This was supposed to be a match review. And rest assured that you will have your match review.
However, let me talk first about the reinvention of Cristiano Ronaldo, a two-dimensional phenomenon that has seen the Portuguese striker evolve from an egocentric, dribble intensive global icon that couldn’t quite conquer the hearts of the Santiago Bernabeu into a team-first, pure number 9 — if that makes sense — that is now a Real Madrid legend.
The first dimension means that Ronaldo is finally fully aware that scoring 30 goals in the right moments of the season is a lot more valuable for his team than scoring 60 while reaching March close to exhaustion. Through the second, closely related to the first, Ronaldo has shown an outstanding football IQ that directs him to make the most damage with the least possible physical effort, and that helps him to find teammates in scoring positions more often than ever in his career.
Similarly to several knockout stages in the last couple of Champions League seasons, Ronaldo made the most of his – and yes, it’s “his” – side’s work and dismantled the opposition with his intelligence and his outstanding talent in the last third. In a performance that reminded some of Cardiff, but that in my opinion is superior, he destroyed the best defence in the continent; the icing on the cake was a bicycle goal he’d been trying to score for years, and that had an immediate impact in the morale of the hosts. He even got a round of applause from some Juventus’ supporters.
But let’s talk about the match, an interesting contest before the Portuguese striker took over. Zidane chose the same starting line-up that won in Cardiff – i.e. Hipsco in a free role linking up with Benzema and Ronaldo, but supporting midfield defensively when required — leaving aside the more wing-oriented 4-4-2 with Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio that worked so well against PSG.
The Frenchman’s choice was hardly surprising. Even if the diminutive Malagueño has had ups and downs this season, he now looks back in shape and was instrumental in Cardiff against the same rival. If he’d proved to know how to find gaps in Juventus’ defence, it made sense to use him. That said, the great performances of Vazquez and Asensio might have deserved a start too, but that 4-4-2 formation would have left either Toni Kroos, Casemiro or Luka Modric out, and that does sound a bit extreme in such a high stakes match.
Allegri responded Zidane by starting a left side with two fullbacks – Asamoah at the back and Alec Sandro in front of him. On top of that, two defensive midfielders – Khedira and Betancur – showed quite a bit of understandable respect, in line with the growing trend of not conceding goals at home in Europe. The tactical duel was always going to be interesting, as the Italian side must have watched the second half of last season’s final quite a few times to identify ways of stopping Real Madrid’s midfield.
But only two minutes were enough for Isco to prove that Zidane’s decision was right. In a replay of what happened several times in the Champions League final, the Madridistas exploited the space at the back of Juve’s fullbacks. Marcelo found Isco in space, and the latter’s cross was met by Ronaldo, who scored with a magnificent finish, thus preventing Benzema, who was about to hit the ball too, from missing yet another glorious chance.
Isco’s intervention in Ronaldo’s goal was the prelude of a very solid 25 minutes by Real Madrid, led by the fantastic group of midfielders the team has. Not only Isco, but also Modric and Kroos exerted almost total control over the match, beating Juventus’ high press and playing keep ball for long spells.
But the hosts weren’t going to give up that easily. An amazing save by Keylor Navas in a set piece – Higuaín hit the ball as well as he could, but that wasn’t good enough – showed the Italians that there was hope. The match became more open in the last 20 minutes of the first half, with Juve getting his supporters back into the match through sheer force of will and great work of set pieces, while Real Madrid tried to find an opening at the counter. Kroos hit the bar after a good offensive move, but Juve did not give up and the half ended with a couple of penalty appeals by the Italians, one of them a blatant dive by Dybala, who saw a fair yellow card.
The first twenty minutes of the second half were hard for the visitors, who could always threaten with the ball, but that suffered with the hosts’ physical push. Juventus missed a more inspired display by Douglas Costa, but Paulo Dybala was creating enough problems for the Madridistas with a few darting runs.
The suspense lasted until Marcelo tried to find Ronaldo with a long ball. Chiellini and Buffon did not understand each other – probably they haven’t played enough matches together –, Ronaldo chased the ball, decided not to go for goal and passed onto Lucas Vazquez, who took a decent shot. Buffon saved well, but Carvajal won the rebound and crossed high. The rest is history, probably the picture that will follow Cristiano Ronaldo long after he retires as his best, most iconic goal – and that is saying a lot – with Real Madrid, just like Di Stefano’s back heel.
After that, Juventus committed suicide. Two minutes later, Dybala earned his second yellow and left his team with ten men, and Real Madrid spent a surprisingly placid final quarter of the match in which they could have scored another couple. Ronaldo assisted Marcelo, who jumped into Juve’s goal with the ball, and Kovacic, who hit the post. CR7 could have scored his third in a counter in which Lucas gave him the ball slightly behind. Juventus only had some hopes of scoring in the last minute, with a final, unsuccessful charge.
This memorable match brought a few takeaways for the Madridistas: Cristiano’s new season planning guarantees his best form from February onwards, but someone else needs to score for them in the winter, and that man is not Karim Benzema.
I’m only stating the obvious, but instead of getting better with all the support of both teammates and coach, the French striker looks more and more inhibited, shy, happy to wander around far from goal and allergic to take on players or move towards scoring positions. He seems to expect losing the ball, and makes no effort to keep possession as soon as he gets close to goal. He’s no number nine, but at this point he’s no number ten either. For the first time this season, Zidane replaced a player before the 60th minute: Benz was that bad in Turin.
Along those lines, this may sound repetitive, but is easily forgotten: Real Madrid’s midfield is second to none. It does not matter whether Zidane decides to play Kroos, Modric, Case and Isco, or if he decides to open up the pitch with Asensio and Vazquez. The ball movement, the quality of the passing, the coverages between them… They are so outstanding that if they’re in shape, this team could compete against any decent side with them and a bunch of youth team players.
Finally, and even if something crazy happens in the second leg, the ability to compete of this squad must be highlighted. They have only been eliminated once, in the semis three seasons ago by Juventus, in the last five. Very few teams in world history can show such a brutal resume, such an impressive competitiveness year after year. At some point in the future, they’ll be sorely missed by their supporters.