Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Real Madrid Lack The Discipline To Harness Barcelona

Ronaldo celebrates his equaliser against BarcelonaFrom the moment the line-ups came out for Real Madrid's final league meeting of the season with FC Barcelona it was clear to all the type of tactics that Jose Mourinho would be adopting. A midfield trio of Khedira, Alonso and Pepe spoke volumes as to the approach that Madrid would come into the game with, one very similar to that which proved successful for Inter Milan last season.

In arguably the most absorbing match of the 2009/10 season, Mourinho and his Inter Milan side traveled to the Nou Camp, with a 3-1 lead from the first leg already intact. Drilled for the best part of two years in preparation for this moment, Inter stymied Barcelona through an organized defensive system, one that encompassed much more than just the back four.

In the midfield Cambiasso (and to a lesser extent  Thiago Motta who was sent off early on) provided cover for a strong back line of Lucio, Samuel, Maicon and Chivu, one that was tested on many occasions by Barca's attacking stars. Upfront, Diego Milito was forced to plow a lone furrow while his fellow attacker, Samuel Eto'o, fulfilled a crucial defensive roll. Eto'o's selfless defensive performance at the home of his former club earned the Cameroonian plenty of plaudits and, eventually, a third Champions League winners medal.

Now, at Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho must replicate Inter's winning formula, in a do-or-die series of games against Barca, ones that will come to define his first season at the club.

On Saturday, Madrid played out an uninspiring 1-1 draw that more or less handed the Spanish Primera crown to Pep Guardiola's men. An inauspicious start, but one that must be built upon if Madrid are to progress to the Champions League final in May. While the midfield trio of Pepe, Khedira and Alonso proved a useful shield for the defense, the very men they will be protecting could prove to be a liability.

If Mourinho elects to continue playing Pepe in the middle of the park, the Merengues will once again have to rely on the inconsistent Raul Albiol, whose rush of blood resulted in Madrid being reduced to ten men on Saturday. While Lucio and Samuel hardly boast impeccable disciplinary records, the two were savvy enough not to get drawn into the kind of tackles that resulted in Albiol's sending off, something that contributed to Inter's success against Barca last season.

But perhaps the main contrast between Mourinho's Inter team and his current Real Madrid side is the role of attackers in maintaining a lead. Last season, Samuel Eto'o's tracking back was crucial to Inter's success, while Diego Milito remained focused despite spending most of the second leg isolated up top.

In November, one of the main disappointments of Real Madrid's 5-0 loss at the Nou Camp was the performance of German international Mesut Ozil, who failed to hold on to the ball, and lacked the defensive awareness to help contain Barca's marauding full backs. There is no doubt that Ozil is a fine attacking player, but he proved early on this year that he shouldn't be relied upon to fulfill the roll of defensive attacker.

On Saturday, with Ozil demoted to the bench, it was Di Maria who played the roll of pantomime villain, the Argentinian showed no inclination to defend in the way Eto'o did last year, allowing Barcelona's full backs to attack with freedom.

 However, despite their defensive deficiencies, Ozil and Di Maria both boast fabulous attacking arsenals, threats more than capable of breaking through the Barcelona rear guard. In fact, you can be fairly certain that if either one is playing they will create at least one goalscoring opportunity, though whether such rare chances will be taken is another question altogether.

Often forgotten is Inter Milan's first leg win over Barcelona, the match which set them up with the perfect platform for success in Spain. In that match, Inter were lethal, taking every chance that came about, insuring that they would finish with a healthy 3-1 lead.

With the likes of Diego Milito in tow, Inter were able to cash in on even the slightest sniffs of goal, but one wonders whether Madrid's strikers will be able to do likewise. Despite a recent upturn in form, Karim Benzema still polarizes opinion in the Spanish capital, while the inconsistent Emmanuel Adebayor and the returning Gonzalo Higuain should also be questioned. If the Merengues are to triumph over their rivals from Catalonia, then concentration in the attacking third will be just as important as focus in defense. When playing against a team like Barcelona, chances must be pounced upon, and I just don't see Real Madrid's striker as capable of doing that.

In the next three weeks, Real Madrid will face the ultimate tests of their first season under Jose Mourinho. As of now, I am yet to be convinced by Real Madrid's "project" and I think that their defense lacks the solidity of prior Mourinho teams. Upfront, players like Ronaldo and Di Maria must thrust their egos to one side for the good of the club, and put in the kind of shift that Eto'o did during Inter's run to the Champions League final, or face the inevitable consequences of a season without silverware.

In light of the above evidence, it seems clear that Real Madrid will have to find an alternate method of getting past Barcelona. Year after year teams like Arsenal have attempted to play Barcelona at their own game, keeping the ball and playing with attacking verve and panache. Time after time teams with that approach have been turned over by Barca, adding to the quandary facing Jose Mourinho. With attacking weapons like Di Maria, Ronaldo and Higuain it seems logical that Mourinho should approach the upcoming Classicos with the emphasis on attack, but the Portuguese manager knows what the inevitable result of such an approach is, all he has to do is ask Arsene Wenger...

There is no easy answer to the question of how Real Madrid should best go about beating Barcelona, but if their is one man capable of finding a solution it's Jose Mourinho.

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