Next Wednesday, Los Blancos kick off their quest for a third Champions League title in as many seasons. Winning three in a row is a tough ask of any team, even Real Madrid, so I wanted to look at some of the storylines heading into next week as the Champions League kicks off in earnest.
Long Time No See
Real Madrid and APOEL FC have met before, in the 2011/2012 Champions League quarter-final. Real would beat them 8-2 on aggregate, advancing to the semi-final where they would lose to Bayern Munich. APOEL have yet to play a league match, though they kick off the season this weekend. So the only football that they’ve been playing until now has been the Champions League qualification stage.
As far as formations go, they favor the 4-2-3-1 but have been known to run a 4-2-2-2 which is what they used against Slavia Prague to advance to the group stage. They’re definitely the minnow of the group. If they pick up any points in the group stage I’ll be amazed. As for them facing Los Merengues, it’s a pretty tough draw to kick off the group stage.
The Bee's knees
Last season Real Madrid had a bit of a problem with Dortmund and it seems that we have a bit of a problem with German clubs in general. They have multiple ways to hurt you, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is their main target. The guy already has six goals across all competitions this season — in just four matches! Last season during the Champions League he scored seven goals.
They could be a banana peel if Los Blancos aren’t paying attention. They have left one person off their Champions League roster that is still working his way back to fitness: Marco Reus. With him missing it’s likely that the young American Christian Pulisic will start in his place. At just 18 he’s starting to make a name for himself, not only at Dortmund but on the international level as well. He’s made 10 appearances in the Champions League last season — notching his first Champions League goal and three assists.
One thing he likes to do from the right wing is cut in towards the middle or lay in a cross into the box. He’s fast and he’s feisty. The key to neutralize him is to mark him tight and keep in his face. It was shown over the international break, that if you mess with him enough you can take him out of his game. Both Costa Rica and Honduras made sure that he was harassed and harassed often.
It is what you make it.
There’s all types, but if there’s one thing this team has shown, it’s grace under pressure. These guys set the highest standards for themselves for sure. I mean, they are professional athletes at the top of their game.
I’ve been driving the treble-train since preseason, and while we’re not that far along -- this has to weigh on the players’ minds. You can’t tell me that they haven’t thought about it. They could be the first Real Madrid club to win back-to-back-to-back European titles since the Alfredo Di Stéfano era. Is this team the team that can do it?
I believe they can, as any fan would. But I look at this roster from top to bottom and can’t find much wrong -- yes we’re a tad weak in a couple areas, but when that happens someone will step up and be that guy. Who will it be? That tale will be told throughout the Champions League this season.
Fear The Beard
I’m going to make this a thing.
Now, just five months ago I wrote about how Isco was going to have to leave the Spanish capital to get any significant playing time and to grow as a player. In last year’s Champions League we saw very little of him. While he made the bench in all but one match (he had a sprained ankle) he started only five. And while he didn’t light the world on fire, he collected just a single goal in 12 matches. That goal though helped them pass Atletico Madrid in the semi-final stage.
I feel that this will be the season of Isco. Just look at what he did while on international duty. He’s going to make it very tough on Zizou, because it’s going to be hard to try and sit him. He’s been on a tear, but even if he doesn’t get a start or two in the Champions League that’s no problem because he can come off the bench and be an impact sub.
I’m going to make a very specific prediction for Isco and you can laugh and mock me if this doesn’t come true: while he only picked up one goal in last season’s Champions League, I think that this year he’ll score at least two goals and notch four assists. I don’t think I’m really going too much out on a limb here.
This just scratches the surface of the storylines Real Madrid will be faced with during the season — and what a story it could end up being!