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Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo still has room to build all-time great legacy at Juventus’ expense

For the first time in over a decade, Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t the main topic of discussion of a major cup final featuring the Portuguese star. With Real Madrid on the verge of being the first club to retain the Champions League, the Portuguese forward has occasionally floated amongst the peripheral this season.

Nevertheless, the trials and tribulations of eight years in Madrid may result in Ronaldo’s greatest achievement since moving to the Spanish capital. A La Liga/Champions League double at the expense of city rivals Atletico, and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona would validate their dominance as world football’s alpha club. All this in the latter stages of the 32-year-old’s career.

A career that was supposed to be on the decline continues to enjoy the success that many could only dream of. Ronaldo equally remains one of the key components to Zinedine Zidane’s outfit, as the transition from high-flying roaming left-sided forward to a clinical forward has been seamless.

“Obviously what I want the most is to play more freely up front,” Ronaldo said. “That is the opportunity Zinedine Zidane has been giving me as a No. 9. I play freely. I play on the wing, down the middle. I play whenever I think I should.”

From a silverware perspective, the last 12 months have been the greatest Ronaldo’s ever experienced. Yet, oddly enough, the final in Cardiff means more. Not solely to build on Real’s trophy haul, or representing the focal point in another Champions League milestone. For once, this is about Ronaldo.

No mentions of Lionel Messi. No distraction of a summer move from Old Trafford to the Santiago Bernabeu. With guidance from Zidane, Ronaldo has been working hard for this moment. A chance to produce a display that will be cemented in football history for years to come.

Perhaps that’s one of the few, if not, sole criticism left in the anti-Ronaldo arsenal. Although it can be deemed extremely harsh, very few can argue that greatest players of our generation delivered genuine world-class final’s moment. Whether it be Lionel Messi’s 2011 Champions League final master-class, Xavi’s metronomic control in both the 2009 Champions League Final and 2008 European Final or Ronaldo’s goals in the 2002 World Cup final, the small group of players that dazzled over the past 20-years have shifted the game in some manner.

At the conclusion of his career, Cristiano will be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned greats, but what sets him apart is the lack of a truly defining moment. The infamous Copa del Rey winner in 2011 along with the goal that practically clinched La Liga in 2012 were magnificent moments in Real history, but on the biggest stage, Ronaldo hasn’t been able to provide the extra bit of quality we’ve grown accustomed to.

This is not to say that Ronaldo “doesn’t show up for the big games.” Frankly, the 32-year-old’s ability to score goals is unparalleled and he epitomizes the ultimate modern day “big game” star, but even when you examine his performances in recent title triumphs, the Portuguese forward has been fairly underwhelming.

During the earlier stages of Ronaldo’s prime at Manchester United resulted in the opening goal in Moscow, yet he was subsequently denied by Petr Cech in the shootout. The following year, Ronaldo was merely a bystander in a fairly one-sided defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Oddly, Ronaldo’s significance decreased in Real’s success over Atletico. However, the 32-year-old still managed to score a penalty in both finals – with last year’s goal securing Real’s second Champions League title in three years. Even in last summer’s European Championship, Portugal defeated host nation France following the captain’s first half departure due to injury.

Frankly, much of Ronaldo’s inability to showcase his optimum talent on the biggest stage has been associated with fatigue. This year, however, Zidane’s altered his talisman’s training regimen and opted to rest the Portuguese international in pivotal domestic games against inferior opposition.

“He knows himself that sometimes he has to not play,” Zidane said following Real’s first leg semi-final victory over Atletico. “It’s not just this year; it’s an accumulation over the years. He knows that himself because he is intelligent.”

In return, Ronaldo discovered the best form of his career post-May since the turn of the decade, which has witnessed the forward single-handily guide Madrid to the final in Cardiff.

He arguably eliminated two favourites en route to the final with hat-tricks against Atletico and Bayern Munich, scoring 8 goals over both legs. Likewise, Ronaldo scored six goals in Real’s final four league games to edge out Barca in the final week of the La Liga season.

Though, far from tactically competent, and still lacking balance in certain areas, Zidane’s Real compliments Ronaldo’s transition into a conventional forward. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are two of the finest ball-playing midfielders in world football, whilst Marcelo and Dani Carvajal offer crossing from advanced full-back positions.

If Zidane prefers width, Karim Benzema can operate in the channels, whereas Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez have offered pace and defensive discipline from wide areas. Then, there’s Isco who has helped Real overload central areas but also provides the guile Madrid can lack if Kroos and Modric aren’t floating around the penalty area.

Where Mourinho’s counter-attacking Madrid benefitted Ronaldo’s pace, power, and trickery during his prime, Zidane’s version – stemming from Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival that led to a proactive outlook of the game – provides ample service for the reliable Portuguese goal-scorer. Under Mourinho, Ronaldo was the ultimate counter-attacking player, but his evolution along with the Real methodology alteration under Ancelotti and Zidane suggests he’s now the ultimate forward.

In truth, although Ronaldo continues to maintain an unprecedented level of excellence at 32, the decline many have harped about could limit what would be an advantage for the newly-crowned Spanish champions. On paper, Ronaldo charging into space behind Dani Alves and running at Andrea Barzagli appears to be an area that would concern Juventus in previous seasons.

But this version of Ronaldo may prefer to exploit the Juventus defence with his athletic and aerial superiority. Apart from a few moments of brilliance from Lionel Messi, Massimiliano Allegri’s Juve have been susceptible defending crosses from wide areas – a route to goal Ronaldo utilized to dispatch Bayern and Atletico – and will encounter difficulties preventing the 32-year-old from scoring.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Ronaldo’s first Champions League triumph, and despite the various heartfelt narratives surrounding the final, football’s biggest stage is still about him. At 32, he remains the best, and most dangerous player on the pitch, capable of deciding a match within seconds.

History beckons in Cardiff, but with nothing else to prove to the cynics, the possibility of being the first team to retain the Champions League in this era presents Ronaldo with another opportunity to enhance his football immortality with one memorable performance against Juventus.

