A Goal Too Far

One more disappointment: in a week, Real has managed to ruin their entire season.

I knew this is going to be close. I knew Real Madrid is going to struggle. I knew that 0-0 scoreline isn’t going to stay for the entire game and that the time-wasting drama (aka Patrice Evra vs the ballboy) will come into play. Other than that, I knew that Los Merengues are somehow going to miss their beloved Luka Modrić. Don’t ask me how – I just knew that.

What I did not know was how hard it will be for Juventus anyway.

With just one goal worth of advantage in hand, everyone expected them to come to Madrid and defend their slim lead in order to scrape a draw somehow. On a first glance, it didn’t look that difficult of a task – after all, just few days ago, an arguably weaker side went on Santiago Bernabeu and took a commanding 2-0 lead at the halftime, eventually robbing Los Blancos of two points – exactly the same kind of result Zebrette needed. That wasn’t the end of good news for the Italian side. Prior to the rematch for Juventus’ 2-1 home win, Massimilano Allegri finally had a chance to field Paul Pogba, who, on paper, should help Zebrette to retain the lead over the reigning CL champions. Apart from that, in wake of Karim Benzema’s recovery, Real switched again to their 4-3-3 system, abandoning Sergio Ramos’ experiment in the midfield and opting for a setup that’s been thoroughly criticized this season – especially after it turned out that 4-4-2 actually works very well for Carlo Ancelotti’s lads. All those details, combined with yet another chance given to the slumping legs of Gareth Bale, seemed to create a massive opportunity for the visitors.

However, if there was any optimism out there, it was quickly verified during the first half. In two weeks, we’re not going to remember that, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the final result, so let’s be clear here: Juventus was a vastly inferior team in the first 45 minutes of Wednesday’s game. After about 10 minutes of composing themselves, Real Madrid players started to pile up the pressure and their opponents looked seriously unprepared to answer the aggression with aggression. Visitors’ efforts at chasing the ball and minimizing the damage were admirable, but they had so few to offer upfront, it really did resemble some of the most heroic struggles of Atletico Madrid in derby games. Especially in the passing department. Pirlo, hardly impressive in the first leg, did even less than he did in Turin and ended the first half being an anonymous figure. Pogba wasn’t much better – just like all remaining Juventus players, he did make a good use of his athleticism, but he was constantly wasteful while on the ball. And how good was the service provided to Tevez or Morata? Almost nonexistent, to be honest.

 

The first half was certainly the best chance Real could ever hope in this entire tie. Especially with Marcelo, causing insane problems to Stephan Lichtsteiner with his constant forward runs down the left flank. The Brazilian, along with Isco in the middle, created more than enough stir in the final third for someone else to score – all they needed there as a reward for this work was one teammate who could finish Juventus off. It seemed like a safe bet that there will be someone out there to do this job: after all, upfront, they counted on a three-time Golden Ball winner, a 100 million Welsh winger and a striker who scored 87 goals in his 187 appearances for Real. The trio that was once poised to have a goalscoring race with Messi, Suarez and Neymar, certainly had their chances. Gareth Bale opened the game with two vicious long shots and for a while really did look like a player ready to break his 2015 slump. Benzema has done some impressive footwork before firing a terrible shot and later nearly scored a well-calculated fluke into the bottom corner. As for Ronaldo – he scored a good penalty. Shouldn’t that be enough to bring more goals?

Well – if if only team performances in football could be always described with a graph. Or a function. Or with some other mathematical formula that would always imply a certain level of consistency coming from the sum of skill each team possesses and from the number of hours they spent playing and training together. There are obviously matches out there that might prove such calculations and satisfy the statisticians. But this was not the case. Real Madrid, the team pressurized heavily to score a goal and thus swing the aggregate score in their favour, started to gradually deteriorate from the moment their main goal was accomplished. Immediately after they pulled ahead, the plug went out of the socket, the ambitions were scaled down and the team lost the drive to seal the deal with more goals. Even Ronaldo, driven as usual, could not get his partners to make another, winning brace – and, as a result, his two good, backward crosses from the touchline, fell into an open space instead of finding his teammates. Maybe they thought there’s still time? Little did they now, the chance had already slipped away from them…

 

It’s strange, but it’s true. At halftime, with a good scoreline on board and high hopes after decent 45 minutes, Real Madrid were actually already gone – only they didn’t know it. They were gone for one reason, and one reason only – because they gave the opposition time to patch his their wounds and realize how lucky they are not to be down 0-3 already. It could’ve happened – in the first half, Italian defenders did not win a single tackle! – but, somehow, thanks to pure luck and world-class Gianluigi Buffon in goal – it didn’t. Zebrette’s goalie played as if it was 2003 all over again and he had to carry his sub-par teammates to the Grand Final. He and the relentless runner Arturo Vidal must have thrown some serious profanities on their teammates during the break, because a) Juventus lads deserved a hairdryer and b) they came back into the fray as a totally different team, unanimously raising their level of performance. It did change things, because, at the same time, Los Blancos were declining – and it soon showed.

