This season has seen a huge improvement in the Real Madrid squad with José Mourinho stamping his identity upon the side. In fact, Wednesday night was further proof that Madrid are moving away from their ego ridden Galácticos roots that has proven a curse and deprived them of sustained success over the past decade. Madrid produced a controlled, fluid display of attacking football to brush aside Apoel Nicosia 5-2. One thing that was striking about their play was the amount of tracking back the major players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká completed despite the statute of opposition. Barcelona have dominated club football in recent seasons, with their work-rate always a cut above the rest. This season Mourinho has instilled this philosophy into his players and they are starting to reap the rewards.
Mourinho is one of the most decorated managers in European football, however one of the biggest criticisms directed at the 49-year-old is his tendency to focus on defence. At Porto, Chelsea and Internazionale, Mourinho built his success on an imperious rearguard. The Madrid boss has always believed in sending out his team to get a clean sheet first and everything else comes second. But this season, with the change in work ethic, Mourinho has also let his side have more of a free reign when going forward. It has proven to be a winning combination and with Ronaldo scoring 55 goals in 52 games for club and country, attack may be the best form of defence.
Mourinho may have always had that strong last line of defence, so water-tight at many of his previous clubs, but at Madrid, he was handed a poisoned chalice. Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho form a good defence on their day, but the former can be erratic – at best. On their bench, Raúl Albiol is an accomplished centre-half but not world class and this is where the squad runs thin with young players such as Raphaël Varane asked to step in. Varane did so against Apoel and looked confident throughout, but the standard of opposition needs to be taken into account. Apoel are a team that fought bravely to get to this stage but looked wholly out of their depth. They still managed to score twice and give Iker Casillas a few scares in the closing minutes. Another huge frailty at the back for Madrid are Sergio Ramos and Marcelo. The pair are definitely two of the best attacking full-backs around, however the defensive side of their game has room for drastic improvement, and with uneasy Pepe in the centre, they need to limit those searching runs forward.
Apoel’s coach Ivan Jovanovich deserves his admirers for leading his side into the last eight of Europe’s premier club competition but he will rue his decision to go with goalkeeper Urko Pardo. The 29-year-old was always going to have a difficult task in keeping out a Madrid side in prolific form. Three early tests were thrown his way in the opening quarter of the game, resulting in three fumbles and giving a baying Madrid side the impetus to test the unreliable goalkeeper. The goals inevitably came but Pardo could do nothing to stop Ronaldo’s stunning free kick which encapsulated his whole night. As the ball flew over his head, all he could do was touch it further into the top right corner. Ángel di María’s teasing chip near the end was a further reminder to Pardo that the Bernabéu is not for the faint hearted.
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