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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With Kylian Mbappe, there are no limits

Mbappe (Fox)

“When I watch him dribble, he’s thinking. He thinks when he plays and that for me is the most important thing in a player. He thinks. He uses his brain.” – Thierry Henry on Kylian Mbappe

If age is but a number, Kylian Mbappe is one of the best footballers in the game today. Even if it weren’t, and you wanted him to show more than his year and a half of consistent top-flight football, it shouldn’t matter. While his technical and tactical gifts are plain to see, the measure of his ability can be summarised thus – he can be whatever player his team or coach needs him to be at any given time and perform at elite-level. There are not many players like this in football today, particularly attacking players. They can be counted on one hand. And Mbappe just turned 19.

Mbappe, in choosing to join Paris last summer, walked into a situation that required he adjust his game, perhaps radically so, to coexist with his new attacking playmates. Neymar had just arrived from Barcelona to take his place on a ready-made Parisian throne, and has been scintillating since arriving, leading, scoring, creating and generally making Ligue 1 his playground. Edinson Cavani, after waiting years for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to vacate the no.9 position has hungrily set about feasting on defences, taking advantage of the creativity and space created by the on-the-ball menace of Neymar and Mbappe. Cavani’s not even giving up penalties, not to speak of his position. And he is Europe’s top scorer across all competitions, so can justify his claims. So, what about Mbappe?

Mbappe’s story has been told, re-told, hashed and re-hashed but it’s worth repeating some nuggets here for context.

  • At £165m, he is the second most expensive footballer in history. He was 18 at the time and turned 19 in December 2017
  • In 16/17, was involved in a league goal (either scoring or creating) every 65 minutes
  • Youngest player in history to score 10 Champions League goals
  • First teenager, since Lionel Messi, to be named in top 10 Ballon d’Or (he finished 7th in voting). He is also the youngest player to ever be shortlisted for the award
  • In 17/18 so far, has registered 12 goals and 11 assists in 19 French League and Champions League fixtures

He was second to Ngolo Kante in French Player of the Year 2017 voting, and is already considered an indispensable part of the French starting XI going into the 2018 World Cup. The only question is where he should start – he’s capable of playing pretty much anywhere along the midfield and attacking edge (left midfield, left wide forward, striker, supporting striker, right midfield and right wide forward).

Monaco v PSG – adapting his game

With Monaco last season, playing alongside Radamel Falcao, he provided the most accurate Thierry Henry impression since Igwe himself, drifting off to the left wing to find space and causing havoc with his speed and ability on the ball. This season in Paris, with Cavani and Neymar, he plays off the right side of the field, sometimes as a high and wide forward, other times as a right-sided midfielder. His output has not wavered – in fact, he is surpassing last season’s performances. While his 8 assists in Ligue 1 last season was impressive, he has really come to the fore as a creative force this year in a role that is more obviously about creating space and chances for his more established attacking partners.

It’s worth noting the ease with which he has slotted into this Paris side. Last season, Monaco played a predominantly counter-attacking style – he excelled, always finding space down the channels to sprint into, or behind defences to either glance headers in or apply his already-elite finishing touch. At Paris, currently second to Manchester City in the European club possession charts, he spends more time on the ball, attempting nearly three times the number of passes he was attempting at Monaco in 16/17. Paris also encounters more teams playing lower blocks than Mbappe faced at Monaco, the result being constricted space and less room to play in in the final third of the pitch. Rather than struggle, he has blossomed. His close control is remarkable, even if he is all legs. He can beat a defender going outside with his pace, or coming inside with his ability to deceive and evade. His speed, over short and long distances, takes some getting used to. He dribbles in tight spaces with short and nimble steps, but expands his loping legs to eat up ground faster than recovering defenders when counter-attacking. He loves a fake shot, ala-Henry, but also fancies a stepover or two. He’s employed the Ronaldo chop, both as an evasive tactic, but also routinely to execute passes (and make goals) because he’s just having fun. There isn’t much he can’t do on the ball.