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Zidane’s Real Madrid wins battle in wide areas against Ancelotti’s Bayern Munich

Real Madrid’s quest for a historic European cup/league double was under significant threat when they drew Bayern Munich in the semi-finals, but as typified under Zinedine Zidane’s tenure, the reigning European champions squeaked past Carlo Ancelotti’s men.

Notching two away goals at the Allianz Arena placed Real in a great position to knockout the tournament favourites, and stylistically, suggested the hosts would receive opportunities to break on the counter.  With Gareth Bale unavailable due to injury, Zidane altered his side’s shape to a 4-3-1-2 with Isco floating behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.

Zidane’s tactical tweak was possibly intended to ensure Real dominate the midfield zone, whilst providing space for the full-backs to push forward to provide width. Real’s heroic first leg fight-back was largely responsible to the proactive positioning of Dani Carvajal and Marcelo to exploit Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery’s reluctance to track-back, and it was likely both outfits would aim to dominate wide areas.

Ironically, the hosts encountered issues in the opening stages of the match in wide areas. Bayern’s first legitimate goal-scoring chance involved David Alaba overlapping Ribery in half space to pick out Thiago, but Marcelo blocked the Spaniard’s shot, while Robben smashed the rebound into the side-netting.

Robben also made similar moves into half space to receive passes from Philip Lahm, but Bayern’s productivity in wide areas – specifically Alaba’s crosses – was underwhelming. The away side equally received space in the channels to break in transition, but the likes of Ribery, Robben and Lewandowski failed to launch these swift transitional moves.

But where Bayern easily found space behind the Real full-backs in the channels, the hosts’ full-backs still surged forward behind Ribery and Robben. The other issue Bayern encountered was Xabi Alonso’s immobility ahead of the back four – he played extremely poor passes, was dispossessed when pressure was applied, and easily overrun in midfield – and Real breaking into space behind the full-backs.

Carvajal delivered a cross into the box that Manuel Neuer pushed into the path of Sergio Ramos, but the Spaniard’s effort was cleared off the line. Ronaldo also wasted a chance when he broke into a breakaway down the right channel, and also spurned an opportunity that stemmed from a brilliant solo Marcelo run.

Nevertheless, what proved to be an extremely open match in the first half swiftly changed as Bayern took ascendancy by retaining possession for extensive periods, whilst persisting with creating overloads in wide areas. Kroos and Modric’s protection decreased as the match wore on, thus leaving Carvajal and Marcelo unable to cope with Bayern’s wide threat.

Alaba and Ribery combined down the left with the former charging into half-space to create Robben’s chance that was cleared off the line. While Robben subsequently attacked the aforementioned space to earn a penalty that was converted by Lewandowski. Lahm and Robben continuously overloaded Marcelo with the latter lofting balls to the far post and attempting to clip forward passes over the Real defence, as Vidal, Alaba and Ribery spurned chances in the box.

Zidane, however, deserves credit for sacrificing Benzema for youngster Marco Asensio, and eventually Isco for Lucas Vazquez as Real reverted to a 4-1-4-1 to ensure there was proper protection for the full-backs. Real remained deep out of possession but with ensured structure, thus enabling Carvajal to lead a 3v2 counter-attack which should’ve resulted in a goal.

The general pattern of the match altered in the latter stages with Bayern’s sole chances stemming from Robben attempting to clip balls from the left over the defence, whereas Real began to locate Ronaldo in the box. The Portuguese forward struggled throughout the match, but similar to Real’s first leg triumph, Ronaldo eventually isolated Lahm to level the score-line.

Coincidentally, Thomas Muller’s introduction pushed Thiago deeper alongside Alonso, thus providing Lewandowski support around the box.

Bayern fortuitously regained the lead via a ball over the top for Muller to chest into the path of Lewandowski, and although the Polish striker didn’t score the goal, the move highlighted the shift in the away side’s approach following Zidane’s formation alteration. Robben also attempted a pass over the top for Muller in half-space to tee up Vidal but the Chilean’s shot was blocked.

Ultimately, Vidal’s harsh dismissal drastically shifted the pattern of the match. Ancelotti turned to Joshua Kimmich for Lewandowski, which pushed Muller upfront and the young German alongside Thiago in midfield. Bayern were now heavily reliant on Robben’s counter-attacking threat from the right, whereas Marcelo’s running also proved crucial.

Ronaldo began to locate pockets of space in the final third to receive possession, and although his final two goals were offside, it equally highlighted the Real talisman’s evolution into a classic goal-poacher. Mistakes from the match officials will continue to dominate headlines, but in pivotal moments throughout the tie, Ronaldo’s ability to adopt dangerous positions was the decisive factor.

In a tie heavily dominated in wide areas, where Bayern were deprived a fully-fit Lewandowski, Real could rely on arguably the best no.9 in the sport. Albeit Bayern’s potential second half fight-back, Real were worthy winners, and Zidane deserves credit for making significant alterations over both legs to ensure Real preserved their status as Europe’s dominant club.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2017 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Barcelona’s identity crisis suggests “Messidependcia” lives

Barcelona’s 1-1 El Clasico draw against Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid was perceived as a loss rather than one point gained. Though it may only be December – with more than half the season to play – Real’s six-point lead over their rivals is an assuring gap.

The Spanish champions’ recent rut includes four draws in five games, in which Enrique’s men have struggled to impose their authority on opponents and are simply devoid of attacking flair in the final third. In majority of these matches, the Catalan side’s attack was completely tame, and you could argue that in most scenarios, barring Lionel Messi’s brilliance, Barca were rather fortunate to avoid defeat.

The treble winning season witnessed Barca go on a tremendous run of form at the turn of the year that possibly coincided with Messi moving to the right so Luis Suarez could roam laterally into the channels to lead the line. Last year they broke away from the pack in the first half of the season, but suffered a losing streak in the spring – that included a Clasico defeat to Real and a Champions League exit by Atletico – and were ultimately rescued by Suarez’s glut of goals.

Perhaps the tactical periodization so heavily mentioned when many defended Barca’s poor form under Enrique is responsible for their slow start to the season, but stylistically, the issue seems more severe. Where you could once argue Barca possessed the best XI in world football, the fear of potential injuries encouraged the club to heavily bolster their depth over the summer.

