Chapter 568 Impressive Start
Time quickly flashed by, and soon, the kick-off time arrived. The players of both teams, who had just gotten their pre-match instructions from their respective coaches, walked out of the tunnel amid thunderous applause from their fans.
The Juventus players were in their black and white striped jerseys. Their team stars, like Zachary Bemba, Andrea Pirlo, Kingsley Coman, and Arturo Vidal, all looked suave in the get-up. They held the hands of young kids as they walked onto the pitch.
The Real Madrid players, on the other hand, had donned their all-black away jerseys that night. The eyes of their stars, like Sergio Ramos, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Pepe, were all shining with a dangerous glint. They didn't look like footballers heading onto the pitch for a game but scary warriors heading for mortal combat.
"The Real Madrid players look scary," Kristin Stein, who had already taken her seat in the Juventus stadium, commented. After obtaining free tickets from Zachary, she couldn't have missed the match. She had concluded all her chores early and headed to the Juventus Stadium with Emily and a few other friends to watch the crucial first leg of the quarter-final between Juventus and Real Madrid.
"Real Madrid is a tough team. Moreover, some of their players, like Sergio Ramos and Pepe, play a rough game. Let's hope that Zachary doesn't become a victim of their dark arts," Emily said with some worry. She was seated beside Kristin. But even then, she had to shout to make herself heard due to the sheer noise in the stadium.
"You don't need to worry," Kristin consoled. "Zachary is a player who understands the art of protecting himself on the pitch. In fact, if the opponents dare to play roughly against him, he will most likely come out on top. I won't be surprised if he manages to win himself a few free-kicks within the final third. If the conditions are right, he might even go a step further and force a red card."
"That makes sense," Emily agreed. "Let's hope that everything progresses as you have predicted."
Kristin nodded and turned her attention to the pitch. The singing of the UEFA Champions League anthem had just ended, and the players were going through the customary pre-match handshake.
Everything proceeded smoothly, and the rest of the pre-game routines, including the coin toss, ended in less than two minutes. In the meantime, most players headed to their respective sides of the pitch and took their starting positions.
However, the observant Kristin immediately noticed that some Real Madrid players, like Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodríguez, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, and Toni Kroos, were still huddled together close to the center circle. They seemed to be making some last-minute strategizing before the kick-off.
As suspected by Kristin, the few Real Madrid players were, indeed, having a last-minute strategy meeting. James Rodríguez looked at Sergio Ramos and asked solemnly, "Ramos! Do you still remember what the coach said?"
"Of course I do," Sergio answered with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Isn't it just to play holding midfield and stop Zachary's penetrative runs? You don't need to worry. I'll manage."
Pepe smiled a bit derisively and patted Ramos' shoulder. "My friend! Zachary's conversion rate for set pieces is at an insane level. Remember not to go in wholesale when marking him. Don't gift him unnecessary free-kicks in the final third."
Sergio Ramos chuckled. "Look at who's talking. Is there any other player who concedes more fouls than you, Pepe? You better watch out. Don't make reckless tackles in the box or final third."
"Guys, stop fooling around," Cristiano Ronaldo reminded with his signature accent. "The match is about to start. Ramos! Just take Pepe's advice. Avoid going in wholesale when marking Zachary. It will be enough to block and delay him for a second or two, as that will allow Kroos to cover you."
"I will do that," Ramos said, nodding. "Don't worry."
"Good," Cristiano Ronaldo said. "Let's not overthink things at this last moment. We only have to go on the field and perform as usual. If we do that, we'll score goals and win the game."
"True," Pepe said. "Let's just play our best game. Let's show these Juventus players who's boss."
The others nodded and immediately ran off to take their positions.
The clocks around Turin had just pointed to the 8:45 PM mark. Martin Atkinson, the referee, immediately blew the whistle, and the game commenced with Juventus' kick-off.
Carlos Tevez, one of the two Juventus strikers for the day, immediately played the ball back to find Andrea Pirlo in midfield.
The Italian Maestro, on his part, took a touch before threading a pass to Claudio Marchisio, one of the three holding midfielders of Juventus. And with that, the game settled into a steady rhythm as the Juventus players started playing their signature slow buildup passes.
In the meantime, Coach Allegri was busy on the sidelines. He was analyzing Real Madrid's tactics for the game while trying to adjust his own game plan accordingly.
Coach Allegri readily identified that the ingenious and tactically-flexible Carlo Ancelotti had gone with a 4-4-2 double-6 formation to cover the absence of the injured Modric and Karim Benzema duo.
The Real Madrid head coach had played Marcelo, Pepe, Varane, and Daniel Carvajal as the four defenders. He had then fielded Sergio Ramos and Toni Kroos as double pivots or holding midfielders while allowing Isco and James Rodríguez to play wide midfield roles. Lastly, he played Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale as the two strikers to complete his 4-4-2 double-pivot formation.
With his experience, Coach Allegri could see through Carlo Ancelotti's intent at just a glance. The Italian tactician had obviously fielded Sergio Ramos and Toni Kroos as the two defensive midfielders to prevent Zachary's penetrative runs through the middle. The Real Madrid manager had also played Isco and James Rodríguez out wide to allow them to exploit Juventus' lack of wingers.
