Champions League: Ronaldo to start for Real Madrid against Spurs
As Harry Redknapp suspected when he first heard Jose Mourinho ruling him out, Cristiano Ronaldo will play for Real Madrid tonight but he will do so not having started a game for 18 days and not having finished one for more than a month.
Gonzalo Higuain could well be in line for his first start for more than three months after surgery to repair a slipped disc, and leading the line will be Emmanuel Adebayor, who is still playing catch-up after sitting out the first half of the season at Manchester City. Kaka too is included in the squad.
It is not the ideal situation for Mourinho but with Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria both missing training yesterday and the in-form Frenchman definitely ruled out by the Real Madrid coach there are few options as he plots a way of unpicking Tottenham Hotspur's sometimes fragile defence.
On top of the injuries Real have Ronaldo, Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho, Di Maria, Sergio Ramos and Raul Albiol all one booking away from missing the second leg while Tottenham have a clean slate.
Higuain's recovery has been nothing short of extraordinary after he went under the knife in January. "People said I would be out until the end of the season," he said after making his return at the weekend, "but I knew I would be back before then and that belief is the reason why I have made such a quick recovery."
Asked if he felt he would be ready to start tonight's Champions League quarter-final first leg the Argentine, who scored 10 goals before injury struck last December, said: "If I am called upon then I will be ready. I thought after so long out I would be more breathless and feel more pain in my first game back but there was no reaction so I'm fine to start if that is what the manager decides."
Mourinho could yet use Higuain, with Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil behind Adebayor in attack if Di Maria does not recover in time. The Argentine is still carrying a knock picked up in the defeat to Sporting Gijon at the weekend and did not train with his team-mates yesterday.
He joined Benzema on the sidelines – the Frenchman was inspired in the last round of Champions League matches, scoring both home and away in the victory over his former club Lyons. His form since the turn of the year has seen him go through the 20-goal barrier in all competitions and start to look like the player for whom Real Madrid paid £30m at the start of last season.
"He may not even be fit for the second leg," said Mourinho as Benzema continues to nurse a left thigh muscle problem picked up playing for France. One man who was involved in the final session before tonight's first leg was Kaka but the Brazilian is another whose fragile physical state has meant he has spent more time out of the team than in it since he returned from a knee injury in January.
With Kaka, Benzema, Di Maria, Ronaldo and Higuain all at different stages of injury or recovery Ozil – as drained as he looked at the weekend after the international break and suffering in the defeat to Sporting – is at least showing a clean bill of health.
Tonight's match will see him go head-to-head with the player whose move away from the club he rubber-stamped in the summer. "I like Rafael van der Vaart, but I like to see players happy," said Mourinho last night, "and I believe he is now very happy because he is playing. Here with Ozil he was not going to be as happy. He is a good player and so is Ozil. For me it would have been good to have them both but it would not have been good for Rafa."
Ozil was signed for just £13m last summer and that meant Tottenham could sign Van der Vaart – Spanish presidents do not like to see remnants of previous regimes and, bought before Florentino Perez regained office, Van der Vaart was always a player they would look to sell.
Van der Vaart's form for Tottenham could have made that decision look foolish had Ozil not been so impressive. He had a superb World Cup for Germany and has thrived under Mourinho: with nine goals and 14 assists he is a candidate for player of the season at Real Madrid.
"This club has a fantastic player for the next 10 years," Mourinho has said of the 22-year-old. And German national team coach Joachim Löw said last week: "Ozil has always been an excellent player with the ball. Under Mourinho he has become a very good one without it, too."
But despite an excellent first season Ozil cannot be expected to lead the side. His Spanish is still poor and he looked lost on Saturday without Xabi Alonso, who was suspended and will be fit to start in midfield alongside either Sami Khedira or Lassana Diarra.
It was Alonso who was chosen to front a campaign to encourage fans to get behind the team tonight. "Bernabeu don't fail us" was also promoted by Alvaro Arbeloa, Carvalho and Mourinho. All four know the power of big English crowds on European nights from their experiences at Liverpool and Chelsea.
Mourinho said ahead of the Lyons second leg at the Bernabeu: "If people want to come along and watch then that is fine but if they actually want to play the game with us then that will be even better."
Things have gone against the Real Madrid coach since the draw was made. Playing away second was the first setback and the injuries have piled up since. The only plus side has been the way each blow has reduced the euphoria of supporters who believed that, in finally reaching the quarter-finals for the first time in six years, the hard work had been done and that Tottenham would be a pushover for a team who, as Mourinho pointed out yesterday, have won nine more European Cups than their opponents.
With so many injury problems Real Madrid have almost been turned into the underdogs. The walking wounded are relying on last-minute fitness tests and miraculously quick recuperations. Redknapp will not be falling for that one anymore than he was the idea that Ronaldo would miss out on tonight's showdown.