The arrival of Denis Suarez, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes, Samuel Umtiti, and Paco Alcacer provided depth in areas that Barca felt they risked vulnerability if injuries occurred. But where you can argue that the reigning Spanish champions have a better squad, Enrique’s men haven’t necessarily progressed.

Success is often the downfall for most football clubs because if you tinker with a winning side you risk tampering with the overall balance. Yet, when clubs opt to persist with the current squad or improve depth, they often experience regression as opponents identify ploys to negate their threat and equally evolve as well.

The issue many had highlighted during the early stages of Enrique’s tenure, but in terms of the club’s philosophy following the Guardiola era, the current Barcelona side still featuring Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets is drifting in a different direction. Enrique’s signings have been predominantly direct players opposed to legitimate ball treasurers, which was an integral trait in midfield during the Guardiola era.

In truth, it starts with their work-rate out of possession: the high intense pressing, and swarming counter-press in central areas is barely displayed. Dropping into two banks of four, Messi and Suarez have remained central – though they perform their fair share of closing opponents down from the front – but Barca retreat into their base shape, conceding ample space in central areas.

Elsewhere, as witnessed in the most recent draws at the Anoeta and Clasico, when Barca encounter heavy pressing, they no longer possess the personnel capable of retaining possession until the opposition tired. Simply marking Busquets out of the match deprives Barca of control in midfield, thus leaving the front trio isolated upfront and starved of service, whereas the option of Gomes, Arda Turan, Rafinha and to an extent Denis Suarez have been overrun and out-worked in central areas.

This was also witnessed in a comeback victory over Sevilla a few weeks prior, but Messi’s second half brilliance was pivotal to the eventual outcome. Messi was forced to drop deeper to spread possession, play penetrative passes in advanced positions, and ignite breaks with his dribbling, which resulted in a goal and game-winning assist from the Argentine.

Essentially it takes away from Pep Guardiola’s initial plan of keeping Messi within close proximity of the opposition’s goal, but the Argentine’s passing range prevents Barca from simply aiming to quickly play passes into the attacking trio’s feet. Talks of “Messidependcia” have decreased in recent years, but if Busquets’ influence is negated, Enrique’s Barca now seem heavily reliant on the 29-year-old.

Messi has scored 62 per-cent of Barcelona’s goals since defeating Manchester City at the Camp Nou in mid-October, and in many of those games he’s been the defining factor between wins and losses. Though Messi wasn’t at his best against Real, he was still involved in the club’s best moves and frankly should have won the game.

To be frank, that was the negative aspect of the Clasico result from a Barca perspective. Although they squandered two legitimate opportunities to secure maximum points, it took Iniesta’s return to slightly improve the entire dynamic of Barca’s play. The Spaniard is one of the few core players remaining from prior success, and though his game is heavily based on his swift dribbling, he still represents a calm presence in possession.

But Iniesta’s lack of consistency in terms of overall displays at the club level suggests that even his presence in the XI isn’t the definitive answer. Rakitic and Suarez’s poor form, the slight tweaks to Neymar’s role – that saw the Brazilian hug the touchline before cutting inwards – combined with the unrealistic demands on the new young summer signings to immediately adapt to the Barca style coincides with the current identity issue at Camp Nou.

Once renowned for their wonderful team play and built around a ball-retention philosophy, Enrique’s Barca transitioned into an individualistic side suffering in a broken system. Coincidentally, it’s rivals Real, that pride themselves in buying the best individuals under Florentino Perez, that now represents a pragmatic cohesive side under Zidane.

Real pressed the Barca midfield intelligently at the Camp Nou, and under the guidance of the magnificent Luka Modric they comfortably disrupted the hosts play and enjoyed positive moments on the counter. Even with several first-team players unavailable due to injury this season, and Cristiano Ronaldo possibly suffering from regression, Real have found ways to win games, whilst remaining compact and defensively resolute at the back.

Ironically, now, Real’s midfielders can control games though ball retention and pass their way to victories, along with still retaining the devastating frontline that can exploit the smallest errors on the counter-attack. In what’s clearly a hybrid of proactive and reactive football, the most important element to Zidane’s success involves keeping fringe players happy, and being able to count upon his entire roster to abide by the Frenchman’s pragmatism through tactical discipline.

Real Madrid haven’t been stellar this season, but unlike Barca, when playing poorly, they’ve found ways to win games. When key players were missing, and the youngsters filled their roles admirably, meanwhile at the Camp Nou it’s difficult to harp the same tune. Enrique’s tenure as Barca manager has been equally peculiar: despite claiming the treble in the first season and a league-cup double last year, the reigning champions have failed to perform well over the duration of a full season.

Losing integral players that understood what was once Barca’s default system – like Dani Alves, Xavi and Pedro – has essentially provided a stylistic dilemma, but equally placed additional workload on Messi, in particular. Where Enrique can’t be faulted for turning to youth, Messi’s brilliance won’t overshadow the issues at Camp Nou.

The increasing concern on individualism amongst the front three and quick counters leaves Barca without a clear systematic approach. Perhaps Iniesta’s return and the eventual winter break can allow several Barca players to rediscover their optimum form to alleviate the pressure, but with Real representing possibly the most settled side in Europe – given the personnel – Enrique’s margin for error is slim.

Barca may have improved their depth this summer, but at the moment they simply aren’t performing as a cohesive unit under Enrique, and the reliance on Messi is reaching insurmountable levels.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Arsenal clash could rejuvenate Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United

Jose Mourinho’s latest misfortunes as Manchester United manager could place a dent to his managerial legacy. Once referred to as a mastermind tactician, Mourinho’s majestic mantra that’s attributed to his silverware dominance in several countries simply doesn’t have the same effect.

The witty pre-match quotes and everlasting swagger has been replaced with negative comments towards his players and officials. Whereas the siege-mentality that transformed his players to sacrifice their bodies for results is non-existent.

More so, although the Portuguese manager’s sides are more expansive than in recent years, the attacking flare displayed going forward consequently affected the solid base he once sought out. Since his move to Real Madrid, Mourinho’s worked with an abundance of slender technically gifted players, but has failed to combine his personnel with the ruthless defensive mentality that displayed in previous sides.

