Real Madrid have qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League thanks to a heroic stoppage time equaliser from Antonio Rüdiger, which earned a 1-1 draw against Shakhtar Donetsk and the point that puts the champions through. There is so much to discuss from this game, so here come three of the pre-match questions we had and some of the new questions we now have ahead of El Clásico.
1. Would Real Madrid qualify for the last 16?
Mathematically sealing passage to the Champions League knockouts was the objective from this trip to Warsaw to face Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Madrid went there knowing that a draw would do the job. Even if many fans and – quite frustratingly, to be honest – many journalists and commentators didn’t seem to realise this, a draw was also enough for Real Madrid tonight, no matter what happened in any other game. Therefore, Antonio Rüdiger’s heroic last-gasp header put Los Blancos into the last 16 already, which also means they’ve once again reached the next round of the Champions League in epic fashion, this time with the defender finishing the game covered in blood because of his clash with goalkeeper Anatolii Trubin just milliseconds after getting to the ball first. Real Madrid now have a four-point advantage over RB Leipzig and a five-point advantage over Shakhtar, but they can’t both catch up because they also have to play each other in Matchday 6.
2. How would Vinícius do off the bench?
Ancelotti has spoken in press conferences about how the youthful energy of Eduardo Camavinga and Rodrygo can sometimes be even more useful when they come on as substitutes because they can use their verticality “at a point when the game has broken down”. But, what about when Vinícius comes on as a substitute? We don’t see that often, as the Brazilian had started every game this season, but he was given a rest to begin with here. Then, when he came on in the 57th minute, surely he would also be young, energetic and talented enough to similarly capitalise on opposition tired legs. Well, he didn’t really do so in his 33 minutes on the pitch. The Brazilian had a nice sequence with Luka Modrić, a dangerous shimmy and shot and a header over the bar, but wasn’t his usual self as he attempted just three dribbles, one of which was successful. It seems he’s just more effective as a starter.
3. What’s with all the inexperienced referees?
Have you recognised the referees who’ve done Real Madrid’s four Champions League matches so far? Do you even recognise the names of Sandro Schärer, Maurizio Mariani, Ivan Kružliak and Orel Grinfeld? Maybe not, and that would be more than understandable since they are all fairly inexperienced officials at this level. In total, they’d whistled a combined total of just 24 Champions League matches between them before this season. It seems UEFA are trying to bring through the next generation of referees and to give them the experience of refereeing matches as high-profile as Real Madrid ones. That’s all very well, but it means Real Madrid have had to ensure a number of poorly refereed matches this Champions League season. This was the latest.
1. How often will we see Rüdiger in the emergency centre-forward role?
Rüdiger was epic in this match. In defence – which we’ll get on to – and in attack too. Towards the end of the game, when Real Madrid were chasing a goal, he moved position to become an emergency centre-forward, just like Sergio Ramos used to do. And, like Ramos, Rüdiger scored a stoppage time equaliser in the Champions League, doing so with admirable bravery. Apart from the goal, the German had had another header just beforehand which dropped narrowly wide. Will we see this more often in the future when Real Madrid are trailing, like we used to do with Ramos? Ancelotti was even asked about this in the press conference and said: “We put Rüdiger up there for the final five minutes because we were putting in many crosses and he, along with Militão, is our best header of the ball.”
2. Will Real Madrid ever fail to qualify from their group?
Once again, Real Madrid will be present in the next round of the Champions League. They remain the only club to have qualified through the first group stage in all 31 of the editions of the Champions League, with the next closest being Bayern Munich who have qualified 28 times and who can make it 29 tomorrow. Will the most successful club in the history of this tournament ever fail to make it through the groups? It’s more likely that this record will end from the Champions League changing format than from Real Madrid falling at the first hurdle.
3. Is Mendy the defender whose Clásico spot is most at risk?
In defence, Rüdiger was also excellent in this game. And Nacho too, by the way. But, in theory they’ll both start El Clásico on the bench, with Éder Militão and David Alaba as the starting central defensive pair. During this game, the big debate for Madridistas was whether Rüdiger should start against Barça in place of Militão. Perhaps, though, the defender whose presence is most at right is Ferland Mendy. He was the one at fault for the Oleksandr Zubkov goal, losing that aerial duel almost comically. I still think Mendy will start El Clásico, but there is a scenario where Alaba starts at left-back, with Militão and Rüdiger in the middle, which is what Real Madrid did here after Alaba came on in the second half.