Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Real's familiar machine motors on to Cardiff

Real Madrid maintained their march of glory in Europe by thumping city rivals Atletico 3-0 in their UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg last week.

Cristiano Ronaldo scored another hat-trick and bagged yet another record, the first man to reach 50 goals in the knock-out stage of the competition.

Barring an almighty upset Los Merengues are heading to Cardiff to defend their trophy on the 3rd of June. But are we excited? Not really.

Real of course have won two out of the last three Champions Leagues and FIFA Club World Cup and successfully moved out of the intimidating shadow of the Barcelona renaissance.

And yet there is still something underwhelming about Real being the world's top team. Perhaps it is because the core of the side have been there for some years there is no excitement of expectation of the future, or maybe it is because Barça invented a new form of football - tiki-taka, which defied conventional wisdom by attacking through the middle and most congested part of the field with short passes.

Real by contrast use the conventional weapons of spreading passes wide, putting balls frequently into the box, and piling in on corners and crosses with aerial threats like Sergio Ramos and Ronaldo and the muscular Karim Benzema.

In Ronaldo they also posess the best accelerator in the game and perhaps the best aerial attacker. Gareth Bale we also know has exceptional blessings of pace and power to penetrate the best defences.

But a lot of their side underwhelm when considered as footballers alone: Keylor Navas is able between the sticks but not one of Europe's top ten goalkeepers.

While Pepe and Sergio Ramos (combined age 65) are evergreen, the rest of their back line do not excite: Fabio Coentrao, Danilo, Nacho and Rafael Varane seem reliable but not exceptional defenders, while Marcelo, a useful crosser of the ball in the final third, has long been error-strewn.

In midfield Real seem solid rather than skilful. Toni Kroos is an adequate but unexceptional holding midfielder and even his more creative partner Luka Modric is not as inventive or penetrative as his replacement at Tottenham, Christian Eriksen, who is surely on the Bernabeu radar.

Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic has made 24 starts this campaign but only scored once, while Brazilians Casemiro and Danilo hardly get the heart racing either.

Young Spanish attacking talent in the form of Isco and Alvaro Morata have played minor roles this season, with 16 and 13 starts this season respectively.

Meanwhile James Rodriguez, golden boot winner at the 2014 World Cup for Colombia, has made only 12 starts and eight substitute appearances in 2016/'17, although his eight goals make a decent return.


Obviously the system employed by coach Zinedine Zidane works like a treat, based around making the most of Ronaldo's talents and if they are both fit, Bale and Benzema. The midfielders work hard to make sure the back four is not exposed at the other end.


And they also have strength in depth, as evinced by their comfortable 4-0 win away at Granada last weekend with a second eleven, a strength which makes up for the lack of galacticos in every position.


Clubs with big pockets can afford to have big squads to navigate a variety of competitions and whatever injuries come their way, so what keeps Real ahead of the pack is probably settled players and a simple system, a manager they trust and the high quality of their attackers.


There have been more remarkable dynasties in the Champions League/European Cup - think of the Real who won the first five, Cruyff's Ajax of the 1970s, Liverpool of the early 1980s, Milan a decade later or Pep Guardiola's Barça for starters.


There have also been some stellar one-off winners: Red Star in 1990 (although they played for penalties in the final they had dazzled on their way there), Louis Van Gaal's youthful Ajax of 1995 and Jose Mourinho's Porto in 2004.


But the current crop from the Bernabeu, albeit less obviously outstanding, still deserve to be remembered as dominating Europe, whatever the aesthetics or ingenuity of their playing style.


A stern test in Cardiff awaits next month, but Real will almost certainly take the field at the Millennium Stadium as favourites once more.


Staying at No.1 is no mean feat in football.


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile



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