A year ago Real Madrid fell at the semi-final stage against a brighter Juventus side that was defensively robust, inventive on the counter and very complete in the middle with the silken skills of a still energetic. Andrea Pirlo. A combination that squeezed the Spanish team where they felt strongest. The inherent weaknesses at the back made look worse by some untimely injuries that eliminated Karim Benzema and saw Gareth Bale just returning from injury and the absence of Luka Modric. Up to that match Carlo Ancelotti had survived using Sergio Ramos in midfield and Pepe deputising alongside Varanne. But as the end of the season approached Ancelotti’s 2014 champions were unravelling and that lucky win against Atletico Madrid in the quarter finals could not hide the problems of the trip to Turin. So Ramos stepped back into the back four.
In the first leg Juventus exposed those weaknesses which a fully fit Bale might have fared better as Real Madrid reject Alvaro Morata got on the score sheet after just 9 minutes. The energy of Carlos Tevez and Chile’s Arturo Vidal also causing Madrid chaos. The Argentinian getting on the score sheet after Ronaldo had equalised on the half hour and Juventus well able to cope with the absent Paul Pogba. Easily relying on Claudio Marchisio, Giorgio Chiellini, and the poise of Pirlo leaving 2-1 first leg score line never enough to match the Italians in a return at the Bernabeu. Particularly given the manner in which they play such an efficient and physical game, all at a speed that Real Madrid found uncomfortable. Not unlike the Diego Simeone style also played and nearly won the final in Lisbon in 2014.
The return leg it was to prove no different as Varanne, Marcelo, Ramos and Dani Carvajal were pinned to their collars at the back dealing with the Juventus onslaught. Again, it was Cristiano who put Madrid ahead and into contention for the tie. But the home side efforts were unconvincing and so when Morata hit the net again on the hour mark all Juventus had to do was hold out to the end in their natural game - defending. Which they did effectively ending the Champion League holders hopes of winning back to back titles.; moving Ancelotti out the door and bringing a new managerial cycle to the Madrid club. A script which wheat awry when Florentino Perez plucked for Rafa Benitez against the wishes of the powerful lobby of a Madrid media
Therefore, this season the semi-finals are very different as the club suddenly found Zinedine Zidane was their man – after all - in the wake of the scuttled Benitez project in January. With a win at the Camp Nou achieved only a few weeks ago the La Liga chances are mathematically revitalised. So Real Madrid are now in a different place; playing in a different way even if with a very similar squad. Under ZiZou, Kroos now pushes more forward, Bale is in the shape of his life, with Ronaldo beating goal scoring records every week; and Modric holding right side of midfield. In the return leg against Wolfsburg a more direct style was in play and the coach happier with three across the middle. All much less rigid than the four-man midfield and linear system preferred by Benitez. The results showing that the players revel in that format and are more responsive with more graft than was accustomed under Rafa or Carlo.
A strength that populated all Zidane’s own performances despite his mesmeric skills and an ethos he is demanding of his first team players. Which will be seen at the Etihad on Tuesday night in the first leg semi-final. A match that is untimely for the visitors in so far as Manchester City are currently in goal scoring form and clearly a threatening force to the Madrid back four, which still creaks and leaks under pressure. With Pepe always a cause for concern when Varanne is out of the team as the Frenchman’s speed and agility always enough to cover the flaws of his other compadre, Sergio Ramos. Against City Aguero will be no easier than Tevez and DeBruyne. In fact, arguably a tougher task
Having only previously met in the group qualifying stages in 2012 there is little precedent on which to predict this one. Other than Ronaldo’s return to the city of Manchester, albeit the Blue side, might inspire another hat- trick. Or the reverse with the Portuguese talisman wilting under weight of expectation in this vital tie and leaving his teammates shouldering the burden. The only positive being that as Cristiano attracts markers it could allow Bale, Benzema [if fully fit] or Modric find any gaps in Joe Hart’s net. Undoubtedly Madrid will sit less deep than was evidenced at the Volkswagen Arena where Real Madrid were exposed when Danilo allowed Drexler run rampant. The same cannot be afforded Navas, Silva or Fernadinho. In place this time Zidane will have Casimiro, in front of the back four, and Carvajal back at right back
Regardless the first leg should be a City win. But not enough to give Perez sleepless nights for the return of his former employee, Manuel Pellegrini, to the Santiago Bernabeu on May 4th next.
“It's very important to enjoy the semi-final as it's not something we achieve every year. The players know that. It's important not to be comfortable because we're at this stage. Everyone wants to continue, to play the final. We'll see a City team that will play to win.
We won't just try to defend to reach the final. I have always tried to have a team who play good football, play well. We need a hot heart and a cold mind ... We need our emotions under control.
“We are in a decent vein of form, probably the best of the season. We are going to do the best we possibly can to score and try not to concede. It's a game and tie that is 50/50. You can prepare all you want for a big game but then the game can turn out totally different to how you envisaged it. The important thing is to give 150%.
Our opponents are a great side. If you give them space, they can hurt you. The players get between the lines and cause problems. When we've not got the ball we must keep it tight and defend; when we have the ball we'll try and hurt them. The players are really focused. In 2014, there was a similar atmosphere in the dressing room.
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