And he’s currently doing all this playing as a right footed right sided midfielder/winger. Somehow, in this age of inverted wingers, the best wide forward in Europe (not named Neymar) is not playing on the wrong wing. Why though? As Thierry Henry said, he thinks; he is always thinking. Take Paris’ trouncing of Bayern in the Champions League group stage. While Neymar was man of the match, Mbappe was not far behind. With Bayern dominant in possession, Mbappe had fewer touches and fewer passes than what he has averaged per game at Paris – which meant fewer opportunities to make an impact. He took the opportunity to re-announce himself to Europe with a performance of astounding efficiency maturity. He has a gift, one that only very few have – the ability to simply situations on the pitch, balancing safety and risk in a manner that belies his age. His bamboozling of Alaba in the lead up to Neymar’s goal was delicious, but his assist for Cavani’s goal, receiving the ball, waiting and playing the perfect pass into the Uruguayan’s stride spoke of his ability to do the simple things simply. Even Neymar, for all his gifts, for a long time retained an individualistic, almost selfish, streak to his football identity that meant that team decision-making was regularly sacrificed on the altar of self-indulgence and gratification.

More recently, Mbappe provided another reminder of his talent against Caen in Ligue 1. Beating three players with a combination of body feints, quick feet and sprinter’s pace, he then delivered the perfect cross to Cavani who converted with an exquisite flick of his heel. Mbappe is making the absurd look normal, with end-product to match.

 

Surprisingly, his finishing this season is the one aspect of his game that has suffered. While this could be because he’s being asked to do more on the pitch than he did at Monaco last season, it is probably because playing on a better team, with more opportunities to express himself and ‘enjoy’ has led to lapses in focus and concentration in critical moments. Additionally, he is not the primary scorer – there’s Neymar and Cavani before him. Some matches come to mind – the trouncing of Anderlecht in the Champions League (in Belgium) was pockmarked by some awful misses, while his return to Monaco was littered with poor decisions and even poorer finishing (chalk that down to nerves, perhaps). While this dip cannot be ignored, particularly given his stellar conversion rate of 30% last season, his finishing ability is well-documented – he just needs to stay switched on all the time.

A Tale of Two Captains

When Johan Cruyff predicted that one of Neymar and Messi could leave Barcelona, many found it difficult to envisage. In his view, two captains (and by two captains, he meant two players that are, if not ball-dominant, naturally placed to lead their teams) could not co-exist for long because one’s star would inevitably start to shrink the room needed for another’s to grow. He suggested that Messi be sold to make room for Neymar – Neymar is younger, after all. However, Barcelona’s reality, with its La Masia core retiring or ageing, meant this was likely never going to happen, particularly with its spotty record of getting consistent and prolonged excellence out of Brazilian stars (compare this to Lionel Messi’s almost mechanical consistent genius). In Neymar’s time at Barcelona, he was a winger, then became a true wide forward, almost Pedroesque in his off the ball movement, before gradually taking on a more creative role in the team. In the 2nd half of his 4 years at Barcelona, it was not unusual for Neymar to have more touches of the ball than Messi, who was more than happy to share the limelight (partly due to increased freedom but also partly because he’s more self-indulgent). But it wasn’t enough, playing second fiddle to Messi, even as grateful as he is for Messi’s guidance.

Paris may end up having a Two-Captains conundrum, that is if Neymar and Mbappe are together that long. In Joon Lee’s excellent Mbappe feature for Bleacher Report, Antonio Ricardi, one of Mbappe’s first coaches, opines that he is “sure Mbappe can be better than Neymar in two years.” It is difficult to see this either happening at Paris, or being acknowledged at Paris, while Neymar remains. Right now, there is no doubt that Neymar is the technical leader, the player that commands the most touches and the most attention. He goes where he chooses on the pitch and how he interacts with his teammates, almost without reproach. Mbappe’s talent and rapid progression means that, very soon, his gifts will need room to be a captain. Right now, he thoroughly enjoys playing with Neymar, learning in training, exchanging tricks and flicks, 1-2s and assists, but he is also individually ambitious; after all, his idol is Cristiano Ronaldo.

Mbappe and Neymar will not last very long as a partnership, certainly not as long as Messi and Neymar lasted. While Neymar is the older of the two, he is a more self-indulgent spirit than Messi is, which means that as Mbappe’s influence on the team grows, it is likely Mbappe will be forced to seek his own kingdom or Neymar will depart for pastures anew.

***

Mbappe is the best teenage footballer football has seen since Lionel Messi. His precocity is only surpassed by fantasies of how bright his star, once fully developed, could be. Before every match, he has a lollipop in his mouth, looking every bit the teenager that he is. He looks like he’s having fun because he really is – the game comes so easily to him, physically, tactically and technically. Will he be one of the best footballers on the planet? He already is. Let’s hope he continues to remain interested in being so.

