Real Madrid flawed but talented enough to hold off Manchester City
Jose Mourinho's reaction spoke volumes about just how much
The great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann always insisted "the third season is fatal." It's not true for every manager, but it perhaps is true for those who are not empire builders, those whose method is an exhausting blend of motivation and tactical genius. Guttmann kept hopping on, kept winning titles, kept picking up lucrative new contracts, kept leaving behind a squad shattered by the experience. It's no great leap to see Jose Mourinho as Guttmann's modern equivalent.
Wherever he's gone, success and controversy have followed. This is only the second time Mourinho's attempted a third season at a club. The other occasion was at Chelsea, a season of acrimony and infighting that brought an FA Cup and a League Cup but no championship; he left the club the following September. It's early, of course, but Real Madrid this season has a similar feel of the final days of the Roman republic; politics and infighting everywhere threatening to consume the whole.
It's not just Mourinho, of course. Real Madrid has always been a hotbed of intrigue; Mourinho is their first manager to be given a third season in a decade. Last season he broke the domination of Barcelona; this season his job is to end a 10-year hiatus and, at last, win a tenth Champions League. In that regard the miserable early season form that sees Madrid eight points behind Barcelona after three games is irrelevant. Champions League success would excuse any number of failings elsewhere.
The problem is that, at the moment, the failings are threatening to engulf the club. Players are supposedly exhausted from playing at the Euros and a preseason tour of the USA. Mourinho criticized the three Spain internationals, Sergio Ramos, Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso, for promoting boots the day after returning from international duty last week. Ramos, perhaps significantly, was left on the bench against City. Cristiano Ronaldo, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, has spoken of feeling "sad." Gonzalo Higuain was in a weirdly distracted mood against Sevilla and could easily have been sent off for an early elbow. There is talk of a rift in the dressing room between those four players who use Jorge Mendes, Mourinho's agent, and the rest.
Both sides, significantly, began with three central midfielders who either sat deep or are ball-winners, something that seemed to reflect a sense of caution that was understandable in teams still struggling to find their rhythm this season; City may not have disappointed in the league as much as Madrid, but it has been oddly open and remains without a clean sheet. For Madrid, Xabi Alonso sat at the back of midfield with Michael Essien and Sami Khedira ball-winning in front of him; City had Javi Garcia and Gareth Barry deep, with Yaya Toure given the job of linking back six to front three with his surging runs. It was precisely one of those surges, of course, that led to Edin Dzeko's opening goal after 68 minutes.
For the first half an hour or so, Real Madrid was dominant, with Angel Di Maria, ably supported by the overlaps of Alvaro Arbeloa, the key figure. It was his clever switch of play to Ronaldo that led to Hart's point-blank save from Higuain after 12 minutes, his ball that found Higuain's run after 21 minutes when Hart spread himself to save, and his dinked cross that found Higuain six yards out as Kompany and Hart dithered just before half-time. On the opposite flank, Ronaldo's threat was more fitful, undermined, as so often, by his persistent habit of shooting from improbable range and distance, although he did draw a fine low save from Hart early on.
In that regard the injury to Samir Nasri seven minutes before halftime may actually have helped City. Kolarov came on to take up a position on the left side of midfield and immediately neutralized the attacking threat of Arbeloa, which in turn diminished the threat posed by Di Maria. The Argentinian did have one shot deflected over early in the second half, but City was looking comfortable when it took an unexpected lead.
Youre is an unusual player in the modern game in being a genuine all-round midfielder. He can play as a holder or behind a front man, or he can operate as an old-fashioned box-to-box midfielder. He has great energy, carries the ball with great strength and efficiency, has the muscle to regain possession and the vision to create chances, even if the execution is, on occasions a little heavy, as for instance when, a little before halftime, he led a counterattack only to waste the opportunity while playing the ball a fraction behind David Silva as he ran into space to the right. City's goal was created by another of his surges and he very doubled its lead with a similar burst before Marcelo's equalizer.
That strike, which deflected in off Kolarov, was the fullback's third shot from a similar position in the second half. David Silva, whether by design or disinclination, didn't track him, staying high up the pitch and that meant that once he'd turned inside Kompany's challenge he had time to line up his shot before a second challenge came in.
Against Chelsea in the Community Shield and against Liverpool in the league, City has used a back three this season and it went to that shape late on, presumably to try to close the game out, a tactic it used at times last season. The idea was presumably that the full-backs picked up Di Maria and Ronaldo, leaving three central defenders to pick up Karim Benzema, after he had replaced Higuain. It would be unfair to write off the change based on what happened in the manic last few minutes, when organization largely disintegrated on both sides, but there was a sense that the extra defensive presence only invited pressure -- although that may have come anyway once Kolarov's free kick had crept in to give City the lead.
The second equalizer, though, was less the fault of the system than of Mateja Nastasic. He had a nervy game throughout, but simply wasn't tight enough to Benzema as he turned and shot just inside the upright. The winner, meanwhile, was the result of the same problem on City's left that cost it the opener: Ronaldo was isolated against Pablo Zabaleta so that when he skipped by him, he had time to measure his shot. Javi Garcia couldn't get across in time, while Kompany ended up simply confusing his own goalkeeper.
It's too early to draw too many conclusions but on the evidence of one game, Real Madrid is flawed but still has sufficient character and quality to battle through to a result, while City's defense, or at least the balance between defence and attack, needs significant strengthening.