It is their competition, it is his competition. Two of the greatest love stories in European Football – one between Real Madrid and the Champions League and another between Cristiano Ronaldo and the Champions League, were back in the quarter-final stage with some mouth-watering fixtures that had kept the fans waiting. One of those ties was the matchup between The Los Blancos and the Old Lady from Turin.
On paper, it was definitely going to be a brilliant match. It did end up being a memorable encounter, but not many would have predicted it to be so one-sided. Juventus had put together a formidable squad which was keen to avenge the previous season’s Champions League Final loss.
The record holders had already won it 12 times at this point. They were on a streak of 2 back to back title wins, winning against this very opposition the previous season. Their talisman had scored twice against this very opposition in the previous final. Ronaldo also had already set the record of scoring in 9 consecutive Champions League games at this point, and he was going to make it 10 games in a row in supreme fashion. The famous Los Blancos were on their way to the 13th European Title and Ronaldo was on his way to become the UCL top scorer for the record 7th time and this was one big step into the Semi-Finals for the men in white.
The story so far
Before this game, Ronaldo had absolutely stolen the show for Real Madrid in the Champions League throughout the season. He had scored in every group stage game and had also scored in both the legs in the Round of 16. It was only 8 games into the Champions League season and he had already set his tally to 12 goals. Cr7 was on fire and the Real Madrid faithful had all their hopes pinned on him to continue his rampaging attacks.
The dream of three back to back Champions League titles was slowly becoming a reality for the fans. In the group stage, Real Madrid were placed in the group of death along with Tottenham, Borrusia Dortmund and APOEL. Real Madrid managed to comfortably advance to the knockout stage, securing 13 points out of a maximum possible 18 finishing second behind Tottenham.
Next they faced the star-studded PSG in the round of 16. An excellent team performance and the outstanding form of Ronaldo helped Real Madrid beat PSG both home and away to cement their spot in the Quarter-Finals. This is where they ended up facing their opposition from last year’s final.
The home team lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with Buffon in goal, Asamoah, Chiellini, Barzagli and De Sciglio at the back. Alex Sandro, Betancur, Sami Khedira and Douglas Costa formed the midfield. The Argentinian duo of Dybala and Higuain, with the latter at the tip of the attack comprised the forward line. They also had some good options on the bench like Mario Mandzukic, Blaise Matuidi and Cuadrado.
The Los Blancos on the other hand also lined up in a 4-4-2 formation that could switch to a 4-3-1-2 diamond formation. With Keylor Navas in goal, Marcelo, Varane, Ramos and Carjaval formed a robust back four. Isco, Modric, Casemiro and Kroos took charge of the midfield. Benzema and Ronaldo formed their exciting strike partnership up front. Real Madrid also had enviable options on the bench like Marco Asensio, Lucas Vasquez, Kovacic and Bale.
Zidane has been called out for being “lucky”. Critics had claimed that he doesn’t have tactics and relies on luck. He relies on Ronaldo to score at least 1 of the countless crosses put into the box by the Real Madrid players during the game. But he proved them all wrong, again, just like he had done in the past. And he proved them wrong in style. He started Isco on the left flank. Pundits thought he would have a free role in the game, roaming in and around the field, looking for pockets of spaces or creating something using his magic.Instead Zidane mostly restricted him to the left side. This was done because Zidane had closely watched Pochentino’s tactics against Juventus in the previous round. Even though Tottenham lost, they were able to find an Achilles heel in the Juventus team. Zidane also did the same, but slightly differently. His tactic was for his forwards and Isco to overload the left side. This meant we would frequently see Ronaldo, Benzema and Isco stick to the left side and make play, with Ronaldo then going into the box looking for a cross or a pass or someone else doing the same. These 3 players were also helped by Marcelo’s excellent attacking work rate. Casemiro had taken the responsibility at the back, slotting in whenever Marcelo decided to dart up-field. This meant Marcelo had all the freedom in the world to overlap on the left side and cause Juventus lots of problems. He did not have to worry about tracking back every time, and this meant that Real Madrid had another player upfront to help cause havoc. So many players upfront meant Real Madrid had excellent ball retention and thus were able to quickly build up plays and put passes together. The quick movement of the ball, a brilliant cutback and with Ronaldo in the right place at the right time (as usual), Real managed to score super early – in the third minute. They had the advantage, an early goal, in a Champions League game, away from home. Any visiting team in the world would prefer to focus on defending that slender lead so that they could finish the job at home turf. But this was no ordinary team. They tried to capitalise, as much as they could. But it didn’t exactly go their way as Juventus were doing well building their own attacks.