As it’s been endlessly pointed out – a team that has spent £262 million on just three of their most expensive attacking players was eventually eliminated by two goals scored by their former homegrown striker. Álvaro Morata might not be the most exciting technician around and certainly he wasn’t a Raúl-like prospect back when he used to put a white shirt on – but when the ball bounces loose to him, he does not disappoint. His presence was a key factor in the 56th minute, when, from what looked like an innocuous position, Juventus players have managed to squeeze in a critical goal. After Chiellini’s half-clearance, half-cross, Pogba managed to win the most important header of his career, Kroos failed to pay attention to his man when it was most needed and the revenge has been served to those, who chose buying players instead of growing them. Sadly, it was not a Shakespeare-like scenario this time around: unlike grudge-driven Samuel Eto’o in Barcelona few years ago, Morata again chose not celebrate the strike made against his former club and later revealed the bittersweet feeling those two goals gave him.

Just scored: Morata, aka the saddest victor possible.

The ex-Real poacher can be happy with himself, though. With just 2 shots taken in the game, he has accomplished more than Bale and Benzema did on a combined distance of 11 shots. The Welshman was especially frustrating to watch. Starting the game as a right winger, he basically reduced his footballing repertoire to cutting on his left foot and either shooting (inaccurately) or passing (clumsily). One thing is for sure today: he ain’t Arjen Robben and he shouldn’t ever come back to the right wing again. However, the longer game lasted, the more he gravitated towards the middle of the box – and the longer he was in the middle of the box, the more crosses were aimed at his head. Does the name ‘Jonathan Barnett’ ring a bell? Because that man, Gareth Bale’s agent, has recently complained that his client wasn’t receiving enough passes from his teammates. On Wednesday, however, Real Madrid players did everything to disprove this hypothesis and allowed Bale to get 54 touches on the ball along with 7 shots – exactly the number of strikes the entire Juventus team had in 90 minutes. The results? See below:

Thus, yet again, the pressure was on Real to score another goal and at least bring the game to the extra time. All they had was the advantage of their own ground and 34 minutes to beat Buffon again. To their disappointment, though, Italian champions reacted differently to Morata’s goal than Champions Cup holders did to Ronaldo’s goal. From the 56th minute on, Juventus players were made of an utter and complete concentration – especially the centre-backs. Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci went on to make a ridiculous number of headers and clearances, effectively cutting out all nonsense in their own box. This was also the period that had to frustrate every Real Madrid fan on the planet Earth. Faced with the danger of elimination, one of the most expensive, most technically prolific elevens in history played what was likely the most disappointing style of footballing. After knocking the passes to the flanks, Ancelotti’s team proceeded to repeatedly cross the ball to Bale or Ronaldo, hoping for the flick-ons to work. They never did – instead, it was like watching Moyes’ Manchester United all over again.

Zebrette had this type of tricks all worked out. Apart from Marcelo, they had no players running at their defensive line to deal with and without that, it all came down to cutting down the wingplay and marking the target man. In 2014/15, pretty much every single Serie A team from the top half of the table has those basics mastered on a satisfactory level, as they are main weapons of the majority of smaller Italian clubs. Juve were not an exception – but what were their opponents thinking? Because, tactically, Real were incredibly naive there. They’ve clearly experienced the ineffectiveness of a ‘route one’ approach, but still persisted with it. Why? Well, here’s the catch: it’s because neither Ronaldo nor Benzema were willing to back off from the penalty area and help James or Isco to craft the attacking moves with short passes. Whenever there was some action in the channels, whenever there was some pace involved – Madridas immediately started to look dangerous. Unfortunately, those were just tiny episodes; in the end, having two players standing isolated in the box and unwilling to roam was a luxury Los Merengues could not afford.

(Semi)final stats. 22 attempts, one goal…

When the referee Jonas Eriksson blew the whistle for the last time, Cristiano Ronaldo surely was among the most disappointed people in Spain. The Portuguese has shown an extreme dissatisfaction with his performance and was first to walk off the pitch – but he was also heavily responsible for the final outcome. Scoring from an easy chance is one thing, but contributing just 1 successful dribble, 3 shots, 3 chances created, 50% aerial success and 83% pass accuracy is surely below the level of a player who’s making the claim for his third back-to-back Golden Ball. Although his ‘La Decima’ obsession has been cured last year, this time, he eyed the record that remains untouched for 25 years – to win two Champions League titles in a row for a single club. That will not happen. It actually may never happen – CR7 is already 30 years old and, curiously, this season, he scored all of his 10 Champions League goals in the first halves of matches. Against Juventus, the pattern repeated: in 41st minute, Cristiano took his last shot – and jogged fruitlessly for the remainder of the game. No trophies this season for him? It seems so…

Because what we have left is the final in Berlin – and it’s various implications. First of all, the capital of Germany will greet Buffon, Barzagli and Pirlo yet again, after they all lifted the World Cup trophy at Olympiastadion in 2006. Second of all, there will be one more clash between Luis Suarez and Giorgio Chiellini; last time around, it costed the Italian an ugly stamp on his shoulder while the Uruguayan paid for it with a four-month ban. Other than that, Suarez is going to meet Patrice Evra as well, which should increase the chances of racial slurs flying around by at least 200%. The other subtexts include: ter Stegen returning to his homeland; Paul Pogba playing against his potential new teammates next season; Pirlo and Xavi battling it out in the midfield as they did in EURO 2012 final; Pereyra, Tevez, Mascherano and Messi all meeting on a small gathering of Argentinian internationals… Yes, exactly – Messi. Tied on 10 Champions League goals with CR7 now, The Little Genius shall seek another one to win the Top Goalscorer title on his own. Seems that next three weeks of waiting are going to be very long…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s