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Real Madrid and Ronaldo Book Ticket to Milan, but Face Dilemma over Liga Push

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2016

Real Madrid's Gareth Bale, left, and Cristiano Ronaldo, right, celebrate with their teammates at the end of the Champions League semifinal second leg soccer match between Real Madrid and Manchester City at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Wednesday May 4, 2016. Real Madrid won 1-0. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Francisco Seco/Associated Press

Barely an hour had passed following the full-time whistle, but already the focus was shifting.

In the press room at the Santiago Bernabeu late on Wednesday night, Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane had said it was important not to miss the now amid the excitement for the next—"tonight we must enjoy the moment," the Frenchman asserted—but others were already looking ahead anyway. 

After all, this was big, but what was still to come was bigger. 

So the questions started coming, the fitness of stars a primary concern, the intrigue centred on the path from here: How was Cristiano Ronaldo? How were Karim Benzema and Casemiro? Was it full steam ahead in the league or rest up until the day?

Zidane was as calm as ever, looking at ease over particular individuals. "We're not going to hold off until the final, we've got important games coming up now," he said. Quickly, though, he added: "At the same time, we won't be taking any risks."

After Real Madrid's 1-0 victory over Manchester City in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final tie on Wednesday that secured a place in the final in Milan, that line neatly summed up the dilemma now facing Zidane and his men: From here, is it flat-out or cautious? One focus or two?

"That is the good thing about football," added Zidane, "thinking about what is in front of you."

And for Madrid, there's plenty to think about. 

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 04:  Zinedine Zidane the head coach of Real Madrid looks on during the UEFA Champions League semi final, second leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 4, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo
David Ramos/Getty Images

For a clash of such magnitude, Wednesday's meeting between this competition's aristocracy and its nouveau riche was a strange affair. 

As ever for these nights, the Bernabeu had that feeling that defines both it and its club. Outside, the crowds to meet the Real Madrid team bus were colossal and frenzied; inside, there was that edge and that buzz unique to this venue, a palpable sense of connection between players, fans and what occasions like this represent. 

And yet despite that, what unfolded was a game that never really got going—much like the tie as a whole. 

Madrid were dominant, and their intensity was obvious, but there was also a sharpness missing in attack. They were a little chaotic, a bit messy, lacking the incision and explosion that stands at the heart of their identity.

Part of that was perhaps due to their opponents. 

In City, Madrid had curiously passive guests on Wednesday. This stood as one of the biggest occasions in City's history, but it was as if there was a disconnect of sorts. It didn't seem to rally them. It didn't move them. Seemingly stuck in a second-or-third-gear haze, Manuel Pellegrini's men didn't force Madrid to do much, the hosts hardly vintage but comfortable throughout. 

Perhaps another part to that, though, was the condition of Zidane's squad. 

Ronaldo entered this clash on the back of a three-game absence because of a thigh injury, and looked just short of full fitness despite his assertions otherwise. Alongside him, Gareth Bale also looked genuinely sore just prior to half-time, but soldiered on. Elsewhere, both Benzema and Casemiro were sat in stands nursing problems of their own, while Zidane appeared to be protecting Luka Modric when withdrawing the Croatian late on. 

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 04:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid in action during the UEFA Champions League semi final, second leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 4, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo A
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

If Madrid looked like a team sore and somewhat rundown, that shouldn't be a surprise. Wednesday's outing was their fourth in 12 days at the back end of a long season, and all of them had been "complicated," as Zidane often puts it—two crunch meetings with City, two tense affairs in La Liga against Rayo Vallecano and Real Sociedad that were harder than anyone had anticipated. 

In all, Madrid have been forced to grind, fluency lacking, each clash unable to be settled quickly. In other circumstances, the priority now would be to rest up until the date in Milan, but what Los Blancos have instead is a delicate juggling act. 

In the league, two games remain, and a title is not out of the equation. Only one point separates Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real, and though the latter need favours from the other two, now isn't the time to concede defeat. Not when you're this close. 

But that poses problems. 

Madrid will remember their march to La Decima two seasons ago, and how their opponents, Atletico, arrived at that year's Champions League final battered, bruised and running on fumes because of an unrelenting slog in the league.

Of course, Atleti were successful in that regard, historically so, but when they travelled to Lisbon, they were without Arda Turan, without one of Diego Costa's hamstrings and without the collective legs to see it out. 

Madrid now face that same problem: Do they go flat out in the league despite the title's fate lying in the hands of others? Do they push ahead with Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema and Co. in the hope of landing a colossal blow to both their neighbours and their eternal rivals domestically?

Or do they risk conceding the league to prioritise their day in the spotlight in Milan?

Their ticket is booked.

The question now centres on what path they'll take there.