With social media and the modern soccer player now being protected throughout their youth career, Mourinho’s attempt to motivate his players through harsh criticism has back-fired, thus leading to several behind the scenes locker room squabbles. The ability to control the press, his players and the opposition with his words was one of the United manager’s best traits, but now he does more harm when he speaks.

The aforesaid criticism towards his own players and smug body language on the touchline is reminiscent of Mourinho’s mood towards the conclusion of his Chelsea tenure. However, Mourinho has failed to overcome the slight stylistic shift in modern football, which emphasizes on dynamic pressing across the pitch.

Where possession football was heavily praised and emulated over the last decade, Mourinho’s aim to disrupt and destroy was innovative, despite the negativity received for creating dull encounters. Now, Mourinho’s reactive approach is simply outfoxed by dynamic units that press cohesively and quickly break forward in numbers.

But like his predecessors, life at Manchester United has been difficult. Sir Alex Ferguson, a fond admirer of Mourinho, equally endured difficult moments at United, but his ability to construct new ideas and maximize the talent at his disposal over a lengthy period is what made him great. Mourinho, on the other hand, is stumped and doesn’t seem capable of identifying an alternative winning formula.

United currently sit eight points behind league leaders Liverpool, and though Mourinho has rarely tinkered with his starting XI, it’s evident Mourinho is unsure of his best XI or his optimum formation. Despite improving under Louis van Gaal, United were abject for extensive periods prior to the arrival of the Portuguese manager, and a few big name signings have yet to rid the robotic-esque football showcased in the red side of Manchester.

More worryingly, the fact that the cheapest and lesser-known Eric Bailly can be deemed the standout summer signing at Old Trafford summarizes the current state of the club.

It’s equally alarming that the remaining three signings haven’t really improved the starting XI. Zlatan Ibrahimovic started the season well, but his passing has been mediocre when he drops deep, and still contributes to United’s issue of predominantly playing ahead of the opposition. Pogba, on the other hand, struggles to influence games without being a defensive liability in a midfield two, which is a completely different role to the one he adopted at Juventus.

“He [Pogba] can play in so many positions,” Mourinho said in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports’ Andy Burton

“The problem is not the position. The problem is not the tactical system. The problem is, in my opinion, somebody that comes from a different style of football and needs this time to be at his best level in football that is really difficult to play, especially for midfield players.”

Then there’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan who has yet to feature for United since his 45-minute cameo in the Manchester derby. Therefore, apart from the decision to drop Wayne Rooney, very little has changed from the youthful side that finished fifth last season.

Elsewhere, Pep Guardiola has expanded Manchester City’s possession-based football and provided positional flexibility to the club. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Chelsea have been the standout performers due to their non-involvement in European competitions, thus offering the managers additional training ground preparation.

Mourinho, however, has persisted with a 4-2-3-1, but is further going against the template that brought him success in the past. Perhaps this is a case of the manager attempting to prove the cynics wrong. It can also signify the awareness that his technically gifted outfit are better suited to a sleeker style, opposed to the Chelsea and Inter Milan sides built around physically imposing centre-backs and powerful midfielders.

The permanent switch to this system took place at Real Madrid, but in midfield he possessed the balance of a passing holding midfielder, and an energetic runner in Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. Since then, catering to Cesc Fabregas’ creativity backfired, whereas now, Pogba isn’t consistently performing at an elite level in a midfield two.

Similar to his most successful sides post-2004, the use of a natural ball-winner and two shuttlers was pivotal, yet it’s odd to see Mourinho – who has publicly claimed his preference to use the system as an alternative – reluctant to push Herrera and Pogba further up the field. The system alteration was logical at Madrid, as it enabled Mesut Ozil freedom to create – yet even in the bigger games, Ozil operated from a wide position, making sharp runs towards the flanks to create space for his teammates.

Though Juan Mata’s been one of United’s standout players this season, the Spaniard simply doesn’t perform at the level that warrants a formation change. However, Pogba performed well in this position closer to Ibrahimovic at Anfield, and could excel higher up the pitch if Mourinho wants to strengthen his midfield.

Nevertheless, despite the personnel void in specific areas, United’s issue doesn’t rest in the options at Mourinho’s disposal – he currently has a big enough squad with various skill sets to challenge for the league. Besides the first half hour against Manchester City, defensive errors have played a decisive factor in United’s erratic league form.

In ways, United are reminiscent of the Borussia Dortmund side during Jurgen Klopp’s final season. Dortmund finished seventh in the Bundesliga, yet their league position didn’t justify the strength of Klopp’s men. Battling injuries to nearly their entire back-line throughout the season, Dortmund created numerous chances per game, but were simply let down by poor finishing and defensive errors.

Mourinho proved he can still gain results in the big games following United’s solid display at Liverpool, but the Red Devils still struggle to convert quality chances into goals. United aren’t playing poorly under Mourinho, but there’s a distinct disparity between this current side, and his teams of the past that were devastatingly efficient in the final third and diligently organized out of possession.

“We kept creating chances and then by magic they crossed the midfield line and scored a goal which is very unfair for us,” said Mourinho following United’s draw to Stoke.

“I have to say they were lucky but luck is part of football. My tribute to them is they are not guilty of our bad luck, so congratulations on a good point for them.”

Nonetheless, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have undergone contrasting careers, but the start to the 2016/2017 Premier League season suggests change may be imminent. A rivalry that started following Mourinho’s initial arrival to England witnessed Arsenal transition from title contenders to top four challengers, whereas Mourinho developed into one of the greatest managers in world football – subsequently winning domestic honours in three different countries.

Mourinho’s return to the Premier League three seasons ago restored the feisty enmity between the two managers, which even led to Wenger being deemed as a “specialist in failure.”

“If he is right and I am afraid of failure it is because I didn’t fail many times. Eight years without silverware, that’s failure,” said Mourinho.

“He’s a specialist in failure,” continued Mourinho. “If I do that in Chelsea, eight years, I leave and don’t come back.”

