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Match Review: Real Madrid 1 - 1 Tottenham; 2017 Champions League

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An up-and-down affair with tactical battles and individual brilliance

Real Madrid v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Zidane rolled out what he may have felt was the strongest starting eleven available, which to many surprise, included the young Moroccan Achraf Hakimi. The weekend rested trio of Modric, Casemiro, and Varane all came back into the team. The change in personnel meant a system change to the Champions League winning diamond formation with Isco spearheading the midfield and Ronaldo and Benzema as the two strikers.

Photo Courtesy of Soccerway

Real Madrid dominate opening 15 minutes

The whites started the game extremely well, pinning Tottenham back with early possession. The opening 15 minutes saw Madrid control with 70% possession vs Tottenham’s 30%. As fans have been accustomed to seeing, Isco roamed wherever he pleased covering a huge amount of ground. Madrid’s early dominance would bring a guilt edge opportunity for Cristiano as early as the 4th minute. A heavy Marcelo cross found its way to a high flying Hakimi who was in the box and placed a perfect one time inside of the foot volley across goal directly to Ronaldo’s head. Ronaldo’s thrusting header resulted in the ball pounding off the post. It would be another one of those nights for Madrid, but the argument may later be made that it was one of those nights for Tottenham as well. The men from London were set up in a 4-4-2 with two physical monsters up top in Fernando Llorente and Harry Kane. Those two were slow to get into the game as Tottenham struggled to put two passes together and got nowhere near Keylor Navas goal in the opening minutes. Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric were the early standouts. Ronaldo continued to make run after run looking to stretch the Spurs defense and get in behind. It was a direct approach and likely a tactic from Zidane to start the game. Interesting to note, and again a likely instruction from Zizou, Achraf Hakimi was continually attacking down the right flank. Christian Erikson tried to exploit the space left behind, but Modric covered expertly for young Hakimi and nullified Erikson all night. Time and time again the Croatian stopped a threatening counter attack as he held deeper with Casemiro while Marcelo and Achraf pushed forward. Despite the constant attacking pressure, Madrid could not grab an early goal.

Harry Kane Comes to Life

Twenty minutes into the first half, Harry Kane came to life and showed what a powerful forward he is and what a nuisance he is to defend. The Englishmen picked up the ball out wide and absolutely nullified both Marcelo and Ramos who tried to double down. Kane showed superb strength and skill to beat both and then place a brilliant driven ball across goal, but Casemiro and Keylor Navas stepped up to save Madrid. Replays showed the Casemiro may have fouled Llorente when trying to prevent the goal, but the referee waived any potential penalty calls away. As the half wore on, Tottenham grew in confidence and found success attacking down their right flank. Marcelo did not have a good game. Sissoko and Aurier constantly beat him with 2 v 1’s and sheer speed and strength. The Brazilian did not have his usual midfield cover from Kroos and Casemiro. Kroos was battling it out with Harry Winks who was impressive in possession and seemed to break Madrid’s midfield line with one pass on multiple occasions. Casemiro was busy trying to help Varane and Ramos with the two bulls—Llorente and Kane. Near the half hour mark, it would be Kane again who would set himself as protagonist in attack and opening the scoring for Tottenham. Harry Winks played Serge Aurier through past Marcelo and Kroos with one pass and the Ivorian drilled a low near post cross, the ever present weakness for Madrid’s defense this season, and Harry Kane beat out Varane to the cross. Kane followed his run with a heel flick which bounced off Varane and into the back of the net. Pochettino and his team had weathered the early storm and managed to find a weakness in Marcelo while limiting the impact of Toni Kroos. Their work brought the first goal and the Bernabeu went silent.

Beautiful dynamic interchange earns Madrid a penalty kick

One of the repetitive storylines and tactical battles of the game was Achraf vs Vertonghen. The 18 year old did not show any nerves and took on the Belgian at any opportunity. Vertonghen is no slouch of a defender and is physically imposing especially against a scrawny Achraf, so the fearlessness was all the more impressive. Achraf had some success beating the Belgian or earning some corners, but his crossing was poor. Madrid had plenty of opportunities from set pieces and corner kicks, but their aerial success was hugely underwhelming. Tottenham dominated in the air (63% aerial success) and overall imposed their physical will on Madrid.

