pochettino has underlined to his players that getting off to a winning start is vital, especially with holders Real Madrid also in Group H.
“Last season, after the first game at home against Monaco, it was difficult to change the dynamic. I think it’s so important to try to win the first game and get three points,” Pochettino said.
“It will be tough because Dortmund is a great, great team but in our mind our mentality is to try to win and be aggressive from the first ball.
“I think tomorrow is such an important game. To start well in the competition and get three points will be key to the future of course.
“It’s true that in theory Real Madrid are first, then Dortmund, Tottenham and APOEL compete to be second. That’s the theory but football is not theory.”
Tottenham have struggled at Wembley in recent years even when they aren’t playing European games.
Losers in eight of their last 12 matches at the hallowed venue, Spurs have been beaten by Chelsea and drawn with Burnley in their two games there this season.
Pochettino hopes Tottenham’s players can block out all talk of a Wembley curse and show they have learnt from last year’s harsh Champions League lessons.
“It’s a tough competition with the amount of focus and energy you need, it’s massive, maybe the same or more than the Premier League,” he said.
“Last season was our first experience of the Champions League. Previously we played in the Europa League, for 98 or 99 percent of the players, and for myself too.
“We know very well what the competition demands from you, and I think it is so important, that experience from last season.