Coach Allegri studied the opponent's game plan without any change of expression. He had expected all the tactics employed by Real Madrid and put appropriate measures to combat them.
His only prayer was for his players, especially Zachary and Pirlo, to follow his instructions. The rest would be straightforward, and his team would likely gain an advantage sooner rather than later.
On the pitch, five minutes of gameplay went quietly by.
Juventus had started the game strongly, and by relying on excellent midfielders like Pirlo, Marchisio, Vidal, and Zachary, they had taken control from the opening minutes. They were dictating the tempo and hoarding about 60% of the possession while patiently waiting to penetrate Real Madrid's defensive set-up.
The 7th minute arrived, and the ball 'naturally' made its way to the border of the defensive third. It reached Andrea Pirlo's feet, who had suddenly drifted back into defensive midfield to collect it.
At that exact moment, something else happened. Zachary, who had constantly been in battle against Sergio Ramos close to the border of the final third, immediately made eye contact with the Italian Maestro. Then, without bothering to identify whether Pirlo had gotten his message, he escaped Sergio Ramos' harassment and floated toward the left wing.
It was at that point that the high game intelligence of Andrea Pirlo came into play. He had already spotted Zachary making the abrupt run to overload the left wing. Moreover, it was also a move they had practiced several times during training. So, without delay, the Maestro worked his magic. He sent a long-range pass over the midfield and toward Zachary's sprinting path along the left flank.
Zachary, on his part, arrived close to the touchline on the left flank when the pass from Pirlo was about to reach. He stretched out his boot and effortlessly controlled the ball before taking off like a bullet train on the rails toward the other side of the pitch.
Since Pirlo's long-range pass had been too abrupt, it had taken most Real Madrid players out of the equation. As such, Zachary had all the yards of space to utilize on the left flank. He ran like the wind, his long strides eating up yards of space, until he came across the first roadblock in the form of Daniel Carvajal, Madrid's right-back for the day.
Zachary remained composed. His SS-grade agility came into play, and he immediately executed an 'elastico dribble' to draw in the approaching defender. He followed that up with a few step-overs before leaning towards the right, just as if he was about to break through from that direction and cut into the pitch.
As expected, Daniel Carvajal reacted like a typical seasoned defender. He moved in the same direction, hoping to prevent Zachary from cutting into the pitch and threatening his goal.
The gears in Zachary's mind turned and fell into place within a split second when he noticed Daniel Carvajal's reaction.
His SS-grade Balance and Coordination came into play, and he suddenly stopped midmotion. He abruptly altered his center of gravity and aligned his body towards the left side. Then, just as suddenly, he fed the ball past the defender and exploded with pace, driving along the touchline like a rich kid who had just 'borrowed' his dad's Lamborghini.
His SS-grade stamina worked wonders, and he maintained his top speed until he started cutting into the pitch. He soon skipped past a sliding tackle from Toni Kroos and approached the edge of the box from the left flank.
At that point, the Real Madrid defenders had already fallen in place to block his run. Rapha?l Varane and Pepe, the Real Madrid center-backs, were the most problematic and had covered all his shooting angles and possible breakthrough routes into the box. There was also Sergio Ramos, who was rushing at him as if intent on committing murder.
Zachary remained composed despite the circumstances. His spatial awareness worked like a charm, and he spotted Andrea Pirlo arriving at the edge of the box. Without hesitation, he unleashed an abrupt minus, subtracting all the players crowding around the area and setting up Pirlo for a direct shot on goal.
Andrea Pirlo was as razor-sharp as ever. He met Zachary's first-time pass with a blast and sent a powerful ball goalward. His shooting technique was what one could call deific, and his powerful shot zoomed in between the legs of the players in the box, heading towards the goal like a bullet fired from a sniper rifle.
The tension rose to unbelievable levels as all eyes in the stadium looked towards Real Madrid's goal, wondering what would happen next. It was at that point that a gloved hand silently appeared. It was Iker Casillas, the legendary Spanish keeper, taking action. He dived in at the right time to save the day by punching the ball away from his goal and back into the box.
"Damn..." Zachary started the action of placing his hands behind his head, thinking that his team had wasted an opportunity. But halfway through the motion, he stopped as he noticed that a silhouette in Juventus' black and white jersey had pounced on the rebounded ball.
Zachary's hopes soared as he realized that the Juventus man in action was Carlos Tevez. The Argentine striker was like a fox in the box, and he beat all the other players to the ball before hammering it goalward.
Tevez smashed the ball with zeal and power, sending it into the back of the net to score Juventus' 1st goal during the 9th minute. Not even the legendary Iker Casillas could save the situation due to the momentum behind the shot.
Carlos Tevez yelled like a madman and raced towards the touchline. He slid on his knees for a few meters before jumping up and punching the air several times.
His intense celebration showed he was in high spirits after scoring Juventus' 1st goal in a crucial UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid.
Seconds later, the other Juventus players, including Zachary, arrived and celebrated with him. They yelled like there was no tomorrow in front of their home fans. They obviously couldn't contain their happiness after taking the first solid step towards winning the quarter-final against Real Madrid.