But as they say, tactics only take the game so far, and that would have been the case if not for a jaw-dropping Keylor Navas save in the 23rd minute. Dybala curled in a freekick from outside the box on the left side inch perfectly for Gonzalo Higuain. He made the best contact he possibly could. But Real Madrid’s very own spider-man made one hell of a save. This was possibly the game or the season-defining game. We all know how that second leg went, and this goal could have been so crucial for that Juve comeback. Keylor Navas produced more moments of magic throughout the game, as Real found it difficult to cope with Juve’s set-piece routines.
As the first half went on, Juve started gaining momentum. They were making forward runs and gaining confidence. Real were holding their own, but Juventus were pushing and pushing to get that vital equalizer.
Khedira tried making forward runs, trying to get a cross in towards him. But Real managed to deal with his threats. With considerable possession by Juventus, the stats still indicated a balanced number. This was because Madrid were smart in moving the ball quickly, to not be caught and then let Juventus in on a break. As Real were pressing the left side, this gave Carvajal acres of space on the right and Real were quick to get the ball out to him to get something into the box. Real Madrid’s quick play on the left allowed them another chance, late on in the half as Toni Kroos took a shot from distance, hitting the post. Madrid now had to sit deeper, let Juventus come at them, and Juventus were doing a good job at getting the ball close or into the box. Some fantastic one on one defending kept the scoreline at 0-1. The first half ended 0-1 to Madrid.
The second half continued with a similar story. Real were sitting deep and Juve were piling on the pressure. They were making spaces in the middle as Madrid defenders were busy creating 2v1s on the defensive flanks. Higuain dropped even deeper, creating spaces for Dybala in behind the defence. A similar situation forced a foul by Ramos on Dybala which earned him a yellow card. This meant he was out for the home leg, and Madrid did suffer due to that.
Madrid decided to be comparatively attack-minded in the second half as they tried to catch Juve on the break. But as Madrid went forward, they were leaving spaces for Juve to counter into. Zidane noticed this and brought on Lucas Vasquez for Benzema. This meant Isco on the left, Vasquez on the right and Ronaldo in the middle. This helped Madrid as Vasquez has an excellent defensive work rate and contributed a lot defensively alongside his attacking capabilities. Soon after the substitution, something happened. It was so phenomenal that even the opposition fans had to applaud. Some defensive hotchpotch allowed Vasquez to get in a cross from close to the touchline into the box.
That is when Ronaldo decided to pull off the impossible and stamp his authority on the match. With a gravity-defying bicycle kick, this 34-year-old man had just pulled off an acrobatic move straight into the back of the net.
He went towards the corner flag, to do his infamous ‘SIUUUU’ to tease the fans. But what he saw humbled him. The entire stadium stood up in applause for this gem of a footballer. The away fans applauded this gravity defying goal in unison. They were just amazed by what they saw. They had just witnessed the best player in the world at his absolute best.
Everyone thought the goal would help Madrid attack even more. While this was true, Dybala only made it easier for his opposition. Just a minute after Ronaldo’s extraordinary goal, Dybala went on to foul Carvajal. The Argentine attacker was already on a yellow. Therefore he got a red and was sent off.
This allowed Madrid to ramp up their assaults and with Ronaldo on a hat-trick, he was in full poacher mode. To help retain the attacking fluidity, Allegri brought on Mandzukic and Cuadrado in hopes to get at least one goal back. But it wouldn’t work out as the men upfront were getting isolated and hence losing possession. Juve were now forced to go long as build-up play just wasn’t happening for them, but this gave Madrid even more possession. Madrid rightfully used this possession and some brilliant build-up play to put together a beauty of a team goal starting from the left flank (again!). Now Real only kept attacking. They could have easily scored a couple more with Ronaldo missing an absolute sitter (after scoring a bicycle kick in the same game). Juventus kept on doing what they could until the final whistle. But when the curtain fell it was 0-3 in Madrid’s favour.
Excellent tactical nous displayed by Zidane along with brilliant individual performances from most players helped Real Madrid comfortably see off the Old Lady in Turin. Everyone thought this certainly meant Real would go through (and they did). But the second leg was another tactical masterclass, this time from the other side.