Cristiano Ronaldo ended two months of injury torment with a 20-minute appearance as Real Madrid put one foot in the UEFA Champions League knockout phase with a 1-0 Group C home win over FC Zurich on Wednesday.
A 21st minute goal from Argentine Gonzalo Higuain secured a narrow victory for Real who now lead the group, two points ahead of AC Milan who drew 1-1 with Marseille, and need just a point in the final game at Marseille to secure qualification. Ronaldo, top-scorer in this season's UEFA Champions League with four goals in two games, came on in the 69th minute after eight weeks out with an ankle injury and is now ready for El Clasico against Barcelona on Sunday. Real lead the Spanish table by one point from champions Barcelona going into the duel at Camp Nou.
"I am scoring some goals which is nice but the most important thing is we are winning," said Higuain. "This win boosts our chances of qualifying for the next phase of the Champions League and also gives us confidence for the Barcelona game at the weekend."
The Zurich match was a landmark game for Real goalkeeper Iker Casillas who was making his 100th Champions League appearance putting him third in the all-time list led by captain Raul on 129. Raul had been on the substitutes' bench for the past three consecutive league games but returned for the Zurich game with French striker Karim Benzema making way.
Just four minutes into the match Brazilian Kaka showed quick feet to create a shooting chance and his left-footed drive was tipped over. Zurich had caused a major upset by beating AC Milan 1-0 on their own patch but were cautious at the Santiago Bernabeu, putting numbers behind the ball and playing on the counter-attack.
Real probed and got the early breakthrough they craved on 21 minutes with Kaka stealing possession and threading a pass to Higuain who finished with aplomb to enhance his claim for a starting place against Barcelona.
Xabi Alonso, celebrating his 28th birthday, almost scored his first Real goal with his 26th-minute drive pushed wide by goalkeeper Johnny Leoni. Then a training ground routine almost provided the second for Real with Higuain cutting a corner back to the edge of the penalty area and thundering a volley against the post in the 36th minute.
Little on offer from Swiss
Zurich had offered little and a decent long-distance shot from Alexandre Alphonse was their only effort of note but Casillas always looked in control.
After the break Real went in search of a second goal while Zurich continued to offer little from an attacking point of view. Ronaldo warmed up on the touchlines to draw applause from the home crowd. However, Dutch midfielder Rafael van der Vaart, playing for his future at the club, was the first substitution replacing Alvaro Arbeloa close to the hour mark.
Real were struggling to create chances and Zurich grew in confidence with the impressive Alphonse causing some problems with his running from deep. After 69 minutes Real coach Manuel Pellegrini delighted the home crowd by introducing Ronaldo - missing for the past ten games - with Raul coming off.
Ronaldo, who showed some nice touches, came through the match unscathed which was the most important thing from Real's point of view. The former Manchester United man almost scored in the final minute after a good one-two with Esteban Granero but his left-footed shot lacked the power. All in all the second-half display was below-par from Real and they will have to raise their game for treble winners Barcelona on Sunday.
"We are concerned because this isn't how we want to play. It's not the type of play that I as coach like," said Pellegrini, whose side's last three matches - at home to Alcorcon, Racing and Zurich - each finished in limp 1-0 wins. "We are looking very good defensively, but we lack creativity, movement and a little fortune, because here (against Zurich) we had opportunities and didn't convert them.
"It's very probable that there is an excess of anxiety, of pressure, due to the criticism we've received and because some aspects of our play aren't working. The team deserves a lot of credit for being where they are. We aren't playing badly, but we aren't playing entertaining football either."
Pellegrini added: "These minutes will be very good for Ronaldo. He's looked fine in training, and he'd gotten rid of his mental concern about his injury. We all know what Cristiano contributes where he plays."