Real Madrid are prohibitive favourites to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League—and move one step closer to the fabled Decima—after an emphatic 3-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday.
Real were knocked out of the competition by the German side last season, but a repeat of that memorable upset now looks distinctly unlikely, after Gareth Bale, Isco and Cristiano Ronaldo combined to build a formidable first-leg lead at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Both goalkeepers made a number of saves during an increasingly wet evening in the Spanish capital, but Real’s persistent pressure paid off time and time again as they exposed Dortmund’s weaknesses with a ruthlessness that has been missing from their performances in recent weeks.
14 - Cristiano Ronaldo has scored his 14th Champions League goal of the season, equalling Lionel Messi's record in 2011-12. Super.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 2, 2014
The one sore note from the night for Carlo Ancelotti's side was Ronaldo's late substitution, the Portuguese appearing to complain of knee pain as he was withdrawn with just under 15 minutes remaining.
It is an injury that is likely to be closely monitored over the coming days and weeks.
"Ronaldo had a knee problem but I took him off to avoid any risks," Ancelotti insisted, per UEFA.com. "He is not injured, just a minor annoyance."
Dortmund may have beaten Real Madrid at the semi-final stage of this competition a year ago, but 12 months on and shorn of many of their key players through injuries and suspensions, few gave them a hope of progressing this time around.
It took just three minutes for those prognostications to look justified, as Bale beat Roman Weidenfeller with Real’s first real attack of the game.
It looked a simple finish, but it was certainly a smart one; interplay between Karim Benzema and Daniel Carvajal allowing the right-back to slip a ball into Bale, who took one touch to round his defender before poking a shot beyond Weidenfeller with another.
It was a bitter early pill for Dortmund to swallow, as they had actually started the game on the front foot—winning a corner inside the first minute. But from Bale’s goal, Weidenfeller quickly became the busiest man on the pitch, making a series of save to deny Ronaldo and Bale as they peppered the Dortmund goal from range.
Soon enough Real doubled their advantage, but it didn't come through either of their expensive attacking wonders. Instead it was another summer signing, Isco, who grabbed the goal—the No. 23 showing composure on the edge of the box to find the far corner with a pinpoint effort.
Dortmund were all the while being restricted to long shots, with lone striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang particularly isolated. Kevin Grosskreutz forced one reasonable save from Iker Casillas, but it was not until the second half that the Spaniard was really called into action.
Unfortunately for Dortmund, those moments would not come until they were three goals adrift. This time it was Ronaldo’s turn to get his 14th Champions League goal of the season—equalling Lionel Messi’s competition record.
Luka Modric, industrious all night, was the architect, running from midfield before slipping in his talisman, who outfoxed Weidenfeller with his quick feet to side-foot his finish into the unguarded net.
Suddenly Dortmund started creating chances. Mats Hummels and Aubameyang both squandered half-chances as Marco Reus found Casillas equal to his challenges, before Henrikh Mkhitaryan was forced to look on in disbelief as a last-gasp block from Pepe denied him what appeared likely to be a certain goal.
Jurgen Klopp made all three changes with 20 minutes left to try and freshen up his stretched, tired squad, diminishing the prospect of an away goal that might have breathed a bit more life back into the tie. To their credit, the away side bombed forward at will in search of something but acutely lacked the quality required to break through Real’s defence.
Twice tonight I've thought "Dortmund are starting to play a bit, I suppose." Both times, RM scored.— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) April 2, 2014
Real, however, seemed happy to sit back and attack on the counter, with Bale firing narrowly over after a mazy 40-yard run into the Dortmund box.
Klopp cut a dispirited figure afterwards, noting:
We had a lot of chances to score and pushed forward until the final whistle. It definitely would have helped for the return leg.
We've certainly been in better positions than being 3-0 down. A 2-0 victory in front of our home crowd is always a possibility, but that won't be enough now since we didn't score.
We lacked the final touch in our attacks. We had a lot of counterattacks where we either missed the opportunity or the final ball was inaccurate.
So if we are eliminated next week, it won't just be because of our defensive showing tonight.
There was one sting in the tail, as Ronaldo limped off late on nursing his knee. Real fans will be hoping it is not too serious—his fitness is unlikely to influence this tie, but it could be decisive if they hope to go any further in the competition.
I'm satisfied with the score and the attitude of the team.
It wasn't an easy game but we started well. Then we slowed down and Dortmund are a very dangerous team on the break.
Now we have to play in Dortmund. They use dangerous and quick counter-attacks but our defence was good tonight. We also pushed up to avoid their long passes.
The return leg takes place in Germany next Tuesday. Prior to that, Real Madrid face Real Sociedad in a tricky La Liga tie at Anoeta on Saturday, while Dortmund host Wolfsburg on the same day.