Yet since Chelsea’s 2015 title triumph, the tide appears to be turning in Wenger’s favour. Mourinho was sacked by the Blues ahead of their worst title defence in Premier League history, and his appointment at Manchester United has been filled with inconsistent results.

But where the aforementioned Premier League managers have altered their side’s previous philosophy – even Wenger has added a new dimension to Arsenal’s game by utilizing Alexis Sanchez as a centre-forward – perhaps its time for Mourinho to stray away from his initial approach. The pressure is mounting at the club – albeit it’s expected he’ll receive ample time to build a squad that meets his desire – but conceding his first Premier League defeat to Wenger would provide a seismic statement, and ultimately diminish United’s title hopes.

For United and Mourinho, underachievement remains risky considering what’s transpired over the last few years, but it would certainly put the latter at a cross-road. We’ve seen the brilliance of Mourinho’s managerial skills in an era-defining period upon his arrival to England, but it may be time to replicate his counter-parts’ decision to adjust what many consider to be an outdated approach, along with identifying the ideal system and roles for his players.

What may be heralded a new era that redefines the elite clubs in the country, could see Mourinho oblige to change, and potentially risk concluding one of the most successful managerial tenures at the club level.

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2016 in Premier League, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Real Madrid – Atletico Madrid

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Cristiano Ronaldo Fernando Torres Copa del Rey – Round of 16 Real Madrid vs Atlético Madrid Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (Courtesy of Flickr/DSanchez17)

Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid were seconds away from European supremacy.

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Projected Starting XI’s

Following a remarkable La Liga triumph over Spanish powerhouses Barcelona and Real Madrid, Sergio Ramos last second header ignited an extra time onslaught, ultimately depriving Simeone’s men of an historic double. Carlo Ancelotti’s attack-minded substitutions – introducing Marcelo and Isco, which pushed Luka Modric into a deep-lying role – offered constant pressure against a fatigued Atletico side lacking a legitimate counter-attacking threat, and Simeone’s men couldn’t cope in the remaining 30 minutes of extra-time.

Though Atleti were so close to the unthinkable, it always felt like Real would notch an equalizer. What occurred subsequent to Ramos’ goal doesn’t reflect what occurred two years ago in Lisbon, yet this Saturday’s rematch at the San Siro offers a chance for both Madrid clubs to claim their first piece of silverware since that pulsating final.

“Revenge is a negative word, because it harks back to a defeat; on the other hand, opportunity is about optimism, confidence and what’s to come, and that’s what we want to show in the Champions League,” said Simeone.

“It was also perhaps a more mature squad, with the likes of [David] Villa, Raul García, Diego Ribas, [Jose] Sosa and Mario Suarez. This squad is different because it’s full of young players who are going through all this for the first time and will undoubtedly come out much more mature for the experience.”

Although the general pattern of the match will remain unchanged, the contrast in the paths both clubs have undergone is disparate. Where Real’s starting XI is fairly similar, only six Atleti players remain from the 18 named to the matchday squad two years ago. Certainly that highlights Simeone’s wonderful work at the Vicente Calderon, whilst eliminating tournament favourites Bayern Munich and Barcelona to receive another opportunity to claim the one trophy eluding the Argentine during his four years at the club.

Then, Atleti were without the clever Arda Turan, while Diego Costa’s hamstring resulted in the Spanish international’s premature departure within the opening five minutes. Atletico had developed the ideal formula to suffocate rivals Real through physicality and tackling – there 24.6 tackles per game is the highest in Europe –  but Simeone’s current side have evolved into a much better unit.

Still initially operating in a 4-4-2 with Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann dropping ahead of the opposing midfielders to clog spaces in midfield and cut off passing lanes, Atletico now assemble themselves higher up the pitch, and are capable of employing an aggressive press in the early stages of matches – this was illustrated in Saul’s opener against Bayern in the first leg of their semi-final clash. This could fluster the Real centre-backs and defensive midfielder Casemiro, as they’re culpable of committing errors when pressed, and forced to receive the ball in tight spaces. Yet, Simeone often makes mid-game adjustments which witnesses his side revert to a 4-5-1 by pushing Antoine Griezmann wide and Koke into midfield to help protect central areas, while the former joins the attack from deep or charges into the channels.

While the defence remains well-drilled – Simeone’s men conceded 18 league goals this season – the midfield offers improved technical ability, and the combination of Torres and Griezmann ensures they enter Saturday’s final with a legitimate goal-threat. Griezmann’s pace is vital when Atletico quickly turn defence into attack via transitions, and he provided 22 league goals as evidence.

Then there’s Torres. Once regarded as the world’s most revered striker, the Spaniard rediscovered his goal-scoring form following his return to his childhood club. Although Torres’ pace has been an afterthought in recent years, he currently serves as a battling centre-forward capable of linking play with the midfield, whilst developing a deadly partnership with Koke when the Spaniard operates in an advanced central role.

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Courtesy of Flickr/Ver en vivo En Directo 

This is a younger, flexible Atletico side to the one that stumbled with literally seconds remaining of full-time, and Simeone deserves credit for the club maintaining an elite level despite several key departures. Perhaps Atleti head into the final as underdogs, but in terms of natural balance, organization, tactical discipline, and cohesion, Simeone’s men are far superior to their city rivals.

However, Real’s strengths, particularly the midfield zone, have also shifted along with their manager. Similar to the 2014 final, Zinedine Zidane’s men are likely to include a natural holding midfielder in Casemiro with hopes of negating Atleti’s threat on the counter-attack. But opposed to having a direct runner capable of linking midfield and attack in Angel di Maria, now Real covet two exceptional ball-playing midfielders ahead of the Brazilian.

Modric was pivotal to Real’s dominance in the final half hour of normal time two years ago, and his short penetrative forward passes will be decisive against an Atleti side that rarely concedes space between the lines. Kroos, on the other hand, must also have a good game due to Atleti’s compact shape as a possible option to overcome a congested midfield zone is to overload the flanks and quickly alter the route of attack with diagonal balls – Real’s key players operate in wide zones so this is a logical attacking ploy.