Photo Courtesy of Whoscored.com

As much as Tottenham grew in confidence, Madrid still had control of the match. In the 41st minute, a beautiful interchange between Isco, Modric, Benzema, and Kroos earned a penalty kick after Serge Aurier slid in with all guns blazing to stop Kroos from scoring. It was a bad challenge and without a doubt a penalty. Ronaldo dispatched with ease and the game was level as the half ended.

Luka, Luka, Luka and the tactical battles

There were so many tidbits to pick from this game. Modric was an absolute gem against his former side. What a difference Luka makes. Fans, pundits, and journalist have all been raving about the Croatian in recent weeks and rightly so. He is without a doubt one of, if not the best, midfielder in the world. He tracks backs, dictates the flow of the game, retains possession under any type of pressure, and breaks down defensive lines with dynamic dribbling. The Croatian is the total package and displayed all those virtues in the match against Tottenham. There were so many small tactical battles going on throughout the match—Modric vs Eriksen, Achraf vs Vertonghen, Marcelo vs Aurier, and quite possibly the battle of the game, Varane vs Kane. The Frenchman tracked the Englishmen well throughout the game. Winning most of his one on one duels, the one blemish will be that dummy flick that caused an own goal. It takes one moment from a striker to ruin a defenders good night’s work.

Back and forth second half with counter attack after counter attack from both sides

When the second half started, it was again Madrid who were on the front foot. They continued to knock on the door, but could not find a way past Hugo Loris. In the 53rd minute, Casemiro played a beautiful cross pinpointed to Benzema’s head which was somehow saved by Loris’s foot.

"I've not spoken to him. He would have liked to have scored the goal, but as for the Lloris save, if we replayed it 10 times he'd only keep it out once and tonight was that one time," Zidane was quoted after the encounter.

Benzema critics may say that he should have scored, but many will agree with Zidane. It’s a header that goes in nine out of ten attempts. Some criticized the performance of Casemiro, but he was very disciplined and well versed tactically. When Marcelo and Ramos got stretched and sucked out to the left wing, the Brazilian slotted in as a 5th center back to help the defense keep their shape and deal with the threat of Kane and Llorente. From the 65th minute and onward, the pace of the game skyrocketed. It was counter after counter from both sides. On one such counter, Ronaldo showed incredible skill and speed to beat three Tottenham defenders and get a shot off. The man is almost 33 years old! He looks fitter and faster than he did two to three years ago.

All control lost in the last fifteen

As Madrid lost control and the pace quickened, the goalkeepers became the heroes. Keylor had a huge save on Harry Kane who found himself clean through after a Loris goal kick was flicked through by Llorente. Two quick minutes later, it would be Keylor again who made himself big and cut off Christian Eriksen’s angle to save his 1v1. Despite Madrid’s dominance for much of the game, the whites looked to be tiring rather than Spurs. Tottenham found holes in the last fifteen and Madrid failed to threaten. Asensio came on for Benzema in the 75th minute, but it may have been a substitution that needed to come sooner. Isco was tiring as well and a Ceballos sub could have made a massive difference in this type of match to help regain control.

Summary

Despite the result, Madrid dominated for large parts of this match. Interchanges and dynamic passing football like that which set up the penalty kick are what will bring Madrid success. The team should look to that play alone to break down tough banks of four. Tottenham looked fitter and had some physical beasts out on the field that made Madrid lose control as the game wore on. Asensio and Ceballos would have been two good substitutions near the 65th minute mark to help regain the midfield and limit the counter attacks from Tottenham. All in all it was not as negative a performance as many have made it out to be. This team was playing the same way in October last year, we finished second in the group to Borussia Dortmund. Because of rotations and fitness plans, Zidane’s teams do not usually hit gear until February. Madrid still need to get results, but Tottenham is a quality team and should not be undermined. Calma— the team will improve and the goals will come.