Titles, yes. But Madrid the Real deal?

Sergio Ramos lifts the trophy as Real Madrid celebrate winning the 2017 UEFA Champions League Final against Juventus in Cardiff. ‘Los Merengues’ tend to peak in the latter stages of the Champions League, with their players producing their best form when it matters most. (Getty Images)
Updated 28 May 2018
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Titles, yes. But Madrid the Real deal?

  • In Spain, Zinedine Zidane has been dismissed by some as a “clap clap” coach, somebody who does little more than stand in the technical area banging his hands together in encouragement, while letting the players get on with it.
  • Real Madrid win not because they stymie the opposition, but because they have so many good players that eventually one does something to win the game.

KIEV: Tonight Zinedine Zidane could become the first manager to win the Champions League three times in a row. Only Bob Paisley has ever won three before. That suggests the Real Madrid manager is one of the greatest ever — yet nobody truly believes that. The general view, in fact, seems to be one of confusion. What is it, exactly, that Zidane does?
In Spain, he has been dismissed by some as a “clap clap” coach, somebody who does little more than stand in the technical area banging his hands together in encouragement, while letting the players get on with it. That is not entirely fair, given that at various stages Zidane has left out Gareth Bale, Isco and Karim Benzema; persuaded Cristiano Ronaldo to spare his body by playing less often; and changed the course of games with astute substitutions.

But at the same time, Zidane lacks an obvious style in the manner of most modern coaches and, more troublingly, his teams often struggle to control games. They win not because they stymie the opposition, but because they have so many good players that eventually one does something to win the game. That has proved enough to bring success in the Champions League, but Real Madrid’s recent league record is dismal: For the richest club in the world to have won only two league titles in the past decade suggests something badly awry. Last season they won the league on the back of a string of unlikely comebacks; this season, the concession of 44 goals, more than Getafe and Espanyol, could not be overcome.
But that also says something about the modern Champions League. Over the past nine seasons, more than half the available slots in the competition’s semifinals have been occupied by three clubs: Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern. Wealth takes teams a long way. Certain clubs are all but certain to qualify and, having done so, are then all but certain to make it through the group stage. Jeopardy then comes with the last 16 draw, but frequently a super-club can breeze through to the quarterfinals without being tested at all.

 

And once a team is in the last eight, unless there is an outstanding side, the Champions League can feel like a game of pass the parcel. As Chelsea discovered in 2012, this competition is less about prolonged brilliance and more about simply being a good cup side and having a bit of luck.
Madrid’s success is probably down to a little more than that, fortunate as they were with the draw two years ago, but it does suggest a devaluing of what is supposed to be Europe’s premier competition. Or perhaps, more accurately, a repackaging: The Champions League has become what the FA Cup used to be, glamorous and exciting, a gripping drama and a creator of heroes — but not necessarily a way to determine who is best.
What Madrid have achieved — and it is something the club also did in the late 1950s when they won five European Cups in a row while winning la Liga only twice — is to find a way of peaking in the latter stages of the Champions League, so their players produce their best form when it matters.
In that sense, Zidane’s greatest gift is less the application of any sort of intensity or tactical rigor than simply his ability to coax superb performances out of fine set of players. His closest recent forebear, perhaps, is Carlo Ancelotti.
Such haphazardness and lack of planning, though, seem to run counter to the modern age. How long can you keep on winning just because your players are better than the opposition?
Tonight, we will find out.

Decoder

FASTFACTS

Marcelo vs Mohamed Salah

Marcelo might be one of the world’s great attacking full-backs, but he is not particularly disciplined when it comes to the defensive side of his job. That should offer opportunities for Salah, the Premier League’s top scorer, to get behind him. But the situation on the flank is more complicated than that. Against Roma in the semifinal second leg, Jurgen Klopp left Salah high up the pitch as Aleksandr Kolarov pushed forward from left-back. That meant Salah repeatedly found space, but also that Trent Alexander-Arnold was at times left exposed against the twin assault of Kolarov and Stephan El-Shaarawy, with Georgino Wijnaldum struggling to get across to cover from the right side of midfield. Klopp, presumably, will not risk something so cavalier here and Salah will track Marcelo at least to an extent — though if Madrid operate a 4-3-1-2, as seems likely, the direct pressure on Alexander-Arnold will be less intense.


‘We want to make Saudi Arabia proud’: Pizzi promises better showing against Egypt

Updated 22 June 2018
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‘We want to make Saudi Arabia proud’: Pizzi promises better showing against Egypt

  • Saudi Arabia cannot progress from Group A even if they defeat Egypt in their final game on Monday
  • Wednesday’s overall performance was much improved, yet a lack of penetrative passing was obvious

ROSTOV-ON-DON: “Keeping possession of the ball seems to be the absolute and most important thing, but then when you sometimes find issues in getting the ball into your opponent’s half, you have to find other movements and ways of doing that,” said Oscar Tabarez after watching his lackluster Uruguay rely on a solitary Luis Suarez goal to eliminate Saudi Arabia from the World Cup. 
Tabarez was talking about his own team’s struggles, yet the assessment is considerably more applicable to the Green Falcons, who dominated possession and retained the ball with ease in midfield, yet for the second match running looked absolutely bereft of ideas in the final third. With Uruguay and Russia now on six points, Saudi Arabia cannot progress from Group A even if they defeat Egypt in their final game on Monday.
The Green Falcons coach Juan Antonio Pizzi confirmed he intends to stay at the helm of the side for the long-haul, yet is only too aware that the potential of this team is being hamstrung by its inability to score. He called it “our weakness”, adding that his side enjoyed “good ball possession, but no effectiveness”. They, he said, did not have the sufficient “weapons or tools” to equalize.
Pizzi’s side have found the net now just twice in their past five games and against Uruguay managed only three shots on target in 90 minutes — two of which came in added time and were so tame they would hardly have troubled the opposition goalkeeper Fernando Muslera had he been relaxing at his far post sipping a drink. In the 5-0 defeat to Russia last week, they failed to muster a single shot on target. 
Wednesday’s overall performance was much improved, yet a lack of penetrative passing was obvious. One passage of play in the opening exchanges saw Saudi Arabia complete 16 passes untroubled without the ball entering the opposition penalty box. When Uruguay finally won possession, they required only four quick exchanges to find Edinson Cavani on the left wing drilling the ball across the front of goal. 
“I don’t share that assessment,” said Pizzi, when it was put to him that his team was too slow to attack. “We played at the speed that was necessary. We need to be accurate, but if you step up the speed you lose accuracy with your passes. We had control of the game and that was why.”
Striker Mohammed Al-Sahlawi had been the focal point of much criticism from Turki Al-Sheikh, the head of Saudi’s General Sports Authority, after the Russia “fiasco” and was dropped from the side against Uruguay. So too was goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, another who Al-Sheikh name-checked as having been at fault.
Pizzi, asked whether the scathing assessment from his bosses had forced his hand when it came to team selection, calmly dismissed the suggestion. He also ruled out the notion that administrative issues between the players and the country’s football federation had caused unrest in his squad.
“I have a list of 23 players here and they are all available to play. We are here together and pushing in the same direction. 
“I wanted — and still want — to make the Saudi Arabian people feel proud of our energy and the desire we show in matches. Unfortunately we were unable to do that against Russia and will be playing our next match without any hope of progressing. I hope now they will feel a little more proud even though we are out of the World Cup,” he said.