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Real Madrid Have Looked a Better Team Without One of Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale In the Starting XI

Whisper it quietly, though

Paul Gilham

The big news before Wednesday night's Champions League semi-final first leg clash against Bayern Munich was that Bale would only occupy a place on the bench due to flu. The big news before last Wednesday's Copa del Rey final against Barcelona was that Ronaldo would not be fit to feature because of a knee injury. In both instances the worry was unnecessary. Los Blancos lifted the cup thanks to a 2-1 win over the Catalans and seven days later they edged out holders Bayern 1-0 at the Bernabeu.

"[The] last two games have been our best games of season," admitted Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti after seeing his side beat Munich. "It is not about tactics, it is mental, about motivation." The best two games of the season, and without Madrid's ‘Dos Torpedos' of Bale and Ronaldo attacking either flank.

First thing's first - had both Bale and Ronaldo been fully fit for both matches, both would have played. Both would have lined up in Ancelotti's favoured 4-3-3 formation. President Florentino Perez did not shell out mega bucks on the former Tottenham Hotspur man, or the former Manchester United man, to see them occupy the bench. Politics will not allow it. That aside, the pair are two of arguably the best attackers on the planet.

As it happened, their respective absences helped, and not hindered, Los Blancos in two of their biggest matches of the season.

In other big matches this season with both stars playing Madrid have looked overrun in midfield and have looked more vulnerable at the back. Neither have a defence-driven football brain, meaning teams such as Barcelona, Atletico and Athletic Bilbao have enjoyed success against Madrid's three-man midfield. Bale, Ronaldo and indeed Benzema do not favour tracking back.

With one missing, Ancelotti has opted for Angel Di Maria in the three-pronged attack and Isco, and not Asier Illarramendi, in the middle. The former Malaga man has had to make do with plenty of time on the bench since the change from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 but in recent weeks his manager has trusted him to help out defensively, as well as cause problems in attack, and it's worked. With Di Maria comes an attack-minded player but also a player who works hard and is more than happy to help out defensively. Without the ball, the Argentine drops back to the right of a midfield four to make two banks of four - two banks that are hard to break down.

That has meant Madrid have dealt relatively comfortably with Barca and Bayern in the last week. Both opponents like to play the possession game and grind down their opponents but both have met a stubborn defence not normally associated with Los Blancos. The Germans were kept out with relative ease, despite having 72 per cent of the possession, while Barca grabbed their cup final goal thanks to some lax marking from Pepe to allow Marc Bartra a goal from a corner kick - very un-Barca like. Chances from free play were few and far between and that's credit to the Italian.

Whether it's come through chance, with Ronaldo and Bale nursing injuries in the two matches, or an ace tactical approach, Ancelotti and Madrid now have a ‘Plan B' for the big matches. While an attacking 4-3-3 may comfortably see off the majority of La Liga on a weekly basis, it has not matched Madrid's top-four rivals this term. Los Blancos have taken only one point from six against Atleti, none from six against Barca and four from six against fourth-placed Bilbao. Three teams that for the most part have won the midfield battle against Madrid, but with Di Maria in place of either Bale or Ronaldo, things have changed.

Now the Italian has been left with an albeit welcome selection headache for next Tuesday's return leg at the Allianz Arena. Stick or twist? Both Bale and Ronaldo are expected to be fit to start, and both could be rested for this Saturday's La Liga clash against Osasuna at the Bernabeu. The inclusion of Di Maria further up and Isco in the middle has worked according to plan in arguably the biggest two matches of Madrid's season so far but the temptation to include Madrid's two star men could be too much for Ancelotti to resists, especially with the away goal crucial.

Munich failed to register a goal at the Bernabeu meaning one for Los Blancos in Munich next week could leave Pep Guardiola's men needing three to progress to the final in Lisbon. The inclusion of Bale and Ronaldo would certainly make Madrid better offensively, and with the counter-attack working so well you'd favour Los Blancos to bag that crucial goal on foreign sale and make things extremely difficult for the holders.

On the flip side of the coin Madrid looked much more of a ‘team' in their last two matches, defending superbly and still looking dangerous on the counter, even with just one of Bale or Ronaldo. On Wednesday Los Blancos could have been 3-0 up at half-time with Ronaldo and Di Maria missing good chances despite Bayern controlling possession. It will be a selection headache that is welcome, but one that could define Ancelotti's first season in charge at the Bernabeu. La Decima is the main objective and Madrid are 90 minutes away from edging ever closer to it.

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