“It’s one of these matches in which anything can happen, it will be very complicated.” Zidane said Tuesday.

“We are not talking about a team that only defends well. It’s a very complete team. It knows how to play. It can create a lot of difficulty to the opponent when it has the ball.”

Ronaldo and Bale have struggled to influence derby matches in recent years due to Atletico’s excellent organization, and where Juanfran and Filipe Luis have been excellent this season, they equally receive additional cover from their wide players. This means Ronaldo and Bale will often be outnumbered in wide zones, and with the full-backs likely to be cautious with their positioning, the aforementioned wingers’ aerial prowess could be significant via crosses and set-pieces.

Set-pieces were decisive in Lisbon two-years ago, and Atleti still possess a legitimate threat with Diego Godin attacking balls in the box. Real haven’t necessarily replaced Iker Casillas with a commanding goalkeeper, and though Keylor Navas’ shot-stopping skills are amongst the best in the world, Simeone may aim to exploit this area.

Real once symbolized the superior club in Madrid, but constant turnover via managers and players has suddenly resulted in a slight decline. Simeone’s four-year spell at the club has been the difference, and through assembling the best defensive unit in Europe, he’s transitioned the 2014 finalists into arguably the best club in the world.

The ability to mount challenges on both fronts with a completely new squad signifies the culture Simeone has instilled at Atletico, and his side represents a template for what Real should aspire to become. But a moment of individual brilliance from Zidane’s star players can shift that belief, and where Simeone has built a sustainable elite side despite financial restraints, a Real win would be the fitting end to an era that is slowly appreciating the commencement of their neighbours’ dynasty.

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Real Madrid 1-1 Juventus

Alvaro Morata of Juventus celebrates after scoring during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Real Madrid CF and Juventus at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 13, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.

Juventus progressed to their first European final in 12 years, earning a significant 1-1 draw against holders Real Madrid.

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Massimiliano Allegri made one change to his XI that defeated the Real Madrid last week in Turin, slotting Paul Pogba into midfield alongside Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo.

Carlo Ancelotti persisted with a 4-4-2, welcoming back Karim Benzema to his attack, and pushing Sergio Ramos to centre-back alongside Raphael Varane.

In ways, this was very similar to the first leg: despite Real negating service into Juve’s strikers, the away side nicked an early second half goal, and remained organized and compact in deeper positions to close out the match.

Real stop overload/Shape

Sometimes it’s interesting to see how a personnel change can shift the pattern of an overall tie. Juve maintained an overload in central areas in the opening stages of the first leg due to Gareth Bale’s reluctance to press Pirlo – along with Vidal dropping deeper – thus providing Allegri’s side with an outlet into the strikers.

Benzema’s inclusion, however, ensured it was 4v4 in midfield. Juventus, though, encountered a few issues with their system. Even though Marchisio and Pogba pressed the Real full-backs when they received the ball, the Juventus midfielders couldn’t cope with Marcelo and Dani Carvajal’s adventurous running.

kroos juventus

Also, while Benzema stuck close to Pirlo, neither Carlos Tevez nor Alvaro Morata were interested in picking up Toni Kroos. Kroos was free to dictate the tempo of the match from deep positions, often playing a few exquisite diagonal balls behind Pogba for Carvajal.

Marcelo

It’s not often that defensive players serve as the most significant factors in key European ties, but both full-backs were pivotal to Real’s goal threat. In the first leg it was Dani Carvajal’s clever ball into half space that allowed James to create Ronaldo’s goal, and here, Marcelo was equally important.

Against sides that play in two narrow banks of four, with midfielders playing in wide roles – specifically Atletico – Ancelotti has relied on the width from his full-backs to stretch the game – it’s quite simple, but the quality in these areas coincide with Real’s efficiency.

However, Marcelo’s threat was displayed in several ways throughout the match. In the first minute he stormed past Marchisio and clipped the ball to the far post, but Bale’s tame header flew over the net. Later on in the half, the Brazilian showcased his passing range – Marchisio also failed to close him down quickly – by clipping a ball into half space for Benzema, but Patrice Evra cleared his compatriot’s pull back to Ronaldo.

For the most part, majority of Madrid’s attacks stemmed down the left flank, with Ronaldo occasionally drifting over to the touch-line to create space for himself to receive the ball, It was Marcelo’s pass into Ronaldo that led to the Portuguese forward charging towards the box, before James won the penalty that put Madrid ahead.

Where Ancelotti may have introduced attacking full-backs later in the second half to torment a leggy back-line, both started at the Bernabeu as Madrid were required to score. Still, Marcelo didn’t tire and overloaded the left flank on two occasions – with James and Isco initially, then Ronaldo – but Bale skewed both chances inches wide of the net.

Marcelo juventus

Marcelo was undoubtedly Madrid’s best player — he was the catalyst behind Madrid’s best moves, and recorded the most take-ons and passes in the final third.

Juve approach

It appeared that Allegri might have reverted to a 5-3-2 to preserve a slender first leg lead, but the Juventus manager persisted with four ball-playing midfielders, and simply instructing his defensive line to sit a few yards deeper.

Following a shaky 10-minute spell, it was evident that the plan was to instantly get the ball into Morata and Tevez’s feet. Initially, Tevez aimed to scamper between the lines, while Morata played off the last shoulder, but the away side got into dangerous positions through the former breaking into Madrid’s half.

Tevez dispossessed Kroos twice in the first half to break forward, storming into Madrid’s half to win a corner, while Vidal forced Iker Casillas to make a key save. Though Juve was calm in possession, and retained the ball confidently in short spells, apart from quick breaks through Tevez, the away side failed to create legitimate goal scoring opportunities from open play.

Madrid counter

Another interesting feat at the Bernabeu was the pattern change following Ronaldo’s opener. Both sides operated in a variation of a 4-4-2, and where Juve initially dropped into two banks of four, Real followed suit knowing Ronaldo’s penalty would secure progression.

The issue with Allegri’s selection, however, was the lack of natural width. This meant Evra and Stephane Lichtsteiner surged forward to help stretch the pitch, thus leaving space in the channels for Madrid to break into. Similar to Juve, Ancelotti’s side easily ignited swift counters to move into dangerous positions, but this was purely based on the system tweak opposed to individual errors.

