Imagine the joy in writing these names down on your team sheet: Isco, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos. How is it fathomable that such incredibly talented midfield players actually constitute one of the weaker, more disappointing facets of this year's team. Don't believe me? Here's Massimiliano Allegri speaking candidly after Juve's well-deserved 2-3 victory in the UCL semifinals:
"Isco and Rodriguez aren't particularly strong defensively, so I told my players the more we push them towards their own goal, the better."
Never has the lack of a true holding midfield player been laid more bare. It's pretty amazing to hear a manager speak so openly and with such confidence about a weakness in a Real Madrid side. Since the winter break Madrid's midfield has been a conundrum beset by injuries and marred by a tendency to field similar players whose brief is to create, leaving the team hopelessly imbalanced and exposed when playing top-level competition.
Much hot-take style attention was bestowed upon Arturo Vidal after the match in Turin, but for my money Claudio Marchisio was the true difference maker through both legs, a powder keg of intelligent movement, workrate, guile and invention. For all of their glorious yin-and-yang match-winning improvisational abilities and creativity, the fact James and Isco were so blatantly identified as defensive liabilities is cause for concern.
Toni Kroos has had an overall excellent debut for Los Blancos and may yet grow into the type of player so desperately needed in this mix--but he has been shoehorned into such a role prematurely and it speaks to his quality that he has still been able to shine despite occupying a position not naturally suited to maximize his skills at this stage of his development. Being asked to be the sole means of cover when fielded with Isco and James, as Allegri identified, helps nullify his link-up play and ability to contol the tempo of matches, two things the German excels at.
The Real Madrid icon has had one hell of a rollercoaster ride campaign filled with epic highs and torturous lows. Yesterday's exit was by no means down to the veteran keeper. In fact, Casillas made a few decent stops that kept Juve from stealing away clean into the Madrid night. But his disastrous performance at home against Schalke in the round-of-16 nearly prevented these matches from ever taking place. The question remains: Is his situation and all its attendant tensions and political maneuverings sustainable for another year? It's hard to see any scenario where that is the case. Yet it's also hard to see Casillas just walking away from the Bernabeu, despite the obvious toll the whistles have taken on him. It appears a problem with no good options.