A heavily rotated side struggled to break through in Moscow tonight, against a well-organized CSKA side who did just about everything right on the defensive end. Lopetegui went into this game without Ramos, Bale, Marcelo, and Isco in the squad; while Modric started on the bench. A front three of Asensio, Benzema, and Lucas Vazquez were denied space facing a low-block, and Real Madrid just couldn’t create clear-cut chances consistently — a recurring theme this season. Real Madrid’s best chances in the first half came from Casemiro carrying the ball on a counter in a rare moment where open water was available, but his shot at the end of the run hit the post. Shortly after, Benzema hit the crossbar with a header.
But Real Madrid’s main issue on the night came before all that — as early as the second minute when Kroos gave the ball away with a terrible back-pass. At the end of the sequence, you could argue Varane should’ve done better defending the goal; but that’s harsh given he shouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place, and Nikola Vlasic showed great pace to get to the ball to score his goal.
Kroos, from there, for whatever it’s possibly worth, was a man possessed after his mistake. He started playing quickly and incisively, was intercepting passes, was dribbling through players to take defenders out of the equation, and took some stinging shots. But he missed the full redemption process that he had against Sweden in the World Cup with a much-needed goal.
Real Madrid’s offensive scheme wasn’t efficient tonight, and they were often out of ideas as they recycled possession desperately looking for space. CSKA deserve credit. They had two banks of four and completely denied space to Asensio and Ceballos in key areas. On the counter, they were dangerous. So many ‘small’ teams against Real Madrid over the years will crumble on the counter and give the ball away; but Moscow weren’t cheap in possession in the limited time they had it, and waited for numbers to join the attack.
Without Bale, it’s always going to be difficult to score; and truthfully, in big tests, even with him it’s difficult. Without Mariano too — the only other focal point and pure goalscorer in the team — it’s even more laborious (as I wrote about more here). Real Madrid had 12 crosses in the first half, and couldn’t really get on the end of them. To be sure, Mariano didn’t move the needle, result-wise, when he came on, but he did provide CSKA something to think about in the box, and was on the end of a couple nice passes from Asensio and Modric; as well as a couple crosses — one of which he the bar from.
To circle back, this goes back to a terrible start from Real Madrid. If you give a team (who’s ultimately going to form a shell around their goal) a complete gift, you’re not going to have an easy game. The entire start was problematic, as Real Madrid were giving the ball away in key areas before they eventually grew into the game — but ultimately couldn’t break through despite their possession in the final third.
It’s hard to take positives from this match, but if there are any, Alvaro Odriozola looked good coming on for the injured Dani Carvajal. Odriozola’s speed allowed him to get clearances, tackles, and crosses when the ball was seemingly out of reach. On the opposite flank, surprise debutant Sergio Reguilon looked comfortable in tight spaces and was encouraging. His passing needs work, but as far as Champions League debuts go for a surprise start from a youth product, he looked fine.
There’s a lot more to this match that we’ll break down tactically in the coming hour. The post-game podcast will go up tomorrow night, but we’ll also hit this match extensively enough on tonight’s Churros y Tácticas Podcast — so keep an eye out for that.