First, James’ clearance into the left channel freed up Benzema to play a reverse ball into Ronaldo, but the recovering Lichtsteiner’s presence – despite being dropped to the floor – forced the Portuguese forward to deliver a cross, rather than shoot. Real exposed space behind Lichtsteiner minutes later through a simple Bale outlet pass, but this time the Swiss defender’s recovery run forced Ronaldo to rush his shot into the side netting.

Pogba moved in-field to create space for Evra in the early stages, but the Juve were susceptible to counters when they pushed the full-backs forward. Both Lichtsteiner and Evra were cautious with their positioning in the second half.

Ramos – Varane

Sergio Ramos’ poor outing in Turin led to Ancelotti placing the Spaniard in his preferred position at the Bernabeu, which helped Real shut down Juve’s main threat. Real’s centre-backs proactively stepped forward to intercept passes and prevent the away side’s front pairing from turning towards goal.

Ramos juventus

Although this effectively limited passes into the strikers, there were moments, when Morata in particular, held up the ball superbly and linked play with his teammates. Likewise, this forced Ramos and Varane into silly challenges away from Juve’s half, enabling the Italian club to push forward to alleviate constant waves of pressure.

Morata and Tevez fouled

Coincidentally, it was Ramos’ clumsy challenge on Vidal that resulted in Morata scoring from the subsequent set-piece. Perhaps Ramos and Varane’s proactive defending stifled Juve’s main strength in the first leg, but it equally backfired on the European champions.

Final half hour

Morata’s equalizer prompted both managers to make identical moves from the first leg to alter the match. This time Javier Hernandez replaced Benzema, whereas Allegri reverted to a 5-3-2 with Andrea Barzagli moving into defence at Pirlo’s expense.

The match followed a similar pattern at the Bernabeu with Madrid chasing a goal, and Juve sitting deep in their half to defend their lines. Ancelotti’s side reverted to hopeless crosses that were comfortably dealt with, and shots from distance that failed to test Gianluigi Buffon.

Juve, on the other hand, equally had their chances, with Vidal breaking lines on two occasions, yet Morata and Tevez were reluctant to set the Chilean free on goal. Another example of Morata’s hold up play was also on display when he rolled Varane to play a pass into Vidal, who instantly slid the ball to Marchisio in the box, but Casillas made a key save.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF duels for the ball with Arturo Vidal of Juventus during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Real Madrid CF and Juventus at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 13, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF duels for the ball with Arturo Vidal of Juventus during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Real Madrid CF and Juventus at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 13, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.

Fernando Llorente and Roberto Pereyra were summoned in the latter stages, with the former also holding off Varane to create a chance for Pogba – further showcasing Allegri making better use of his bench than Ancelotti. Madrid lacked imagination for large portions of the second half, and despite the home side’s territorial dominance – and a few squandered Bale efforts – they never looked like scoring.

Conclusion

Stylistically, there were minimal changes to the tactical battle at the Bernabeu. Madrid continued to attack through their full backs, and attempted to thwart Juve’s threat through proactive defending from their centre-backs.

Yet the pattern in both legs perfectly illustrated Real’s issue this season. They squandered several chances in the opening period, stagnated and conceded a goal midway through the match, and failed to provide Ronaldo with service (reverting to hopeless crosses into the box) in the latter stages.

More importantly, Juve didn’t concede in open play, and deserve credit for defending superbly in two banks of four, while executing from a set-piece. Allegri comfortably out-coached Ancelotti over two legs, and will likely be forced to adopt similar tactics against Barcelona’s fluid South American attacking trio in Berlin.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Juventus 2-1 Real Madrid

TURIN, ITALY - MAY 05: Alvaro Morata of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Juventus and Real Madrid CF at Juventus Arena on May 5, 2015 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images) Credit: Marco Luzzani / stringer

TURIN, ITALY – MAY 05: Alvaro Morata of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Juventus and Real Madrid CF at Juventus Arena on May 5, 2015 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Credit: Marco Luzzani / stringer

Juventus recorded an impressive home victory against reigning European champions Real Madrid, courtesy of goals from Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata.

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Massimiliano Allegri was still without Paul Pogba in his preferred 4-3-1-2, and handed Stefano Sturaro a place in midfield alongside, Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo in midfield.

Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo formed a pacy strike partnership upfront in Carlo Ancelotti’s 4-4-2. Sergio Ramos maintained his makeshift role in midfield with Toni Kroos, whereas James Rodriguez and Isco drifted infield from the flanks.

This was something of a traditional European Juventus performance under Allegri: the Bianconeri attacked directly with balls into the strikers, and once they regained the lead in the second half, showcased the ideal manner in closing out a match through organized defending.

Juve welcomes pressure

The most interesting tactical approach throughout full-time was Juve’s approach in the first half. Most Serie A teams are often ridiculed for their inability to cope with intense pressing and dynamic opposition, but under Allegri, Juve have managed to overcome the stereotype.

Similar to their victory over Borussia Dortmund in the round of 16, Juve intended luring Real forward with patient passes in their half, and then bypassing the press with simple lofted balls into their strikers. Real, however, weren’t keen on blitzing the hosts with pressure in the opening minutes, and were at times reluctant to move higher up the pitch as a unit. A simple Leonardo Bonucci punt saw Morata’s presence fluster Pepe, but the Spaniard’s audacious chip nearly fooled Iker Casillas.

Nonetheless, with Vidal dropping deeper into midfield to create overloads, Juve were free to play vertical passes into advanced positions, and Tevez shifted into space behind Ramos and Kroos. It was Pirlo’s ball into Tevez between the lines that led to Sturaro recording Juve’s first shot on target. Following a terrific Juventus passing move, it was Tevez again that drifted into an ocean of space between Marcelo and Raphael Varane to receive a pass from Marchisio, and fire a low shot at Casillas, which ultimately resulted in Morata’s tap in.

Juventus goal real madrid

This was a brave decision from Allegri, but Morata’s positioning on the last defender stretched Real’s shape, and the Spanish side’s reluctance to press, combined with Juve’s overload in central areas, enabled Tevez to find space between the lines.

