Beating Los Blancos

It’s been a while since Real Madrid were knocked out of the Champions League. Not since falling to Juventus on May 13, 2015, losing 3-2 on aggregate at the semi-final stage, have Los Blancos been dealt a European exit. Not since Keylor Navas became the starting goalkeeper have they conceded enough goals to lose a tie. Not since Casemiro joined forces with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in midfield have they been so overrun as to go out. Not since Sergio Ramos became captain has the centre-back not lifted the famous trophy at the end of the season. The 2018-19 campaign is one of change for the capital city side, as they try to adjust to life without Cristiano Ronaldo or Zinedine Zidane. Yet Julen Lopetegui’s team are still one of the favourites. Can they be beaten? And, if so, then how? Here are five pieces of advice for all aspiring challengers.

  1. Finish your chances

While Real Madrid may have won three European titles in a row, they haven’t always found it easy. Los Blancos have been put under a lot of pressure on their way to Milan, Cardiff and Kiev, with the opposition often being the better team. However, so many rivals have squandered excellent opportunities to progress.

Bayern Munich are the most recent example, having outshot Real Madrid 28 to 12 across the two legs of last season’s semi-final match-up, hitting 17 of those shots on target, while the Spanish side had just four. The German side also averaged 62 percent possession in that tie, yet they didn’t reach the final in Ukraine because they were so wasteful. While it’s true that Navas made some tremendous saves, more should have been expected from Robert Lewandowski and co.

The Bundesliga giants haven’t been the only guilty party in this respect over the years. Roma had Real Madrid on the ropes in 2016, Napoli put them under serious pressure in 2017 and Juventus also wasted a flurry of chances in 2018. Every time, though, Los Merengues weathered the storm and progressed to the next round. For a team to knock such a defiant outfit out of their favourite competition, there’s a need to be clinical when in front of goal.

  1. Pray for a full-back absence

One of Real Madrid’s biggest strengths over the past three seasons has been the fact that they have Dani Carvajal and Marcelo on the flanks, arguably the best right-back and left-back in world football. They have both been exceptional on the Champions League stage, coming up with vital goals and assists, such as Marcelo’s equaliser in Munich last season, or Carvajal’s assist for Ronaldo’s spectacular overhead kick in Turin one round previously.

Whenever they don’t play together, Los Blancos are so much weaker. Last season, for example, Real Madrid really struggled against Tottenham Hotspur in the group stage, drawing 1-1 at home and losing 3-1 in London, two scorelines which would have put them out had it been a knockout tie. It’s telling that Carvajal was absent through injury for both of those matches, with teenager Achraf Hakimi struggling as he tried to replace the Spain international. The other memorably poor performance of last season was in the semi-final second leg against Bayern, when they held on by the skin of their collective team. Again, Carvajal was out injured.

Real Madrid sought to address the lack of depth at the right-back position in the summer by signing the up-and-coming Alvaro Odriozola from Real Sociedad, but backup left-back Theo Hernandez went the other way and now Los Blancos don’t have a senior understudy for Marcelo on the other side. The 21-year-old Sergio Reguilon is the only natural alternative at that position and already this campaign the Spanish side have lost a Champions League match, the 1-0 defeat to CSKA Moscow in October, when Reguilon has been filling in. It’s clear that Real Madrid are not quite the same whenever one or both of Carvajal and Marcelo is missing.

  1. Hit them in the quarter-finals

Looking back at the past three seasons, it’s interesting to note that Real Madrid have been closest to elimination at the quarter-final stage in each of those campaigns. The second knockout hurdle seems to be particularly challenging for them.

In 2015-16, they lost their quarter-final first leg 2-0 away at Wolfsburg, requiring a Ronaldo-inspired comeback at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu to win the second leg 3-0 and to spare their blushes. The following year, their last-eight clash with Bayern went all the way to extra time, when a few refereeing decisions helped Los Blancos out as they finally broke Carlo Ancelotti’s side down with three extra-time goals. Then, last year, they followed up a 3-0 win away in Turin in their first leg with an unbelievable collapse at home in the second, one which saw the aggregate score levelled as the match entered stoppage time. Only a last-gasp Ronaldo penalty, given for a controversial foul from Medhi Benatia on Lucas Vazquez, saw Los Blancos avoid further extra-time nerves.

It’s difficult to understand why the quarter-finals seem to prove Real Madrid so many problems, whether it’s motivational, a result of the accumulation of fatigue or simply down to the quality of opposition they’ve faced at this stage. Whatever the reason, this is a round where they’ve regularly stumbled into the semi-finals. This could be the round where they crash out in 2018-19.

  1. Attack them early

Out of all of Real Madrid’s knockout matches in their three-year run, they’ve only failed to win five of them. Analysing these matches, there is a common theme, that of early goals for the Spanish side’s opponents.

Of the 11 goals Los Blancos have conceded across these five draws or defeats, six of them were scored inside the opening half hour, while four of them were even netted in the opening 15 minutes. Last year, there were even two goals in the very first moments of the game, with Mario Mandzukic needing just two minutes to stun the Bernabeu, and with Joshua Kimmich only requiring three.

While the 2018 UEFA Super Cup is not the Champions League, it’s worth analysing this loss to Atletico Madrid too since this was the first ‘international’ final Real Madrid had failed to win since 2000. As with the aforementioned matches, this match started off with Ramos and co. conceding a very early goal, as Diego Costa opened the scoring just 50 seconds into the game which Atleti went on to win 4-2 after extra time. Attacking Real Madrid from the off should be a vital part of any gameplan to defeat them in Europe. Holding on to that lead is, of course, another matter.

  1. Invest in a goalkeeper

We all saw just how costly goalkeeping clumsiness can be against Real Madrid in this year’s final, when Loris Karius handed the La Liga team two gifts in Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat. It’s hugely important in order to have a chance of overcoming Real Madrid that a team is in safe hands at the back.

Of course, this is still no guarantee, as the likes of Jan Oblak, Gianluigi Buffon and Manuel Neuer have all been knocked out by Los Merengues at one point or another during their three-year monopoly on the competition. However, these three top-class goalkeepers have also all enjoyed at least one victory against Los Blancos in this competition along the way, winning one match of a two-legged tie, even if not the whole knockout clash. The only team not to have lost any of their meetings with Real Madrid over these past three years is Tottenham and they had World Cup-winning captain Hugo Lloris between the posts.

Over the five knockout matches Real Madrid didn’t win in the Zidane era, the opposition goalkeepers made an average of three saves per match in order to keep their sides in it. To deny Real Madrid, there’s a need for a strong hand.

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