Real Madrid 3 – 1 PSG

PSG v Real

Picture courtesy of AS English

Twitter was awash with Adrien Rabiot’s comments after PSG’s 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the first leg of their Round of 16 tie at the Bernabeu. “It’s all well and good putting 8 goals past Dijon, but it’s in matches like this that you have to stand up and be counted”, he told reporters just after the game, his words tinged with more than a dose of frustration. On a night that Real Madrid barely turned up, PSG managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of, well, not-defeat. The collapse wasn’t of Camp Nou proportions, and one could point to a couple of unfortunate breaks in the concession of both goals, but the manner and timing of Real Madrid’s second and third goals has done nothing to convince critics that the oil-fuelled PSG machine is ready to win the Grand Prix.

How they lined up…

Real Madrid, except for Carvajal (suspended for getting himself suspended – brilliant), lined up with their Gala XI. Nacho, who has quietly been excellent this season, whether filling in for Ramos or Varane, was given the nod at right back. Isco, in and out of the side in the last couple of months as his form has gone off the boil, was included in what seemed like a Real Madrid bid to control the midfield area.

Unai Emery, for PSG, preferred the greater security of Yuri Berchiche to the buccaneering Layvin Kurzawa. Loanee, Kylian Mbappe, got the nod over the unfortunate Angel Di Maria (who has been flying in 2018). However, the biggest surprise (?) was the exclusion of Thiago Silva, with the 22-year-old Presnel Kimpembe favoured. Kimpembe was superb in PSG’s 4-0 trouncing of Barcelona but didn’t play in the 6-1 thrashing that was the second leg (Thiago Silva did!). He acquitted himself well on the whole and few can point to his selection being a cause of the defeat.

Observations

The Damp Squib of a Midfield Battle

PSG played a triangle in midfield, with Verratti and Giovanni Lo Celso playing in a line at the base, and Rabiot at the tip, just in behind Cavani. Against a different team, say Barcelona, Rabiot would have been tasked with shutting down Busquets, but Casemiro does not pose as much a playmaking threat. This left Rabiot free to roam in midfield, although he was very diligent in dropping back to prevent easy passes into Real’s midfield.

The main problem PSG faced all night was how Lo Celso and Verratti interpreted their roles. The Argentine youngster is an attacking midfielder, used to playing higher up the pitch. At the Bernabeu, with Motta not match fit and Emery paying respect to Real’s reputation, he was instructed to play deeper, forming a dual shield in front of PSG’s defence. While his passing was accurate for the most part, it was generally cautious and safe, with his positional movement in the same vein – he rarely ventured forward in or out of possession. Marco Verratti, essentially chaperoning an inexperienced Lo Celso, could not afford to abandon him to shielding duties on his own, so was more conservative in his positioning (he did play a couple of excellent forward balls for Neymar to run onto, but these were few and far between). PSG’s midfield structure and personnel lacked balance, an issue exacerbated by Emery’s tactical safety which, particularly in the first half, often left only four men attacking. While it resulted in a goal when Mbappe’s cross was deflected into the path of an onrushing Rabiot, it meant that PSG struggled to really seize the initiative Real Madrid left up for grabs.

Real’s midfield was standard – however, it never took control of the game. Isco, particularly in the first half, struggled to make his mark on the game. Toni Kroos’ brightest moments were precisely that – moments. He burst into the box in the second minute and nearly won a penalty, tested Areola with a shot from outside the box, and finally won a penalty when an idling Lo Celso pulled him back as he broke into the box. Luke Modric, except for a couple of nifty bursts between the lines, had a pretty average game by his standards. This wasn’t a game where he needed to be spectacular, and he wasn’t.

Cross the Ball and Hope You Die

Even with Carvajal missing, and a midfield diamond in place, Real Madrid’s football is all about width – it’s how Cristiano Ronaldo thrives. This match was no different. One of the reasons the midfield battle was so uninspiring was because both midfields were set up, even with the sparkling individuals in both, to serve a basic function. PSG’s was to stop Real’s which was superfluous because Real’s was never particularly interested in trying to play through PSG’s – it’s job was to funnel the ball wide and pump in crosses. Real Madrid, over the last two years, has cemented its status as perhaps the greatest crossing side in the history of the game – if it ain’t spoilt, why fix it? While Neymar’s dribbling infield is a key part of PSG’s attacking strategy (on his own, he attempted as many dribbles as the whole Real Madrid side), Real Madrid focus on creating overloads in wide areas and swinging crosses into the box for Ronaldo to feast on. It’s interesting to watch them and see how often their midfielders drift into advanced positions on the wings and in the channels to facilitate crossing opportunities. Ronaldo’s second and Marcelo’s goal both came from Marco Asensio crosses (who, by the way, was brought on to provide those crosses). As Zidane sought out a way to break open the tie, he doubled down on his approach – cross the ball.