Real sloppy in possession

Juve was equally proactive without the ball in the early stages. The shuttlers pushed forward on the wingers, and while Kroos was free to retain the ball, Juve’s centre backs weren’t scared to step forward ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

There was a moment when Chiellini stepped forward to dispossess Bale, which resulted in Tevez receiving the ball in space and firing an audacious effort wide of the net. Sturaro also nicked the ball off Ramos in the opening half and broke down the left channel before cutting the ball back to the Argentine striker, but his effort was poor once again.

More importantly it was Morata who led by example: the Spaniard forced Casillas into a poor pass to Marchisio that led to a Vidal penalty shout, and dispossessed Varane in Real’s box, but was harshly penalized for a foul. While lackadaisical play from several Real players resulted in several Juve transitional moves, the hosts’ discipline to quickly close down their markers proved beneficial.

Real attacks

Real eventually settled into the match once Juve dropped deeper into two narrow banks of four. This was the identical shape Real adopted when Juve monopolized possession, but where the Italian champions appeared perplexed when required to break down the opposition, the away side overcame their issues through width from the full-backs.

With James and Isco moving infield, central areas were congested, which could also explain the former’s delivery into the box for Varane serving as Juve’s first scare. Prior to Ronaldo’s goal, it was the Portuguese forward’s diagonal run between the centre-backs to meet Isco’s delicate through ball that stretched the Juventus back-line.

However, Juventus’ deep positioning prevented Ronaldo and Bale space to run into, and their narrow shape limited Real’s creative players from sliding incisive balls behind the back four. Where Juve bypassed Real’s midfield band with balls into the forwards, the away side countered their issue by pushing the fullbacks forward. Coincidentally, the duo completed the most passes in the attacking third at Juventus Stadium.

Marcelo Carvajal juventus

It was Dani Carvajal’s clever ball into half-space for James that bamboozled Juve’s defence and allowed the Colombian to deliver the cross for Ronaldo’s equalizer. It was one of many long passing moves – and also similar to Juve’s patient buildup for Morata’s opener – that eventually prevailed due to width. Real nearly took the lead minutes from half-time from a similar move that saw Marcelo and Isco overload the left flanks, but James’ nodded the latter’s cross off the bar.

Second half

Juve started the second half with the energy that was displayed in the early stages of the first. Allegri’s men pressed higher up the pitch once again to prevent Real from playing out the back, and created the first legitimate chance of the half when Tevez turned Pepe and fired a shot directly at Casillas.

Although the home side’s ambition to win possession higher up the pitch was successful in the first, the initial ten minutes of the second was stop-start due to Real constantly breaking lines. Stephan Lichtsteiner, Sturaro and Bonucci all committed cynical fouls to half Real breaks, and it appeared the match was shifting in Real’s favour with every passing minute.

2-1

Then came the equalizer. While it may have been another direct move involving the two Juventus strikers, it was rather fortuitous then planned. Still, Real were caught on the break, a situation Ancelotti should have been wary about heading into this tie – particularly following Juve’s triumph over Dortmund earlier this year.

Marcelo’s shot ricocheted off Kroos, igniting a 2v2 break between Juve’s strikers and Real full-backs, which resulted in both men being fouled – Carvajal clipping Tevez in the box. Tevez notched his 29th goal of the season from the spot, but also shifted the match back into Allegri’s hand despite a nervy start to the second half.

Both managers react

The goal forced both managers into significant system alterations. Ancelotti turned to his only fit striker, Javier Hernandez, to replace Isco, as Madrid effectively became a 4-3-3. Allegri instantly reacted by inserting Andrea Barzagli into defence for Sturaro to make Juventus a 3-5-2 that eventually transitioned into a 5-3-2 out of possession.

Bale Ronaldo Juventus

Bale was finally involved in the match, receiving space downn the right flank, but Real’s attempt to blitz the penalty area with hopeless crosses proved unsuccessful, as Juve’s experienced back trio and Gianluigi Buffon coped well. In theory, the move was supposed to provide a focal point upfront, but also offer more service into Ronaldo, but the Portuguese star’s threat in the final third was scarce.

Juve, however, comfortably managed the final quarter of the game. They were organized defensively, whereas Morata held up the ball well to bring his teammates forward. Allegri’s substitutions were equally impressive, replacing Morata for compatriot Fernando Llorente, and Tevez for the energetic Pereyra.

Llorente was involved in the two best chances of the match subsequent to Tevez’s winner. Once again a simple Marchisio ball over the top troubled Varane – who had a poor outing – enabling Llorente to round Casillas, but Carvajal intercepted his pull back to the onrushing Pereyra. Then, from a stoppage time Pirlo free kick, the Spaniard nodded a tame effort at Casillas.

Tevez’s winner forced the Italian managers to alter their approach, but in terms of preparation and overall efficiency, Allegri outwitted Ancelotti.

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Carlos Tevez of Juventus celebrates as he scores their second goal from a penalty during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Juventus and Real Madrid CF at Juventus Arena on May 5, 2015 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) Credit: Michael Regan / staff

Conclusion

The overall pattern of the match went as expected when you assess Juve and Real’s road to the semi-finals. Ancelotti has often relied on width from the full-backs to overcome narrow defensive lines, whereas direct balls into Morata and Tevez has been Allegri’s method of bisecting the opposition’s pressing.

But Juve’s method of baiting Real into pushing higher up the pitch was interesting. Yet it’s difficult to understand Ancelotti’s approach in this tie. Surely several players performed poorly – Bale, Varane, Ramos, and to an extent Marcelo – but Real appeared flabbergasted by Tevez’s movement in the opening stages, and constantly looked vulnerable when balls were played into the strikers.

It’s unlikely that Real will perform this poorly at the Bernabeu, but they haven’t been entirely impressive at home this season.

Allegri’s second half changes preserved a positive home triumph over the reigning champions, and it’s likely he may stick with a three-man defensive system with the wingbacks maintaining cautious positions, and rely on quick counters led by their dynamic front two in the return leg at the Bernabeu.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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