Decade after Materazzi head butt, Zidane the focus in Italy
ABS-CBN Sports on Feb 16, 2016 07:49 PM
Real Madrid's head coach Zinedine Zidane, center, reacts during a La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Athtletic Bilbao at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
ANDREW DAMPF, AP Sports Writer
ROME (AP) — Nearly 10 years after ending his playing career by head butting Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final, Zinedine Zidane will return to the international spotlight in Italy on Wednesday when he manages Real Madrid against Roma.
Having replaced Rafa Benitez as Madrid's coach last month, the game at the Stadio Olimpico will mark Zidane's managing debut in the Champions League.
While Materazzi is not likely to attend the round of 16 first-leg match, Zidane will come across some familiar faces from the 2006 final in Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi.
Zidane assumed international fame during five seasons as a player with Juventus, winning two Serie A titles, but his legacy in Italy will forever be linked to the incident with Materazzi. Zidane was sent off for head butting the Italy defender in the chest during extra time and the Azzurri went on to beat France on penalties for the title.
"Joy or torment? Zidane in Italy. The story continues," read a headline in Tuesday's Gazzetta dello Sport next to a photo of the head butt.
But Zidane is revered in Spain, having scored the winning goal for Madrid in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen. Since he replaced Benitez, Madrid is unbeaten in six matches and looking to extend its unbeaten run in this season's Champions League.
Here are a few things to know about Wednesday's match:
Having been routed by European powers in recent seasons, Roma will be hoping to avoid another embarrassment against 10-time European champion Madrid.
Roma was beaten 6-1 at Barcelona in November and fell 7-1 to Bayern Munich at home last season.
The Giallorossi also lost 7-1 at home to Manchester United in the 2007 quarterfinals — a match in which current Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice.
However, Roma has shown signs of turning around a disappointing season since Luciano Spalletti replaced Rudi Garcia as coach last month, winning four straight in Serie A.
Newly signed forward Stephan El Shaarawy has scored two goals in four matches and Edin Dzeko ended an 81-day drought with a score in a 3-1 win at Carpi on Friday.
Seemingly at a loss for words to describe Cristiano Ronaldo's goalscoring quality this season, Zidane resorted to using expletives.
"You are here to form opinions as to whether he's playing well or badly or if he's finished," Zidane told journalists after Ronaldo scored twice to help Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao 4-2 on Saturday.
"What can I say? He has shown today that he is — I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say this," said Zidane before using a Spanish slang term that is commonly understood to mean 'amazing.'
With 21 goals in the Spanish league, Ronaldo's tally is high. But only seven have been scored away from the Santiago Bernabeu, and the last time he did so was Nov. 29, leading some to question the 31-year-old's deadliness away from home.
However, Ronaldo arrives at Roma having scored 11 of Madrid's 19 goals in the group stage. He netted a brace each in Ukraine and at Malmo.
Having calmed Madrid's notoriously fractious squad and super-critical fans, Zidane must now test himself in Europe, the club's favorite competition.
He has succeeded in turning disquiet surrounding striker Karim Benzema and midfielders Luka Modric and James Rodriguez to the team's advantage.
Benzema said he learns something from Zidane "every day," and has upped his scoring rate to a goal a match, with 19 goals from 19 La Liga appearances and four in four Champions League matches.
James, who rarely appeared under Benitez, has now scored five goals, provided eight assists and was seen smiling again.
Modric singled out Carlo Ancelotti as his favorite coach at Madrid, but the Croatian's fabulous long-range strike six minutes from time against Granada clinched a 2-1 win for Zidane's team on Feb. 7.
Although Zidane will be without Gareth Bale against Roma due to the recurrence of a muscle injury, left back Marcelo looks to have recovered from a serious shoulder dislocation.
Madrid will aim to avoid conceding goals against Roma, Benzema said. "We must pay attention to the speed of their players," he said. "They can harm us."
Associated Press writer Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.