 

Moments (1) – Barthez Hurdles Ronaldo

 

ronaldo

The Phenomenon

A few days ago, an idea came to mind – write about memorable personal football Moments. The one that follows is my first. The tournament, France ’98, crystallised my love for the beautiful game. The Moment, itself a painful one, is still seared into my mind. I recall where I was, what I felt, how I felt it. I’ll hopefully be releasing more of these in episodes over time. Football as such a big part of my upbringing is more than just watched – it is lived and breathed, felt sometimes with a depth that that can incapacitate (as later episodes will show) in unexpectedly swift and surprising ways. As you read, recall your Moments.

Ole Ole Ole!’

My first experience of tournament football was France ’98. The sound of Ricky Martin’s iconic ‘Ole Ole Ole’ continues to reverberate in the annals of my memory. For a time after the tournament, it was by far my favourite song, sound, even. Pulsing with Latin brio and energy, it wasthe perfect opening to an expanded, and ultimately classic, World Cup. Brazil, perennial favourites, scored a 2-1 victory over the plucky Scots. Brazil was my team – well, Nigeria was, but Brazil was my team. It was the team I chose, not the one I was born into. The world champions.  Even a Nigerian youngster was aware of the embodiment of surprise and flair that was the Brazilian footballer. To take on and defeat Brazil at the time still amounted to a victory worth telling posterity. In fact, till today, the Nigerian Super Eagles are serenaded to the trumpet tune of “When Nigeria beat Brazil, when Nigeria beat Brazil oh…”

They were big. And at the time, they possessed the world’s greatest footballer – Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima (I was a nerd back then – some would say still am – and was smug about knowing his full name). Ronaldo, the buck-toothed, blur of footwork, sniping, striking bull of a striker. Lithe, predatory, generous, unbelievably skilful. A two-time FIFA Player of the Year at 21, he was the Lionel Messi of his time. Nike saw all this, saw his global appeal and snapped it all up – just could and often just did it all on his own. I had started playing football then and wanted to be him. His football boots were unique, made for a likewise once-in-a-generation footballer – I wanted them (still do – I see they’ve been re-released in limited edition). He was Brazil’s hope – he was my hope for Brazil and for football. Again, he was also only 21.

 

barthez-hurdles-ronaldo

Hurdling O’Fenomeno

The Moment…

I don’t intend this to be a eulogy or celebration of the France ’98. It’s just about one moment, perhaps my first truly vivid football memory (besides me playing, of course). It was in the final. I can’t remember the score at the precise point but I know that France was ahead. It was 1-0 at the time of my moment – my recollection of how I felt was one of futility and defeat in the face of the circumstances. Sat on the floor in front of the TV, willing something to happen out of nothing, I watched Ronaldo chase down a long ball only to be hurdled/clattered into by a flying Fabien Barthez. The impact of the French goalkeeper knocked Ronaldo out. The ball was cleared from danger but the camera panned to a prone Ronaldo. Barely moving, he was mortal. To the extent that a child can rail, I did – “is that not a foul? It’s a penalty! It was rough! He can’t do that? Who is this keeper?!” I was hurt. No child wants to see their idol made to look less than their deified position. After some attention, he got up and zombied his way through the rest of the game. At the final whistle, France erupted in joy. In Lagos, I erupted in tears for football for the first and last time.

With the passage of time, we’ve got to learn more about that memorable night. Roberto Carlos, one of his closest friends and roommate at the time, has spoken of Ronaldo succumbing to a seizure so violent Carlos himself had to take emergency action to prevent Ronaldo swallowing his tongue. Indeed, Ronaldo was left off the initial starting line-up released to FIFA, but was later reinstated. Some have speculated that Nike pressure meant that he had to play, with Nike not able to have the most marketable footballer in the world (by far) missing out on the most-watched single event at the time. Ronaldo wandered around in a daze with his Nike R9 boots and silver medal dangling around his neck. This time he couldn’t do it – but Nike was winning.

michael-owen-ronado-tweet

Idiot

Today…

Last week Michael Owen tweeted about Ronaldo “putting the pounds on.” Michael Owen is an idiot. Idiots like him intentionally or not continue to encourage the description of one of the greatest players in history as “fat Ronaldo”. I followed Ronaldo until his final days at Corinthians, knees shot, heavy but still sublimely potent. At his retirement press conference, he spoke, for the first time, about his hypothyroidism which was detected too late in his career. He tearfully recalled taking the jibes for years, the shots about his weight and apparent lack of professionalism. For the 7-year-old not wanting to see his idol defeated, I felt vindication.

RADU