CL: Cristiano Ronaldo stunner helps Real Madrid defeat Roma 2-0
Real Madrid are strong favourites to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals after a 2-0 win over Roma in Italy.
Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring during the UEFA Champions League football match AS Roma vs Real Madrid at the Olympic stadium in Rome. Pic/AFP
Goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and substitute Jese were enough to hand the Spanish giants a barely-deserved but ultimately significant advantage heading back to the Bernabeu.
Ronaldo's deflected strike, created from nothing by the Portuguese, felt harsh on the hosts having dealt so well with Madrid's star-studded attack in the first hour of the game.
While Jese exposed tired legs to drive at Roma's defence and drill the ball into the bottom corner with only a few minutes remaining.
Zinedine Zidane's side struggled to create clear chances all night against the Serie A giants in the Frenchman's first experience of coaching in the Champions League.
Luciano Spalletti set out his side in a strikerless 4-6-0 formation and succeeded in frustrating the Spanish side in a first half short on goalmouth action.
But when Ronaldo cut inside right-back Alessandro Florenzi just before the hour, his shot hit Kostas Manolas and looped over the despairing Wojciech Szczesney in goal.
Roma threatened on the counter but couldn't turn dangerous situations into clear chances of their own, and lacked a difference-making finisher.
And they paid the price when Jese's late goal likely handed Real Madrid passage through to the last eight.
But what did we learn? Both of these sides were in the curious position of heading into Champions League knockout games with new managers taking over.
For one, Zinedine Zidane, it was his first taste of continental competition as a head coach, while for the wily old Luciano Spalletti it was to be a fascinating return.
Spalletti is incredibly tactically astute - pioneering the strikerless formation around a decade ago - and he had his work cut out against a Real Madrid lineup that glittered with stars.
It was the strongest side Zidane could put out, and some would argue the strongest even had Gareth Bale not suffered a setback in the recovery from his calf injury.
Madrid struggled throughout the game to break the hosts down, relying on a goal from nothing to hand them a lead in this tie that they're unlikely to relinquish in a fortnight's time.
But given the gulf in resources, Spalletti can legitimately be considered to have outcoached Zidane, or, as Sam Allardyce would say, 'out-tacticked'.
When is a 4-3-3 not a 4-3-3? When it's a 4-3-3-0.Luciano Spalletti's first spell at Roma a decade ago saw a tactical innovation that would be picked up and adapted throughout football.
Remarkably Francesco Totti, the striker in that strikerless formation, remains at the club and was on the bench tonight. But more important is the influence that their innovation had - arguably spawning the systems that won the following two Champions Leagues.
Spalletti's 4-6-0 system, roughly a 4-3-3-0, was originally conceived due to an injury crisis but was so effective because the opposing centre-backs had nobody to mark while Roma could absolutely dominate the midfield.
This handed them possession, but the shape was adapted for counter-attacking purposes as time went on and that's a far more accurate description of what we saw tonight.
Interestingly it was Diego Perotti - a winger linked to both Watford and Bournemouth in January but who ended up in Rome - used as the central 'forward'.
As with the 2006 vintage the natural striker was used wide on the left, with Stephan El-Shaarawy filling Mirko Vucinic's boots. On the other flank Mo Salah provided a pacy outlet and the combination of the three allowed Roma to constantly threaten on the counter.
It was their lack of precision in key moments that cost them. Roma's dedication to getting all eleven players behind the ball made life difficult for Real Madrid, whose most dangerous player in the first half was probably a defender, Marcelo. Indeed it is probably telling that he had most joy coming down that flank because Mo Salah was, for the large part, Roma's most attacking player.
His pace on the break was their principal weapon, but far from pinning back Marcelo it meant there was nobody to track the Brazilian and he on occasion provided the Madrid attack with a spare man - even if they couldn't use it to create real chances.
This isn't to say Salah didn't track back, he did. But often he was part of the three-man line that stayed around 30-40 yards from the Roma goal, ready to pounce in the transitional phase.
The average positions of the players from the first 30 minutes - probably the most pure example of Spalletti's gameplan - saw El-Shaarawy so diligent in defence that his average location on the field was actually closer to his own goal than left-back Lucas Digne.
Such a committed approach to stifling Madrid obviously compromised Roma's own ability to create chances but, perhaps more crucially, succeeded in its bid to shut down Zidane's men.
They couldn't see out a result, but as he laid the blueprint for Champions League winners past, Spalletti may have laid the blueprint for other teams to build on who need to beat Real Madrid.
The stats aren't a lie but they don't tell the truth either.While Cristiano Ronaldo has a glut of goals this season he is yet to score against a top-five La Liga side or anyone half-decent in the Champions League.
Until now, that is. There is an argument that Ronaldo's bolt from the blue, just before the hour, is the Portuguese's first genuinely significant goal of the season. And we may look back at the end of the campaign at a deflected strike that was an exception.
But it could be the sort of goal to kickstart the 31-year-old's year. This was only Zinedine Zidane's third game on the road since replacing Rafael Benitez as manager in January but his side is yet to impress in any of those. The first trip saw a 1-1 draw at Real Betis, which wouldn't have been so disappointing had the Seville club not boasted the worst home record in La Liga.
At Granada a last-minute Luka Modric goal dug them out of trouble against the relegation strugglers but the Andalusians were successful in limiting Zizou's men. Spalletti, as discussed, outdid Zidane tactically and strategically only to get stung by two goals. That is football. But Zizou will undoubtedly be concerned about his side's performances away from the Bernabeu.