Thursday, February 27, 2014

Real Madrid thrashes Schalke, Mancini counters Mourinho in UCL

It was a matter of extremes in Wednesday's Champions League round of 16 first-leg ties, as Real Madrid eased past Schalke with a 6-1 drubbing in Germany, while Galatasaray came from behind to draw 1-1 with Chelsea in a tense encounter in Istanbul. Here's what stood out from the contests:
Player of the day: Karim Benzema, Real Madrid
The biggest threat to Bayern Munich's Champions League crown may well come from La Liga, but not necessarily Barcelona, as many people have predicted this season. It's Real Madrid sitting three points clear at the top and, after demolishing Schalke in Germany, has more than one foot in the next round.
Real Madrid is on a record-breaking run at the moment: unbeaten in 27 matches, with 23 of those wins, and for all the brilliance of its wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale - both of whom scored outrageous individual goals - the man who deserves the plaudits is Karim Benzema.
It was the French striker who pounced on Ronaldo's flicked return from Bale's pass to slot home inside five minutes. Not long after, Bale made it 2-0, jinking his way past three defenders before poking the ball into the net. It was the type of goal he specialized in last season in the Premier League; and almost as spectacular as the 30-yard effort he smacked in off crossbar against Elche four days ago.
In 21 starts for Real Madrid, Bale has now scored 14 goals and assisted on 10 - not bad figures for a player decried as "a hypochondriac" by one Spain-based journalist. Most defenders find it hard enough to contain Ronaldo - the post came to Schalke's rescue with his 20-yard shot - but with Bale on this form too, Madrid looked deadly. Schalke's defense contributed to its downfall, but Madrid continued the cakewalk in the second half, Ronaldo following up three stepovers with a rasping drive before Benzema added a second to end German hopes once and for all.

The quiet Frenchman avoids the limelight but has scored seven in his last nine games; a healthy run of form coming after he was dropped from France's starting XI. No wonder coach Carlo Ancelotti is happy with the balance of his team now: once again, the 4-3-3 with Xabi Alonso, Angel di Maria and Luka Modric in midfield was outstanding. It may not suit new signings Isco, Casimero, or Asier Illaramendi, but today was also a reminder of Di Maria's rebirth as a central midfielder - so good has he been, in fact, that it would be no surprise to see him start there for Argentina at the World Cup.
This team has Ancelotti's stamp on it - and he is making Madridistas believe that its long-awaited decima, 10th European Cup title, could become a reality at last.
Moment of the day: Iker Casillas saves from Julian Draxler
We have seen some great saves in this round - not least Atletico Madrid's Thibaut Courtois keeping out Kaka in the win at Milan last week, while Fernando Muslera made a smart stop to deny Fernando Torres in Turkey - but none were better than Iker Casillas diving to keep out Julien Draxler's shot from four yards out - almost point-blank range.

The chance fell to Draxler, who was not fully-fit, just after Madrid had taken the lead, and had it gone in, it would have changed the game. It might not have changed the result, especially given the dominance the visiting side went on to enjoy, but it also went some way to explaining how Casillas went 952 minutes without conceding a goal (and when it ended, what a goal, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar's volley from the edge of the box, it was).
One year ago, he was out of the side and worried for his place in the Spain team; now, he is back in form and set to captain the reigning world champion. Pepe, who has been a different player this season, also deserves a mention. If ever a defender seemed to embody his coach, it is the Portuguese: a belligerent butcher under Mourinho, now just a defender who oozes reliability. It was his 31st birthday today and he played like he was 10 years younger; no wonder he is Ancelotti's second-most used outfield player (behind Di Maria).

Major takeaway of the day: Mancini gives Mourinho a headache
We have seen glimpses of the old Jose Mourinho in recent weeks, not as the quiet calm statesmanlike figure that he professed to be on his return to England (and while he fulfilled that role, you could not help but wonder why Manchester United overlooked him to replace Sir Alex Ferguson). He hit out at West Ham coach Sam Allardyce for "19th century tactics" at Stamford Bridge, called Arsene Wenger "a specialist in failure" and this week labeled the media 'a disgrace' for releasing footage without his permission. "L'Ego Land" was the smart headline on the front page of French paper L'Equipe Wednesday, accusing Mourinho of "attacking on all fronts."
His team did something similar in the first half against Galatasaray, taking advantage of Galatasaray's high defensive line and midfield gaps to launch counter after counter that should have resulted in more than Fernando Torres' ninth-minute goal.
Coach Roberto Mancini got his tactics so wrong that he made a substitution after 30 minutes, taking off Champions League debutant Izet Hajrovic for Yekta Kurtulus, a more defensive midfielder who kept things a little tighter. Before then, Chelsea had threatened to finish off the tie, with the outstanding Cesar Azpilicueta and either Andre Schurrle or Eden Hazard, who switched sides, all giving Emmanuel Eboue a nightmare down the left flank.
"You have to match Chelsea in midfield or you will get overrun, and that is where Mancini went wrong," said former Galatasaray coach Graeme Souness on Sky Sports.
Instead, Mancini corrected his errors in time for the second half and, short of one Torres effort well saved, Galatasaray battled its way back into the game and just after Selcuk hit the post from Didier Drogba's knock-down, Aurelien Chedjou sneaked in to knock home Wesley Sneijder's corner. As the game went on, Mourinho tried to lock down the midfield battle but it was Galatasaray who looked the more likely to score. In the end, 1-1 was a fair result.

Mourinho and Mancini are hardly best of friends -- Mancini claimed that Mourinho's Inter Milan side that won the competition in 2010 was 'his side' -- but this result leaves both coaches with something to cling to. In the first half, Mourinho had the upper hand. Mancini clawed it back in the second and that should make for one of the more interesting second legs in three weeks' time.
How the second legs shape up
Real Madrid's tie against Schalke will be one for the numbers guys - a serious chance for Cristiano Ronaldo, who could have had a hat trick Wednedsay, to add to his tally of 11 goals in six games in the competition so far. The task for Schalke will be to steady the ship between now and then, but that won't be easy: it faces Bayern Munich at the weekend (some might say this was the perfect preparation).
Chelsea's game against Galatasaray could prove to be the second leg of the round, and not just because it will mark the return of Drogba to Stamford Bridge. That in itself will be a momentous occasion, but the striker's sense of timing in big games may worry Mourinho, who knows him better than most.
And then there is the scoreline: only two games of the eight in this round were not won by the away side, the group winner, and this was the only drawn game. An away goal at Chelsea will make for a fascinating contest. What price would one pay for a penalty shootout at the Bridge with Drogba potentially stepping up to win it for his team?