The acid test of Rafael Benitez’s credentials at the Real Madrid helm begins with the visit of Shakhtar Donetsk in the UEFA Champions League.
President Florentino Perez has consistently put continental success above domestic trophies, meaning the former Liverpool and Chelsea boss knows will need to engineer a strong run in the competition to prove his worth.
Real have a formidable recent record in Europe’s elite club competition, having made at least the semi-finals in each of the last five seasons, while they have never failed to progress from the groups and have won 12 of their last 13 matches at this stage.
To make matters worse for Shakhtar ahead of the first meeting between the two Champions League regulars, Cristiano Ronaldo emphatically ended his early-season two-game ‘goal drought’ with a stunning five-goal showing as his side romped to a 6-0 win over Espanyol in La Liga on Saturday.
“I like to talk about the team when you get a victory this big, but you cannot forget the five goals Ronaldo scored – and it could have been even more,” said Benitez after the Portuguese star became the club’s all-time top La Liga goalscorer.
“The numbers speak for themselves. Someone who scores so many goals deserves a place in history. There is no doubt about that.
“He deserves his place just like Raul and Alfredo Di Stefano. We are talking about three historic players here. I hope Cristiano will keep scoring, for himself and for the team.”
To add to the team’s confident mood, they are yet to concede a goal in three games under Benitez despite the farcical breakdown of their attempt to sign Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea on transfer deadline day.
The hosts are expected to be without James Rodriguez at the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday after he suffered a thigh tear on international duty in Colombia’s recent win over Peru, while Danilo (foot) will also likely be absent.
Shakhtar themselves come into the tie in decent form having only lost one of their last 13 competitive games after impressively knocking out Fenerbahce and Rapid Vienna on their way to the group stage.
The Ukrainian side will hope that momentum rubs off on their disappointing recent results in the competition proper, as they have won only four in 17 and failed to score in seven of their last 12 Champions League games.