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article imageReal lean towards the right in dull win over Manchester City

By Tyrrell Meertins     May 4, 2016 in Sports
Real Madrid’s positive run of form during Zinedine Zidane’s tenure has been inspired by minor tactical adjustments, but the fitness of key players ultimately affected the pattern of their second leg clash with Manchester City.
Despite Real being defensively solid throughout, Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal presence was largely missed in a tepid first leg encounter at the Etihad. Here, Ronaldo was fit to start from the left, but Madrid were without defensive midfielder Casemiro, who has provided an adequate shield ahead of a shaky back four.
City, on the other hand, welcomed back Yaya Toure in midfield to join Fernandinho ahead of Fernando in a rejigged 4-1-4-1, pushing Kevin De Bruyne to the flank, while David Silva was unable to feature. Where both sides were cautious and better organized in the first leg, the inclusion of attack-minded players offered disjointed collective performances at the Santiago Bernabeu
Coincidentally, the main source of attack stemmed from the right through Dani Carvajal and the combination of Jesus Navas and Bacary Sagna for City. Navas maintained width by staying towards the touchline and engaging in 1v1 battles with Marcelo, whereas Sagna pushed forward to receive possession beyond Ronaldo. Although, Navas’ crosses were predominantly over hit, Ronaldo’s positioning — an area most teams target — highlighted an area of vulnerability in Madrid’s half.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side were deprived of creative players in central areas, and with Toure failing to offer the isolated Sergio Aguero support upfront, Kevin De Bruyne’s movement into central areas served as the sole example of guile and penetration. City’s best chance of the match witnessed De Bruyne exploit Real’s technical midfield and locating Fernandinho at the edge of the box, but the Brazilian’s shot hit the post.
Pellegrini didn’t instruct his men to press higher up the pitch like he did in the first leg and against PSG, so Fernandinho’s threat was scarce, whereas Yaya Toure coasted through his hour cameo, failing to inspire going forward, and constantly ignoring his defensive duties. Yet, as the advanced player in a midfield three, Toure was also responsible for providing Aguero support, but the Argentine was often shrugged off the ball by Real’s sturdy centre-backs.
While De Bruyne may have been the catalyst to City’s best chance, he was equally responsible for their defensive deficiencies. The Belgian’s reluctance to track Carvajal’s forward runs presented the Spaniard ample space to isolate Gael Clichy. The Madrid right-back initially delivered a cross that Ronaldo should have directed on goal, and subsequently played the pass into half-space that resulted in Fernando’s own goal.
"I did not see a weak City. They were committed, and they defended well,” said Zidane.
"The result shows it was tough for us. We won the game 1-0, so we suffered against a very good opponent. They did not have many chances, but that is down to the good tactical game we played, all defending.
City’s other issue involved the midfield organization — specifically based around Toure’s inability to function on both ends. Initially Toure pressed Luka Modric and Fernandinho was responsible for Isco, thus leaving Fernando protecting space between the lines ahead of the back four. But Isco easily bypassed Fernandinho on the half-turn, whereas Toure half-heartedly stepped towards the Croatian.
Therefore, Toni Kroos and Modric comfortably dictated the tempo of the match from midfield as City’s trio were constantly unsure of their duties. Toure didn’t attempt to press Kroos — leaving Aguero to drop back and attempt to pester the German — which further ensured the hosts possessed an overload in central areas.
Nevertheless, Zidane deserves credit for shifting into two banks of four out of possession: this saw Isco protect Marcelo, and then the Real manager introducing Lucas Vasquez for Jese Rodriguez and pushing Ronaldo upfront to negate City’s threat from the right. Elsewhere, City’s attempt to gain a vital away goal saw De Bruyne continuously drift centrally, but the Belgian’s dodgy passing restricted productivity in the final third. Equally, De Bruyne’s movement led to Carvajal creating more chances from the right for Ronaldo, but Joe Hart denied the Madrid attacker on both occasions.
Pellegrini turned to direct attacking options in Kelechi Iheanacho and Raheem Sterling off the bench, but still, City’s attack remained blunt in Real’s half. De Bruyne now moved to the right with no attempt, Sterling’s crossing was underwhelming when he surged past Carvajal, whereas Aguero moved away from goal and failed to combine with Iheanacho following the Nigerian’s introduction.
More so, the final 20 minutes of the match was fairly comfortable for Zidane’s men. The hosts simply reverted into a deeper, yet narrow 4-5-1 with Ronaldo roaming upfront, to limit space between the lines and quickly breaking forward on the counter. City were unable to play passes into their attackers from deeper positions, and were constantly bypassed in transition, but Nicolas Otamendi’s timely last-ditch interventions kept the away side in the match.
"We didn’t deserve to lose this game," Pellegrini said post-match. "They were very lucky with their goal - it was a cross with a deflection.
"I don’t think either of the side deserved to win the game. The fairest thing would have been penalties."
In a fairly uninspiring semi-final, Manchester City were possibly too cautious, but considering their issues in midfield and defence, Pellegrini couldn’t afford to concede ample space. Still, while the gulf in class was stark, Real relying on an own goal to progress suggests they head into a rematch of the 2014 final as slight underdogs.
In this year’s competition, Zidane’s men have yet to face a side that can replicate Atletico’s organization and intensity in both phases of the match, so the freedom showcased in midfield and defence will be tested. Nonetheless, Ronaldo and Bale’s form have been decisive in Real’s road to Milan, and though space will be nullified by Atletico’s diligent defending, the two wide players still pose a threat of single-handedly claiming a second European Cup in three seasons.
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