Day-after thoughts on the Real Madrid-Manchester United 1-1 draw to open their Champions League round of 16 tie ...
Ronaldo ... But Not Just Ronaldo
In the second half, Manchester United handled Ronaldo better, particularly when he drifted right rather than left. But the man who was playing his former team for the first time, inevitably the center of attention, did score the goal that drew Madrid level -- arguably the game's most significant single moment.
In the first half, he was involved in everything, and even in the second had moments where United feared him. Ronaldo has become the driving force at Madrid, leading his team, producing statistics that appear to belong to another era. His goal last night put him on seven in this year's Champions League, making him the tournament's top scorer. And it was some leap, too, symbolic of Ronaldo's supreme athleticism: the perfect picture.
"I was going to have a go at Patrice Evra for the goal," Alex Ferguson joked after the match. "But look at it: Ronaldo's knee came up to his head. It's incredible. No other player can do that."
And yet others can do other things. All the more so when Ronaldo is around. When United beat Everton recently, they put Phil Jones on Bale and Fellaini, respectively. There was a similar-ish approach here -- Jones talked after the game about his responsibility to cover Ronaldo when he turned inside, and Wayne Rooney was at least theoretically employed near Rafael -- but there was also an important difference.
"Ronaldo is the main threat, but there other players who can cause you a hell of a lot of problems," Jones said.
And as Ronaldo moved more than is often the case, dropping deeper, shifting wings, drifting inside, space opened for others. Ozil, although he arguably lacked the final pass, and Di María took advantage. Fabio Coentrao, too, was often pushed far higher up the pitch than normal, occupying the wing that Ronaldo had left behind.spurs
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Ángel Di Maria
For a player who almost always plays on the "other" wing, a left-footer on the right, encouraged to come inside and shoot or clip diagonal or in-swinging passes, Di María's most significant moment for Real Madrid on Wednesday may have come when he did the exact opposite. He's not bad as an old-fashioned left winger, either, going up the line and crossing.
His left-footed cross from the left wing to set up Ronaldo's 30th-minute goal, a territory he rarely treads, was perfect: quick and extremely accurate, swinging outward toward Ronaldo, providing the power so that the Portuguese did not have to. The two men had more or less changed places, Ronaldo drifting just right of center, Di María going over to the left touchline, and the result was a vital goal that was extremely reminiscent of the one that won the Copa del Rey final two years ago.
When Radi Antic arrived at Barcelona as coach in 2003, he turned Marc Overmars's entire career on its head. "All these years playing on the 'opposite' wing have been a waste of time," he told the Dutchman. "The time and advantage you gain through your speed, you lose again by having to cut back and inside before playing the pass."
It is an idea that's certainly applicable to Di María at times. His passing, swinging in or angled, cutting inside from the right wing, is dangerous and he has become a clever, more subtle provider of assists. Yet it is also true that often he sprints beyond the fullback only to meet the fullback again as he cuts back ready to deliver left-footed from the right, the advantage lost. Another reason for not putting him on the left is that the left is Ronaldo's best position -- if "position" is understood as a starting point, a means to an end rather than an end in itself. But variety and mobility make Madrid more dangerous, and Di María on his "natural" wing is an option from which more could be made.
On the afternoon of the game, Manchester United were gathered in Plaza Mayor, kicking a ball around, thumping it constantly against the walls of the city's central square. And that was as "bad" as it got. Whenever an English team comes to Spain there is a certain degree of trepidation about "hooligans," a word that when used in Spanish doesn't exactly mean hooligans. (It is more like committed fans, but it does carry that hint of something a little worse).
"X thousands are traveling," it is invariably reported, "without tickets" -- as if their only aim therefore must be to cause trouble when in fact their aim is to get those tickets they don't have. And trouble does of course sometimes ensue, concerns are genuine. Not this time. The atmosphere in the stadium and on the streets was superb. And then when Ryan Giggs was brought on, the Santiago Bernabéu crowd gave him an ovation.
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Set Plays And Stamina
Another corner, another goal conceded. "All the training and organization means nothing if individual mistakes are made," Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho said, pointing the finger at Sergio Ramos for Danny Welbeck's 20th-minute goal for United.
"I have no problem admitting that I lost [Welbeck]," Ramos said.
Goals from corners are becoming a huge issue for Madrid. (Although on this occasion the corner should not even have been given). Is another issue their physical condition? With Madrid, the calm comes after the storm. The pattern is familiar: speed and intensity in the opening 20 minutes or even for the whole of the first half and a dip afterward. If teams can stay in the game, Madrid does seem to drop off as the game progresses. Ramos also spoke about dropping off in the second half, victim of the exertion of the first.
There have been small glimpses that Madrid may not be in as good a physical shape as it would like. Are the players, in short, tired?
Rafael ... And Rooney
There was a moment early on when Rafael turned and screamed at Rooney for not supporting him sufficiently, leaving him exposed. The first half must have felt like an eternity for the fullback. He looked vulnerable and uneasy, outmuscled and out of position. Perhaps not surprising: Madrid appeared to be targeting him with multiple, and very talented, players. It was not just Ronaldo. The first goal began with Rafael being turned by Mesut Ozil. When Rooney eventually came to his aid and slid in to tackle, it led to a throw in from which Di María crossed for Ronaldo to head in.
By then Coentrao, bombing forward, had already hit the post. It was not quite the experience Gary Neville suffered here -- he talked in the build up to this game of being confronted by Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos and Raúl, all coming into his zone -- but for the opening 45 minutes, the fullback can't have enjoyed it much.
Much the same can be asked about Rooney. At times, he could be faulted for not protecting Rafael better. But there is also another question worth posing: is that the best role for him? There is something a little sad about Rooney being a kind of auxiliary fullback, distanced from those parts of the pitch where he can really be a decisive force. The biggest nights, the smallest role.
The man who did close Madrid down most effectively was Jones. This was not the role he played against Spurs or Everton; it was, in fact, arguably even harder. Then, he was an additional midfielder with a single-man detail. Here he was a central midfielder with extra responsibilities. Quite across the ground and quicker to see the danger, his performance was vital. Two superb blocks capped off a performance that the Spanish had, until then, hardly noticed but that his coach certainly had. "At 20 years of age, he is going to be a fantastic player, I am sure about that," Ferguson said.
David De Gea
The former Atlético goalkeeper in the Real stadium and a man under pressure. In the opening half-hour, De Gea looked uncomfortable when the ball was in the air in his penalty area. But when it came to shots, he was superb. Eight saves, one of them a bizarre and brilliant stop with his foot.
"The boy has shown his character," Ferguson had said on the eve of the game. "He has taken a lot of criticism and a lot of it unfair. What we are good at [at United] is developing people. He was a young man [coming to United in 2011 at age 20], very young, not used to the English game, who couldn't speak the language and still had to mature physically. And like any young kid, he wobbles, he gets up, he wobbles again, he gets up again. Eventually he walks and the boy is walking now."
He walked tall here, striding out the stadium with a smile. At the other end, Diego López, signed in the winter transfer window to replace the injured Iker Casillas, also made a couple of impressive saves. Asked for his opinion of the United goalkeeper, a man he knows well, López said: "I thought tonight that De Gea was what De Gea is: a great goalkeeper."
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