CSKA 2nd leg observations + Quarterfinal/Semifinal look-ahead

Real Madrid eased past CSKA Moscow at home with a 4-1 scoreline that flattered to deceive. The army side could easily have taken the lead in the first half, with star marksman Seydou Doumbia scuffing an easy chance. However in the end Madrid’s clinical finishing was in full display, and the Merengues can now look forward to what should be a straightforward quarterfinal meeting with Cypriot minnows APOEL. After that, a difficult semifinal clash with Bayern Munich is likely, as I expect FC Hollywood to sweep their French challengers Marseille aside.

A few observations from the CSKA game:

1. Khedira had another fantastic game in the midfield engine room. In addition to his usual running, work rate and tackling, he showed a glimpse of his attacking ability with a glorious chipped pass to Kaka that left the backline scrambling. Kaka was left free to square the ball to Higuain, who tapped in the opener. A few minutes after that, Khedira played another fine chipped ball to Cristiano Ronaldo, but there was no goal forthcoming from that play. The German international rarely wins any plaudits for much of his good work in midfield goes unnoticed, so it was good to see him get some much-deserved limelight.

In addition to the assist, Khedira played a crucial role in negating the influence of CSKA’s talented playmaker Alan Dzagoev, and generally breaking up CSKA’s forward forays. The German-Tunisian put himself about as usual, closing down space, winning balls and generally making his presence felt. With his stamina, positional awareness and discipline, Khedira is the perfect foil to Xabi Alonso, whose ball distribution is vital to this Real Madrid team.

2. Kaka had another good game and was involved in most of Madrid’s good attacking play. While we won’t see the flashiness of Kaka circa 2007 again, the Brazilian proved that he still has a lot to offer. He has added a defensive side to his game, and this was evident against CSKA as he tracked back and displayed good off-the-ball pressuring. Di Maria’s absence may have proven a blessing in disguise as it has allowed Kaka to get some minutes under his belt. However, I can’t help but think Di Maria will go straight back into the starting lineup once he makes a full recovery. Nevertheless, Kaka’s new-found consistency will please Mourinho.

3. Real Madrid has three strikers in absolute white-hot form. Ronaldo got himself a brace to take his season tally to a mind-boggling 42 goals in just 39 games. Higuain scored the opener, while Benzema came on as a substitute and scored just seconds later. Unlike Barcelona which is overly dependent on Messi for goals, Real Madrid has three strikers that can each be relied on to score at least a goal every other game. It’s extremely rare for a team to have three players each scoring boatloads of goals, and this will stand the team in good stead as the business end of the Champions League approaches.

4. Going into this game, every single Madridista was hoping and praying that Xabi Alonso wouldn’t pick up a yellow card, as it would rule him out of the quarterfinal 1st leg. However, Alonso went ahead and did just that, earning a yellow for a completely needless challenge in midfield.

Quarterfinal draw

Thankfully, Real Madrid were handed the easiest of quarterfinal opponents in APOEL, meaning Alonso’s absence won’t be missed too much. APOEL deserve respect for having made it this far, but their fairytale run ends here. Expect Real Madrid to brush them aside without too much fuss and stroll into the semifinals, where they will face a really stern test if they come up against Bayern Munich as I expect they will.

Bayern is a team that has always given Real Madrid trouble, and should the two teams square up in the semifinals, it won’t be any different. Bayern’s strength lies in their flanks and wing demons Robben and Ribery (Robbery), while Real Madrid’s weakness is in their flank defending, with Arbeloa and Marcelo both showing their weaknesses in recent games.

Bayern also have a world-class centre-forward in Mario Gomez, and he will give Ramos and Pepe lots to think about. However, Real Madrid’s attack is the best in Europe while Bayern’s rearguard is shaky. So don’t be surprised if this turns out to be a high-scoring tie.

Now this is probably looking far too ahead, as Real Madrid DO have to defeat APOEL first. I can’t help but feel a bit complacent, but luckily I’m not the coach of Real Madrid; Mourinho is, and he will leave nothing to chance.

