Indian at heart, American in spirit

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Ronaldo Proves His Worth vs Ribery

On The Night.

Real Madrid beat Bayern Munich 1 - 0 at home in the first leg of the 2014 Champions League semifinals.

Most of the articles I've read since then (and believe me, it's only easy when your team wins) center around the merits of possession-based play (Bayern) vs Real's more purposeful use of the ball in a defensive 4-4-2 set up on the counterattack. But I'd like to start with talking about the stars on the pitch, starting first with 2013's Ballon D'Or winner vs his opposite number in Bayern Munich.

Oh yeah, Franck Ribery actually played in the match. Not that you'd remember...

I admit I always had a problem with Ribery's "favorite" tag eading up to this year's Ballon D'Or award. Yeah, Bayern won the treble and yes, Ribery's stats and effectiveness to the team were highly instrumental in that run. But nobody would disagree when I say that Bayern has a lot of class in a lot of positions (even though I hate him, that includes Robben). They were a powerful collective, not the way Messi (usually) runs the show in Barcelona, or the way Ronaldo was a force at either Manchester United or currently Real Madrid. On the night, a 50 - 70% fit Ronaldo set up the pass before the pass to a goal, had a great chance himself to make it 2-0, and tested Manuel Neuer on 2 occasions in extremely tight angles. Ribery was quite ineffective, it was a surprise to see Guardiola wait till the 72nd minute to replace him with Gotze (what a name, by the way). Ronaldo also played a decent game defensively, helping out the back line and  willing to release teammates before making his own run rather than carry the ball out from defense. If you really watch Madrid play, it looks like they've been instructed to keep the ball moving when they win it back, again with the intent to drag Bayern's players around and disorient their shape, increasingly the likelihood of getting a shot on goal.

I want to take nothing away from Carvajal, who I knew very little about and has continued to impress me. He's definitely matured as the season progressed and seems to have thrived in Arbeloa's absence (injured). In fact, the entire back four was really solid. I agree that Pepe probably stretched / made the most out of his non-events. I also think that while Ramos had a great defensive game, he really can improve with his long-range passing accuracy. There was a moment in the 2nd half where Madrid excellently won the ball high up the field, and a number of Madrid's players did well in tight situations to circle the ball back, recycle possession and switch the flanks. What this does is stretch the play: if you force Bayern's forward line and midfield, instructed to press the ball, to run away from their goal, then Madrid's able to draw players out of position and exploit the gaps. What Ramos did, when he was on the end of a 7-8 pass move, was try to Alonso-ball it across to Bale on the right, and instead just let the ball go out for a throw. I'm not saying that's not the right play, I'm saying the pass wasn't even close...

We know you got UPS dude, but can you pass the ball?

Anyone who is still critical of Benzema need only watch this game to see how he's the complete forward: he can score goals, but his first duty on the job is to keep the ball, hold up play when necessary, as well as join the attack. All of this on top of pressing from the top. I like him better when he scores goal, but I hope he stays as the focal point of Madrid's attack for a few years yet (Otherwise, I'm hoping Manchester United can swipe him up over Cavani).

Modric was excellent, and he deserves the plaudits he's been getting. He's able to hold the ball and pick the right pass against such quality. It's like the ball sticks to his feet, and he has an internal remote control guiding the ball to wherever he wants to on the pitch. There's this great article by the one and only Michael Cox at the Guardian talking more about Modric's role. I won't spoil it here but his pass-completion rate in this game is quite something. He did, however, try to be a little too cute at the edge of the Madrid box, which nearly gifted Bayern a goal. Gotze reacted well but Casillas was equal to it with a great save from his hands. I credit Bayern pouncing on Madrid's mistakes with high effectiveness, but they just couldn't get the goal in their few chances. Normally, they're used to having a lot of them.

Talking Points

  • On evidence of his defensive and offensive performances in the last few games he's played, he's staking a claim for first-choice LB
  • Di Maria might have reason to be a bit miffed at Ronaldo for not letting the ball go through to him in the 25th minute (when Ronaldo scuffed his shot high when it rose unexpectedly after the bounce). Di Maria was arguably in a better position to control and strike into the net. But after his own miffed shot under pressure in the 40th minute, he can have no complaints. IT AIN'T AS EASY AS IT LOOKS, PEOPLE
  • Isco had a good game once again and is definitely earning the trust of Ancelotti, as well as the rest of his teammates, in the big games
  • Madrid won't have it easy in the 2nd leg, and in the return leg I definitely expect Muller to get a start, while Gotze too is making a case after his brief appearance in this game
  • If Ronaldo and Bale are fit to start for the 2nd Leg, who gives way? I honestly don't know. Isco? But he's so vital in keeping the ball and playing the right option in the counter-attack, it's no coincidence he's started both the match against Barcelona and Bayern when Madrid have adopted this strategy.