Marcelo

Picture courtesy of Daily Post

Marcelo is **STILL** Real’s best playmaker

When Dani Alves clattered Marcelo in the first ten minutes, his anguished cries could be heard on TV. Real Madrid hearts fluttered, no, billowed in the turbulence of fear. Theo Hernandez was sent out to warm up. Ultimately, the ex-Atleti man wouldn’t be needed and Marcelo went on to have a storming game. This match was meant to be his crucifixion – he’s had a difficult season, often not interested in defending, and then he was coming up against Mbappe who has been torching defenders like hot wings. Instead, it ended up being a timely reminder of the gifts he possesses: a delectable touch; brilliant crossing; and the ability to create, either through his dribbling or his passing, which all make him Madrid’s shaggy haired jack-in-the-box. In the first half, Real’s most dangerous moments either came from a PSG player gifting the ball to a Madrid player, or Marcelo’s involvement. His brilliant crossfield curling pass into Ronaldo’s path was worthy of Kevin De Bruyne (Areola made a brilliant save). He also set up Benzema for a shot, yet again brilliantly saved by Areola. In his last major contribution of the half, he played a more nuanced, yet equally intelligent pass, to Toni Kroos to put him goal-side of Lo Celso whose foul resulted in the penalty. While Dani Alves became the more prominent Brazilian fullback (midfielder?) in the second half, Marcelo had the last laugh when he connected with Asensio’s fizzed cross to give Real Madrid a two-goal cushion heading into the second leg in three weeks’ time.

ROnaldo and Neymar

Picture courtesy of Birmingham Mail

Neymar v Ronaldo

Neymar did the playing, Ronaldo did the scoring. It’s a refrain we’ve heard many times in Ronaldo’s career (particularly in the Champions League). Is Cristiano the best player in the world? It depends on how you judge it, but skill for skill, no. Has he proven himself as one of the most reliable goal-getters in history? Certainly, no question. Particularly in critical moments. Especially in the Champions League. While Neymar dribbled, slashed and dashed, and created all PSG’s moments of danger, Ronaldo converted the equalising penalty (his 100th for Real Madrid) and had the ball ricochet off his knee for the winner. Goals win games, even inadvertent ones. At 33 years old, Cristiano Ronaldo is not the dribbling winger he was ten years ago, but he continues to be effective for Real Madrid. Of course, what is required of him is different from what teams like PSG and Barcelona require of their own talismans, but the mark of a great player is, not only recognising his limitations, but serving his team maximally because of that. For players like Neymar, they carry a somewhat greater burden because the range of gifts they possess mean that there are no limitations to consider – more is expected and, unless you’re winning, it’s difficult for the cursory eye to look past the loss to see the chances created, dribbles completed, and the air of consistent danger created.

Subs I Win, Subs You Lose

Zinedine Zidane has often been accused of not being proactive with his substitutions, or not using them effectively enough. Or simply not using all of them (I’ve always thought this a weird criticism of managers, particularly when it’s used by default). That could not be said of him last night. As Emery took off the ineffective Cavani for right back, Thomas Meunier, Zidane rolled his dice and put in Gareth Bale for Benzema as the clock neared 70 minutes. Despite the change, Real struggled to really gain a foothold or pose problems because, fundamentally, their shape hadn’t changed. Also, with Dani Alves pushed into midfield, what appeared to be a conservative move by Unai Emery started to look like a positive one as PSG put pressure on Real Madrid between the 70th and 80th minutes. Zidane, recognising the game was slipping away from his side, threw on Asensio and Vazquez, thus reorganising his team into a 4-4-2 shape. As PSG’s confidence grew, Real Madrid found gaps in behind. On at least three occasions prior to Ronaldo’s second, Asensio or Bale escaped down the left only to be flagged offside. When the decisive goals did eventually come, there were no surprises. For all the criticism he gets, credit should be given to Zidane for his substitutions. I don’t want to be too harsh on Emery as his decision seemed to be working before Ronaldo scored, but it was intended to be a happy-with-what-I’ve-got move. Oh, he also used two subs.

Now for the second leg

PSG should be disappointed (see Rabiot’s comments) with how they performed, but more so with how they have nearly let the tie slip away from them by conceding those two late goals. Real Madrid’s first leg performance could either provide encouragement (they really were not great) or could indicate that they have another level to reach. Either way, PSG needs to up their game. Mbappe wasn’t involved enough – this will have to change in the second leg. Emery has no choice but to be brave – conservatism won’t save him a job he’s probably going to lose at the end of the season. The first leg promised so much yet delivered little other than four goals – let’s hope there’s better in store in the second leg.

