“There’s nothing wrong with the system, it’s the lack of intensity. It hasn’t been a good start to the season, but it’s just the start. We’ll sort things out.” Carlo Ancelotti after Real Madrid’s 2-1 home loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga. We’ll sort things out is the true eye-catcher in that sentence, in hindsight at least. Ancelotti said those words on the 13th of September, now, more than 2 and a half months later; Carlo Ancelotti is the first manager in history to lead Real Madrid to 16 consecutive wins in all competitions. And that record did not come easily, not at all.
Ancelotti got a couple of things right before the ref’s whistle was even blown, such as including his strongest possible line-up for the game even though Toni Kroos almostpublicly said he was too tired to play. He also made sure that Bale and Isco make extra effort in protecting the gap left by the advancing Dani Carvajal because Ancelotti must have watched tapes of Malaga’s 19-year-old right wing, Castillejo, wrecking havoc with opposition’s defences. And he was right on both occasions, the strongest possible line up was needed to beat a very ‘game’ Malaga and Castillejo was Malaga’s biggest source of threat in attack.
Malaga started the game very compact at the back and willing to sit and defend then try to attack on the break, very unlike their match vs Barcelona where they got out with a 0-0 draw. That tactic almost backfired completely if it weren’t for Malaga’s goalkeeper, the 2 time ‘African Goal Keeper of the Year’ winner, Kameni. Kameni stopped numerous dangerous chances by Real Madrid, most notably his 2 fine stops vs Cristiano from point-blank range. He was so good in fact, that WhoScored named him the man of the match even though he was on the losing end. Other than Kameni, Real Madrid did not have too much trouble with Malaga, they reached their goal regularly and invaded their box time and time again. Until finally, in an ironic reversal of Wednesday’s goal vs Basel, Cristiano did some great work to get into the left side and cross it to Benzema who tapped it in for the opener. From then on, Malaga started to open up a bit, which left spaces for Real Madrid to counter.
In the second half Real Madrid did some great work in covering their ranks and keeping the score 1-0, with Isco in particular covering the right flank aggressively and smartly to deny dangerous chances. He was however less involved in the attacking process, a sign of his new found defensive duties most likely influenced by Ancelotti repositioning him. Real Madrid rode the game out and, especially in the last 15-20 minutes, showed great sign of fatigue. The whole team looked tired and that’s understandable considering the bulk of games they have played recently. Cristiano, who has now assisted in 4 consecutive matches for the first time in his career, made yet another assist (this time to Bale) to seal the game. Malaga pulled one back, thus ending Iker’s 447 minutes run without conceding, but it was too little too late.
A Very Tired Team
Going in, Toni Kroos was the player who has played the most minutes in the entire squad, James was the only player who played every single match this season, and Isco has started over a dozen games in the last month and a half, and all of that showed greatly on the pitch. Kroos was way less involved than he usually is, and James went missing for the second game in a row. Ancelotti gambled by not giving any player any rest in this game in the hopes of securing a win in arguably the toughest remaining game remaining in 2014. It worked and Real Madrid won (again), now what? Now Real Madrid play the next 3 matches at home against (relatively) easy opponents. The first is a Copa del Rey game vs Segunda B side Cornella; where it is widely assumed that most key players (Cristiano, Benzema, James, Kroos, Marcelo, Ramos, Carvajal) will be rested and replaced with (Chicharito, Jese, Illarramendi, Khedira, Coentrao, Varane, Nacho). This is followed by a home game vs Celta Vigo who just lost at home to Eibar so their morale might not be at an all-time high. Finally the 6th and last group stage match in the UCL vs Ludogorets is also expected to feature some fringe players. So Ancelotti banked on the Malaga game with the promise that his players will be rested for at least 2 of the next 3 games (most likely).
Man of the Match: Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano seemed finally back to his usual self with some great through balls, link-up play, and of course 2 assists. His goal scoring run might have ended after 11 games but he is now the joint top assister in La Liga with Koke after overtaking Messi. He is also the 3rd top assister in the top 5 leagues after only Fabregas (10 assists) and De Bruyne (9 assists). And lest we forget, he has 20 Liga goals and 26 goals in all competitions this season. It seems that Cristiano is enjoying his best period in his career, but then again, we say that seemingly every few months.