Ruthless Real's work is far from done
Cristiano Ronaldo is setting records again and Zinedine Zidane is back in favour after Real Madrid brushed aside Paris Saint-Germain to reach their eighth consecutive Champions League quarter-final.
After a bruising few months, in which Real have limped out of the running for every domestic honour, they saved their best for the Parc des Princes and what defender Sergio Ramos described as the club's "favourite tournament".
Certainly, their emphatic 5-2 aggregate victory over PSG was as convincing as it was comfortable, and an unprecedented third straight Champions League triumph, the fourth in five years, is now within reach.
Ronaldo's form this season has, not coincidentally, matched that of his team.
Inititally below his own high standards in La Liga, particularly at the Santiago Bernabeu, he has sustained his performances in Europe and hit a peak in recent weeks.
The Portguese's opener in Paris means he now has 15 goals in his last nine games overall and, in the Champions League, has scored in a remarkable nine consecutive matches, equalling the record of Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Zidane, meanwhile, disregarded in February, is top dog in March, lauded in Spain for his tactical acumen against Unai Emery, and strength of character for picking a bench that included Gareth Bale and Isco, as well as Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, both available after injury.
- Rehearsals for Europe -
But Real must now turn their revival into something more concrete.
Lose in the quarter-finals, or even the last four, and the success over PSG will quickly retreat from view, replaced by a likely third-place finish in La Liga and lack of silverware added in the equation.
Perhaps a squad that won the league title last season, and owns three Champions League triumphs, has lacked edge in the campaign´s early stages but is sharpening with a major prize in sight.
"We've had difficult moments in the Liga and Copa del Rey, but it's always difficult to maintain the same level while playing every three days," Zidane said on Tuesday.
"You can't always win everything, but we're winning now in the Liga and we have to look ahead to our game with Eibar on Saturday."
Zidane has begun treating domestic games almost like trials for Europe, rotating key players or trying other ones in unfamiliar positions.
That strategy will be tested in April, given Real host city rivals Atletico Madrid in La Liga, the weekend before their quarter-final second leg.
By then, Bale will hope to have played his way back into favour. The Welshman was left out of the starting line-up in France, just as he had been for the first leg in Madrid three weeks before.
Snubbed for Real's two biggest games of the season so far, Bale would appear to have reached a crossroads in his relationship with Zidane, whose explanation afterwards was brief but revealing.
"Today it was important to have two lines of four, to defend well against their wide players," the Frenchman said. "We did that very well."
Fit again, and seemingly finding form, Bale faces a fight not to be deployed only in Real's throwaway fixtures.
"For sure Bale would prefer to play more," Zidane added. "All the players are important here, which is what I look at.
"Gareth is one of them. He did not start the home or away (games against PSG), but he will play games. He is an important player for us."
© 2018 AFP