Raymond

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Moments (2) – Wayne Rooney scuffs me into delirium

wayne-rooney-goal-v-stoke

History maker

Media reports in the lead up to the 2011 Champions League Final told us that Manchester United had spent days working on set-pieces and corner kicks to exploit Barcelona’s lack of height. On the day, Manchester United’s corner count – 0. Shots on target? 1. Barcelona? 12 shots on target, with 6 corner kicks. What should have been crushing disappointment at the end of the game was only slightly mitigated by the fact that we had been beaten by possibly the best club-side in history. Respect. Nevertheless, during the game, in the one moment we offered a taste of what we could do, I lost my mind. Read on as I recount the moment Wayne Rooney made me lose my voice…

The Context…

Manchester United and Barcelona met in the Champions League Final for the 2nd time in 3 seasons, with the former having been to the final 3 times in 4 years – while Barcelona was widely lauded as the best team in history, Manchester United was probably on par with this team heading into the Wembley spectacle (at least in terms of consistent success).

In 2008, I watched the final in the bedroom of one of my school teacher’s (caveat – there were lots of other boys in there and it was only for the football). When Van der Sar saved Anelka’s unconvincing penalty, we all went bonkers, save for my lone Chelsea-fan friend, Nanu. In 2009, watching in Edinburgh, I marvelled as we hopped aboard Barcelona’s carousel, dizzied by the mesmeric passing combinations and dribbling of Messi and co. In my mind that night, Iniesta was the best player on the planet (even Rooney thought so).

I viewed the game from a friend’s studio flat in Aberdeen. We had some hope. After all, Arsenal had beaten Barca that season, and Barca had a quite shocking record in England at the time, although their previous appearance at Wembley had yielded a Champions League trophy in 1992). Barca also had players ‘out of position’ – Mascherano was set to continue at centre back with captain shaggy, Puyol, on the bench. Abidal, just returned from liver surgery, would resume his left back position but nobody knew how he’d hold up against an Antonio Valencia in the form of his life.

The Moment…

“It’s peak!”

Barca started the match strong and took the lead in the 27th minute, with Pedro sliding in a neat finish from Xavi’s pass. With no Barcelona fans in the room (except me, of course, and I was on leave for the day), the room was quiet. Going behind wasn’t surprising – all the British media’s proclamations of Manchester United’s greatness withered away with each 1-2 and nutmeg from the men in stripes. The game was literally over until the moment. Then was over after that anyway.

In response to Barcelona’s suffocating pressure, Sir Alex Ferguson instructed his side to push up a bit more. Barca won a throw-in about halfway into their half; seemingly there was no danger. The ball was thrown to David Villa, but with Rio Ferdinand in close attention, the ball bounced back along the line in the direction it came from. Fabio flicked a pass to Wayne Rooney in close attendance, who controlled and played a short pass to Carrick just to his right, who wall-passed it back – Sergio Busquets out of the equation. He then flicked another pass to an onrushing Giggs who returned it. Now my friend and I share this joke, and it’s been running for years, that Rooney is the “scuff-king”. He scuffs volleys, taps ins, even overhead kicks (surely a shinner counts as a scuffed attempt, right?) Well, his finish here, beautifully swept into the right corner came off his ankle.

This was me:  jose-mourinho-celebrates

Can’t hold us back

The next 2 minutes were spent jumping hysterically on a bed, yelling my head off (think it was a Latin-style pundit GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLL **To be continued*) for two minutes and hugging my friend like he’d been to hell and back. Thinking back to that moment again, I can’t recall celebrating so intensely since or indeed before. Perhaps the surprise of the goal, completely out of the blue, coupled with a prior despondency provoked that exuberant release.  We lost in the end, but I’ll never forget the isolated minutes of unrestrained joy.

Today…

Wayne Rooney became Manchester United’s top scoring player on Saturday – a hell of an achievement. However, the joint England and Manchester United top scorer’s (still remarkable!) career has felt somewhat underwhelming. Some could even argue that at the 2011 Champions League Final, he was already past his peak – most would argue his final individual season was 2009/2010; once unshackled from his place as Ronaldo’s Robin, he plundered . There has been recent Chinese talk, with Mourinho stating that he wouldn’t stand in Rooney’s way if he desired a move (hard to imagine Rooney trying to say “I love Evergrande” in Mandarin) – sign of respect or sign of dispensability? Arguably both, but it does inevitably suggest that the scouser’s time at Old Trafford is coming to an end. Will he get a statue? It’s unlikely. However, he is a Manchester United legend and should be remembered as such.

RADU