Welcome to the international roundup, where Real Madrid fans cower in terror during a hiatus from club football, in which their stars travel vast distances of planet earth to play football matches against angry men with cleats just before an important derby in the city’s capital.
Spain 4-0 Macedonia
Four Madridistas featured in this evening’s World Cup qualifier in Granada which saw Spain rack up three points against a hard-working Macedonia side. Of the four - Isco, Morata, Nacho, Carvajal - none were as influential as Alvaro Morata, who was a prominent figure in virtually every Spanish attack.
On the team sheet, Morata lined-up as the lone striker, with five creators - a mix of possession-holding and creative maestros - lining up behind him. Of course, the team sheet is barely an indicator of how things unfold on the pitch, and it was soon apparent that Lopetegui’s offensive scheme barely had a central target man at all. Morata spent most of his time on the left flank, linking up with Vitolo and Nacho Monreal, and if he wasn’t looking to create from outside, he was making runs and receiving defense-splitting passes from his teammates. Morata was eventually taken off in the 60th minute for hitman Aritz Aduriz, and until that point, he had all of Spain’s best chances:
- Minute 14: Morata receives a clever flick from Koke just inside the area, and after brilliantly turning his defender, scuffs a shot outside the far post with his left foot.
- Minute 21: Morata rushes in on goal after a deflected shot falls to him. His toe-poke as he’s through on goal is saved brilliantly by keeper Dimitrievski.
- Minute 25: David Silva places a surgical pass to Morata in-behind the Macedonian barricade which breaks the defensive line. Morata’s shot - again with the left foot - misses the target.
- Minute 34: Spain’s opening goal arrives, and though it’s a bizarre own-goal, Morata is somehow the instigator after being wrestled to the ground - the defender so preoccupied dealing with Morata’s physicality that he directs the ball into his own net.
- Minute 46: Just after the break, Morata was presented with his last chance to score before departing the match. Some nice build-up between David Silva and Vitolo eventually found Morata in the box. The striker’s first touch was absolutely brilliant - as it was all match - but the ball found his left foot once again, and he was closed down before his shot was parried away by Dimitrievski for a corner.
By the time this was all over, Spain had scored four goals and produced a cruel scoreline. Despite dominating possession and being quite comfortable with the ball - a midfield consisting of Busquets, Vitolo, Koke, Silva, and Thiago pretty well ensures that for you - the two best chances before the opening goal fell to Macedonia.
And they were clear-cut chances, to be sure - and both from set-pieces. One was point-blank - brilliantly saved by David De Gea - and the other headed just off-target from Goran Pandev.
Yes, that’s right, Goran Pandev.
And not that Nacho was necessarily at fault for either, but there is something to be said about Spain’s ability to defend set-pieces as a whole without Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique - both of whom were sidelined with injuries. The backline of Carvajal, Bartra, Nacho, and Monreal isn’t the most physically imposing, and even if the two central defenders in that formation have been quite reliable all season, neither are known for being a commanding presence.
Isco Alarcon, meanwhile, entered this game in the 72nd minute in place of Koke, and it’s tough to measure his performance as anything more than a superfluous training session. His touches and dribbling sequences were quite good when he came on, and Spain scored two more goals after his introduction (back-to-back, in minutes 84 and 85) once Macedonia had no choice but to stretch themselves in search of a lifeline.
Spain deserved to win this, and they did. Even if some problems still linger, Lopetegui’s side has a fresh feel to it, and they’re heading into an exciting direction which should see them bounce-back to being a tournament-favourite heading into Russia. Their passing is crisp and fluid - still a joy to watch. The identity from the previous generation lingers while a sense of directness emerges with the injection of new blood.
It’s refreshing. It’s fun. On one hand you have David Silva’s tranquility and veteran presence surgically breaking defensive lines, and on the other you have players like Aritz Aduriz and Jose Callejon who’ve been rewarded for their spike in form late in their careers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a surge of talented youth who finally look ready to take the gauntlet. Exciting times in Spain.
Wales 1 - 1 Serbia
Wales lined up against tough opponents Serbia in an asymmetric formation that roughly resembled a 4-2-2-2. The two Joe’s (Ledley and Allen) sat in a clear double-pivot in front of a back four and behind an attacking midfield of Ramsey and Bale. Spearheading the formation were strikers Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes, who often positioned themselves close together in an effort to hold up the ball until help in the form of Bale and Ramsey arrived.
Due to the very differing natures of Bale and Ramsey, the formation became lopsided extremely quickly, with Bale choosing to drift to the flanks, leaving Ramsey to marshall play through the center.