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6 Responses to CSKA 2nd leg observations + Quarterfinal/Semifinal look-ahead

  1. Strong article (I don’t expect less). I too think Real would get through unscathed against APOEL à la Mourinho management. However, the away leg with the Cypriots should be interesting. As a peripheral Real fan (owing to a full-time Gunnership), I take your word on the revival of Khedira and Kaka’s careers. I felt that Kaka especially had nothing left to offer but things are looking good. From what you’ve said and from what I can gather from the season so far, this could be Real’s season for a Liga-UCL double. And, the #1 reason I feel why this is Madrid’s time is because of many ignoring the presence of the always hard working Cristiano Ronaldo. I do not subscribe to the (yawn) Messi hype. Van Persie and C. Ronaldo should be on top of that bill. Bayern is for another day (another good day I hope), as of now things are concrete and looking good. Again, great article… Please start a weekly or atleast monthly video podcast if possible. Cheers!

    • rahulmadrid says:

      Interesting factoid about APOEL: their striker is Esteban Solari, who is the brother of former Real Madrid favourite Santiago Solari! Santi Solari was fantastic for Real Madrid a real fan favourite, definitely one of my personal favourites. He went on to play for Inter after. It will be interesting to how see his brother turn up against the Whites. He has good numbers for APOEL: something like 34 goals in 44 games according to Wikipedia.

      Re: Khedira, I wouldn’t say there’s been a revival because he has been consistently good. It’s just that he missed some games due to injury. As for Kaka, I’m not totally sold on him yet, but I’m glad to see that he’s fit and able to contribute. Di Maria should walk back into the starting lineup but Kaka will give Mourinho an extra option.

      Thanks for the compliments. A video podcast is a fantastic idea actually, but it will take more time than I have at present. I need to get regular with my blog posts before I can take on podcasts, but it’s a great suggestion and something to look into in the future!

  2. Norbu Neville says:

    Interesting analysis yet again. Sami Khedira is another player who I wish Sir Alex had bought along with Ozil. Anyway, despite his very understated style of play, he has been quite simply the perfect foil to Xabi Alonso. The chipped pass for the first goal was just beautiful. Though he may slightly fall short in the pace department, he makes up for it in his work rate and brilliant positional awareness, which should not go unnoticed. This debate regarding Kaka and Di Maria is a very interesting one, tactically. Di Maria, I think is essentially a wide player who cuts in from the right onto his left foot. Since he is a natural wide player (lot of pace and skill), when it comes to helping out the full back, he seems to do a decent job tracking back. Tactically, he’s ideal to Mourinho’s plans, especially with regards to defensive discipline. With regards to Kaka (whom I’ve had a massive weakness for), despite losing that extra burst of pace, seems to have blended into Mourinho’s plans surprisingly well, with his sheer craft. He has developed a really good understanding with Ozil (in the 12 games they’ve lined up together, Real have never lost with 9 wins and 3 draws), and I for one would be very tempted to play the two of them together in the next edition of the Clasico. With Kaka, Mourinho instead of going for his favored 4-2-3-1, plays with a 4-2-2-2 (popularly known ad the “Magic Square”), with Ozil and Kaka playing behind Ronaldo and Benzema/Higuain, in a very fluid system. I would like to know your thoughts regarding this.
    Despite, having assembled probably the best squad in Europe, the full back position has been a serious weak point, especially against quality sides. Who would you buy or bring up from the academy to fill this void? And as far as Apoel Nicosia are concerned, despite their fairy-tale season, I also don’t see them causing too many problems against this Real side, especially with Mourinho, whom as you’ve correctly said, leaves nothing to chance. Bayern Munich will be the real test, with the kind of form their attacking quartet have been showing off late along with the return of a certain Bastian Schweinsteiger. This is where Real’s full back situation may get brutally exposed, especially with Arjen Robben playing on Marcelo’s side.

