Real Madrid (-120) at AS Roma (+350), Draw (+290)
Two teams that hit the coaching reset button in December will meet this Wednesday (Feb. 17 at 2:45 PM Eastern) in UEFA Champions League Round of 16 action; Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid will travel to Italy to face AS Roma in the first leg of their UCL playoff.
The play of both teams at the start of the season left ownership wanting more, and the powers-that-be responded in the same way: firing the manager. Roma let go of Rudy Garcia to bring in fan-favorite Luciano Spalletti, while Madrid fired Rafa Benitez to give Zinedine Zidane his first shot as a coach.
Roma were lucky to advance past the Group Stage. They only managed six points in six games (1-3-2) and had a -5 goal differential. They finished tied with Bayer Leverkusen but won the tiebreaker thanks to away goals.
The team has looked a lot better recently, winning four straight in Serie A play over Frosinone (3-1), Sassuolo (0-2), Sampdoria (2-1), and Carpi (1-2). The coaching change has evidently provided a spark.
“The change of coach has changed the mentality. When there’s a change it must be because things are bad, and so things have to change”, said midfielder Seydou Keita to Roma Radio. “The team is improving bit-by-bit … we’re on the right path.”
Real Madrid are still heavy favorites to advance, though, sitting at -600 to qualify for the quarterfinals (versus +400 for Roma). That shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Madrid won Group A with 16 of a possible 18 points (5-1-0) and posted a +13 goal difference (19-6). They’re 19 goals-for were a UCL best.
Striker Karim Benzema knows Roma are dangerous, but still likes his team’s chances. “We need to be wary of the pace of their forwards, who can cause you problems, but we’re Real Madrid, and for me, we’re the best team in the world, and we’ve got the best defenders in the world,” said Benzema to Real’s official website.
Madrid are unbeaten in their last nine (all competitions), with seven wins and two draws.
The all-time head-to-head is pretty even between the sides. Real has a slight 4-1-3 edge. But history has no bearing on the talent gap that exists this year. Real are the stronger side, bar none. They might not get the full three in Italy, but they should at least be able to manage a draw.
Pick: Draw (+290).
(Photo credit: Chris Deahr (Ronaldo vs. FC Schalke 04) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)