This obviously hurt Wales a little bit in slow-build-up, as their skewed options made it easier for Serbia to focus their defensive efforts, but Bale negated this with an immense work-rate off-the-ball. In every single attack, the Welsh wizard ensured that he popped up in a different place at a different time (sometimes he would spark a counter-attack with an aerial duel or a slick dribble from deep, before spearheading an offensive thrust with an excellent off-the-ball run into the final third), making him practically un-markable.
Thus, it was no surprise to see that Bale was the source of nearly all of Wale’s danger, as he created chances with crosses, took more than half of his team’s shots (4/7), hit the post in the 84th minute, and scored Wales’ only goal of the game.
That’s not to take away from Bale’s teammates, who put in an able performance to support the Real Madrid superstar. Ramsey, in particular, was huge in allowing Bale to thrive in such a free role. He single-handedly kept play ticking in the final third and managed to release Bale on the counter-attack several times with a bevy of excellent passes.
Robson-Kanu also deserves a mention for his supreme work-rate, as that quality allowed him to create a chance out of nothing and assist Bale for the opening goal of the evening.
Serbia, on the other hand, were rather dismal, as they struggled to cope with Chris Coleman’s dynamic formation in addition to failing to create much for themselves. For the most part, they were rather stagnant and disjointed, meaning one would too often one see Kostic running into Dusan Tadic’s space, or a pass being played after Mitrovic had already made a run.
Nevertheless, Serbia managed to level the scoreline only moments after Bale hit the post, cruelly distributing the points and breaking the home stadium’s hearts.
As a result, Wales now sit out of a qualification place (though second place doesn’t guarantee that you go to the World Cup; only the 8 best runners-up move to a play-off, where the 4 winners then qualify) in 3rd, with 6 points won out of a possible 12.
Gareth Bale’s Performance Rating: 8.5/10
Key Statistics: 51 touches, 1 goal, 2/4 shots on target, 1 key pass, 3 dribbles, 4 fouls drawn, 2 aerials won, 20/27 passes completed, 1/4 crosses completed, 3/6 long balls completed.
(All stats & charts taken from whoscored.com)
To help us cover the Croatia game (our staff was spread super thin today with Castilla coverage and general international duty), we reached out to AnteZ on twitter, who is very well versed with Croatian and Real Madrid football. Below is his match report:
Croatia 2 - 0 Iceland
Both Croatia and Iceland came into today's World Cup qualifier with a strong 7 points from 3 matches. This crucial game was played in an empty Maksimir stadium in Croatia's capital because of fan trouble.
Croatia's lineup: 4-2-3-1 Subasic; Vrsaljko-Vida-Corluka-Pivaric; Kovacic-Badelj; Brozovic-Rakitic-Perisic; Mandzukic.
Due to Luka’s recent return to fitness, Kovacic started in place of Croatian captain Luka Modric, who sat on the bench for the first half. Real Madrid were concerned Luka would be pushed too hard and I'm sure many Madridistas breathed a sigh of relief to see a lineup devoid of the important playmaker.
The first half saw Croatia keep more possession even though the pitch was very poor. Mateo Kovacic had a decent half in the conditions, even managing a beautiful play where he split two Iceland defenders and took a few touches forward before placing a deep ball perfectly to Mandzukic's feet. Kova was also fouled a few times, but other than that and his previous play, he did not make a major impact in midfield as Croatia couldn't find their rhythm in the first half.
But Croatia did manage to go ahead, and the difference-maker was Marcelo Brozovic, who hit a powerful left footed shot past the goalkeeper from the top of the box in 15th minute (Brozovic is an Inter Milan midfielder who was linked briefly with Real Madrid last summer).
The second half started with Luka Modric coming on for Mateo Kovacic, and instantly Croatia's midfield looked like it was functioning better. Luka did a great job of distributing the ball and the other players around him seemed to be more active than the first half. Luka did lose one ball in the opposing half which led to a counter attack where Croatian defender Domagoj Vida had to make a foul to stop the attack.
Croatia maintained control with the 1-0 lead until Brozovic scored his second goal from outside the box after a nice solo run in extra time. Epic Brozo(Brozovic's nickname) chose placement, as he curled the ball into the right corner from the top of the box.
The second goal confirmed the 3 points for Croatia, who go to top of the table with 10 points from 4 matches and a 10-1 goal difference. Unfortunately, Croatia winger Ivan Perisic received a red card in the 89th minute and will miss the next Croatia qualifier against Ukraine.
But the real bad news were the reports streaming in after the match that Kovacic suffered an ankle injury in the first half. Due to this, Croatia have released Kovacic from national team duties for this cycle and he will return to Madrid immediately for treatments. The curse strikes again!