    • rahulmadrid says:

      You’re right about Di Maria, he’s a natural winger who is left-footed but starts on the right wing and so likes to cut in. He is like Arjen Robben in every single way except he is better at tracking back and is less injury-prone. His defending is a joy to watch, I don’t think I’ve seen a winger as good at defending as Di Maria is.

      I know you have a weakness for Kaka, I’ve always liked him too. But if Kaka and Di Maria are both fit and in form, I’d pick Di Maria more often than not. There are many reasons for this. For one, Real Madrid’s attacks tend to go down the left flank because that’s where Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo operate. The starting right-back is usually Arbeloa, and he doesn’t venture forward too much. So without Di Maria starting on the right flank, Madrid’s attacks become too predictable as all attacks come either from the middle or the left wing. Di Maria helps stretch the opposition defence and create more spaces for the other attackers.

      Also, while Kaka still has a lot to offer, one thing he doesn’t have to offer anymore is pace. He can occasionally beat a defender but he has long lost the pace he was so renowned for in his heyday. To his credit, he has learned to compensate by playing more quick passes and by preserving his jets for when he really needs them. But Di Maria’s pace and trickery on the ball is something else, and his passing is really good too.

      I think whether Kaka or Di Maria should start will depend on the opposition. Kaka and Ozil have developed a decent understanding as they are both intelligent players who know how to use space wisely and know how to position themselves. However by employing both of them, Madrid’s attack becomes narrow and the right flank loses some fizz. Yes Ozil can play out on the right but he’s not a natural winger and ends up drifting into the middle to create plays.

      Regarding the full-back position, yes it has been something of a problem. Marcelo seemed to make a lot of progress last season, but he has regressed a little bit this season in his defending. His positioning is quite awful sometimes and he is guilty of ball-watching. He sometimes also commits to tackles too easily and allows wingers to beat him. I still think he has the potential to become the best left-back in the world but he has a lot to learn. At this point I think Coentrao is far better defensively. At right-back, Arbeloa is quite solid defensively but offers very little in attack. Mourinho should consider promoting Dani Carvajal from Real Madrid Castilla. He is a right-back in the mould of Michel Salgado, one of Real Madrid’s best right-backs in the modern era. As for the option of purchasing a right-back, I don’t see many world-class right-backs available on the market now; at least I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head.

  3. SD_RealPlayer says:

    Good article Rahul. Without doubt Khedira enhances Alonso’s play. In terms of full backs, I think Coentrao and Ramos are a good match for Ribery and Robben but Ramos is needed in the CB position and this leads me to think, what would happen if Ramos got injured. Carvalho and Albiol haven’t got much playing time recently and so there is a slight weakness there. Kaka has jelled into the team because of his much improved work ethic off the ball, his tackling and tracking down is constantly improving, more games definitely means more knowledge. Unfortunate for Di Maria when he was on fire with his assists but Kaka has shown that he with Ozil can learn and execute good defense. I do hope they continue this improvement as they will need it when and if they come up against Bayern and, fingers crossed, a certain rival in the final?

  4. rahulmadrid says:

    Right Sushil, that’s the conundrum: I think Ramos can do well against Ribery if he is focused, but what happens to his centre-back spot? Albiol rarely plays and is generally a sluggish player despite his talent, and I wouldn’t start him against Bayern. Carvalho had a very good season in 2010-11 but also has barely played this season and looks shorn of fitness and confidence. There’s no way I’d risk him against Bayern. Varane has been absolutely phenomenal in every single game he’s played so far, but will Mou risk starting him against Bayern? It’s a huge ask for an 18-year-old.

    I suspect what Mourinho might do is start Hamit Altintop at right wing to function as a defensive winger of sorts, the same way Alex Ferguson uses Park Ji Sung in important Champions League games (at least back when Man U used to participate in important Champions League games). For the away game in Munich, don’t be surprised if Altintop starts on the right wing to help Arbeloa out. Remember Altintop also has some attacking ability so he wouldn’t be a bad option, assuming he’s fit.

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