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CHICAGO – Nemanja Nikolic has crossed paths with Real Madrid before. It did not go well for his team.
“It was a big experience for me to play in [Estadio] Santiago Bernabeu,” recalled the Chicago Fire’s star striker and MLS Golden Boot leader after the MLS All-Stars’ Monday morning training session at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Nikolic met the Spanish giants in a UEFA Champions League match last October while starring for Polish side Legia Warsaw. “We played against them, we lose 5-1, but the game was open.
“I had a feeling at that time that they are so good that in every single moment, when they want, they can score goals. They have a lot of good characters, a lot of good players in the squad and their soccer, it’s offensive all the time.”
Nikolic’s tale underlines both the promise and the peril facing the MLS All-Star Team this week as they face the 12-time European champions at Soldier Field on Wednesday (8:30 pm ET on FS1 and Univision in USA; TSN and TVAS in Canada). It’s a rare opportunity for MLS’s best to measure themselves against arguably the most talented team on the face of the earth.
“When you put the ball on the field,” said All-Star and former Madrid icon Kaká, “nobody wants to lose.”
But it’s also an extremely testing matchup that could very easily turn into a humbling affair, given Madrid’s fearsome arsenal of world-class attacking talent.
“It’s an exhibition, but these kinds of games, you can’t turn off,” LA Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme said. “You want to show yourself and get a result. And we have to be focused 100 percent. This is one of the best teams in the world, so you don’t want to get embarrassed. We have to stay focused and be sharp.”
All-Stars coach Veljko Paunovic has been tasked with preparing the home side for this occasion, and the Chicago Fire boss is well-positioned for the job. A longtime standout in Spain’s La Liga, “Pauno” faced the mighty Merengues many times as a player, including several years as a regular with their bitter crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid.
“When you have an opponent like Real Madrid, there is nothing better – there are a lot of great teams in the world but when you have the opportunity to play against Real Madrid, it’s an occasion that you just cannot let go,” Paunovic told reporters Monday.
“You have try to do your best, you have to give a spectacle … but you also want to win. And that’s how we’re going to prepare. My experience with Real Madrid was always that they are a very good team, a quality team, hard mentality. Even when you score against them, they come back. And that’s all I said to our guys.”
Monday’s All-Star training session was primarily a chance for the squad to regenerate and stretch their legs after their respective journeys to Chicago following the weekend’s league action.
Paunovic did spend some time working on team shape, however, as he and his staff try to make the most of their limited preparation time for a high-profile match that will be viewed around the world.
Though reticent to delve into too many tactical details, he made clear that the All-Stars will have to disrupt Madrid’s rhythm and patterns of play if they are to have any chance of pulling off an upset.
“We know that they are comfortable with the ball if there is no pressure on the ball and on the players,” Paunovic said. “But also, they are comfortable without the ball and they are very dangerous in counterattack. We have to be also prepared to match their speed, their pace and their quality with the ball.”
Savoring a rare experience while still battling tooth-and-nail? Nikolic sounds up for the challenge.
“It needs to be fun, because I think we need to enjoy this moment,” said the Hungarian international, “but also on the other hand, in soccer you cannot make a joke from these kind of games. You need to go hard, you need to give your maximum. This is our work.”