Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Royal Pain: Real Madrid 1 - CSKA Moskow 1

photo by apasciutovia PhotoRee

February 25 is Columnist Scott day at farlieonfootie.  Herewith, the second of two columns from our footballing idiot savant:

Convalescing from my latest attempt to relive my footballing glory years, I had the time and opportunity to catch Real Madrid's meeting with CSKA Moscow in the first leg of a Round of 16 Champions League tie.  While it was clearly winter, it was no wonderland at Luzhniki Stadium, with sub-freezing temperatures and frozen artificial turf making Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. long for the more temperate clime of the Santiago Bernabeu.  Perhaps even more chilling than the weather was how disturbingly similar the Muscovites’ uniforms were to those of a certain team from Catalunya.

But any sartorial stress Real may have felt melted off after a less-than-noteworthy first quarter hour.  With only one CSKA chance put wide in that time, things finally got going after Karim Benzema (groin injury) was replaced by Gonzalo Higuain in the 14th minute.  For it was only two minutes after his introduction that the Argentinean was the beneficiary of some crisp, short passes that led to his first-time shot, blocked as it was by Sergei Chepchugov.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall when the quality of Benzema was replaced by the quality of Higuain, the Russians began to muscle their way through the match, knocking down Los Blancos whenever possible.  And the physicality of the home side seemed to be having its desired effect, as Real was not breaking forward as quickly as normal, instead opting for more subtle build up play.

They were rewarded for their patience in the 28th minute when some poor defending by CSKA surrendered the ball in their own box and, after a poor clearance of the resulting cross, Ronaldo flawlessly drilled home a half volley into the bottom left corner – according to the announcers, his 36th in 35 games this season, and his 122nd in 124 games since joining Real -- not too shabby.  The balance of the first half saw Real assuming more and more control of the game, despite CSKA’s press in the final minutes.

Despite the 22 degrees Fahrenheit that chilled both players and fans, CSKA came out flaming hot after the interval, but failed to bring enough fire wood as they were reduced to embers after 10 minutes.  Ronaldo put Jose Maria Callejon through on the left but the Spaniard failed to convert, just one more example of a disappointing day for him.  Fortunately, Los otros Blancos were playing well and creating chances despite the crowding in the box.

For their part, CSKA was dangerous on the counter with the speedy Africans, Ahmed Musa and Seydou Doumbia, testing Real's defense, notably in the 62nd minute when the former streaked through for a sizzler that brought out the best of Iker Casillas.

Perhaps sensing that a 1-0 loss at home would be insurmountable at The Bernabeu, CSKA stepped up the tempo and challenges, despite the frosty surface. On the other hand, perhaps sensing the same, Real relaxed a bit, as if to accept their poor finishing (and excellent goalkeeping) would yield them only the narrowest of victories.

Of course, you know how this story ends - just as it does most times when a sports team tries to coast across the finish line. In the last of the three extra minutes, previously squandered chances came back to haunt the Royals, as CSKA leveled after some lackluster defending by Real. So last-minute was the equalizer that the ref whistled the end of the game before the restart.

Despite the disappointment in the result, Real have to like their odds in the second leg at home against a team that barely squeaked into this round on the last day. Plus, an away goal never hurts.

Interestingly, this latest performance by Real Madrid was uncharacteristic of the La Liga leaders of late. Ten points clear in the league, they were also perfect in the six games of the last Champions League round, scoring 19 goals while conceding only two.  In fact, removing Barcelona from the equation, they have dominated all comers for the last year. [Ed. Note: That's a bit like saying: "How did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln."] Under Jose Mourinho, Las Madridistas have improved to be one of the best clubs in the world (and perhaps the best), playing with speed, finesse and physicality.  And the depth of their squad is truly impressive, with the likes of Higuain, Marcelo and Kaka riding pine.

Still, the spectre of Barcelona haunts Real and Mourinho. They seem shaken out of themselves when playing the Catalans. Clearly, Barcelona is one of the best teams in the world (with some naming them the best) and are capable of flummoxing even the steadiest of teams. But there is something more when these rivals meet, and it gets to Real most of the time. They lack the belief they have in every other game and it seems to be exacerbated by Mourinho's unsteady approach to these games. He needs to downplay the encounter as just one more game to win as they have been, rather than fuel the team's apprehensions. If not, Barcelona FC will continue as Boogeyman FC for Los Blancos.

Even winning the league by the huge margin they seem destined to will be tainted without victory over Barca,  despite any player and coach comments to the contrary. And given the man and coach Mourinho has proven himself to be, my bet is that he figures it out and perhaps even stays in Madrid until he does. Ojala!

This is farlieonfootie for February 25.

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