08 Feb European Football Round-Up: Real Madrid Defensive Woes Continue, Juventus Start to Hit Their Stride
AHEAD OF PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN CLASH, REAL MADRID FACE A DEFENSIVE CRISIS
It’s no secret that Real Madrid’s domestic season has fallen far below the standards the club has previously set. However, hasn’t seeped into their defence of the Champions League thus far with Los Blancos, on the whole, meeting expectations in progressing through to the knockout stage. Yet, with the monumental clash with Paris Saint-Germain on the horizon, Zinedine Zidane’s team are facing a defensive crisis.
Saturday saw Real Madrid slip to yet another draw in La Liga. Make no mistake — Levante were well worth their share of the points, though the manner in which the Madrid club conceded goals will set alarm bells ringing within Valdebebas.
Defensive mistakes are nothing new this term, but these have been able to be explained away for the most part because Zidane has been without a number of his first-choice players. Marcelo missed a large part of the first half of the campaign, Dani Carvajal’s heart issue was a further setback, whilst Zidane’s use of Nacho Fernandez in multiple positions has ensured that there hasn’t been a steady central pairing.
For the trip to Levante, Zidane was able to start his strongest defensive line, (Carvajal, Ramos, Varane and Marcelo), the very same collection of players who reigned supreme in the 4-1 victory over Juventus in last season’s showpiece in Cardiff. This is where the problem starts to look really serious; if Real Madrid’s first-choice defenders can give away two incredibly sloppy goals to Levante, the 17th placed team in LaLiga, then just what are the trio of Neymar, Mbappé and Cavani going to do to them when the two sides meet?
Whilst the French coach himself is desperately reiterating the message that the domestic title race is not over, his players have already turned their focus to the Parisian club. Perhaps this explains the lack of focus they showed on Saturday, but either way, it sets an alarming precedent.
There has been a sense in recent years that in the Champions League, Los Blancos are so incredibly in tune with what needs to be done that they can overcome any challenge. PSG have a rather different history with the competition; such is the obsession amongst the club’s hierarchy with lifting the trophy, every disappointment has been greeted as a major setback. The 2016/17 collapse against Barcelona was viewed as the last straw. An incredible financial commitment was made to sign both Neymar and Mbappé and create one of the most feared attacking line-ups in European football, one which would surely take them to the holy grail of continental success.
This frontline now has the opportunity to put an ailing Real Madrid to the sword. Both Neymar and Mbappé are incredibly difficult to handle in one-on-one situations — just ask Manchester City and Juventus — but if you allow them to be first to rebounds as Ramos and co did with Levante at the weekend, then you are asking for trouble.
There is little over a week until the first leg at the Bernabéu, and whilst ticket prices on the secondary market are going up and up, confidence in the Spanish capital is at rock bottom. Their season depends on the Champions League now and whilst it’s likely Zidane’s tenure will be brought to a premature end regardless, he has an incredibly challenging task in making sure his defence is strong enough to face the French champions-elect.
JUVENTUS FIND FORM WHILE SPURS’ SCHEDULE TURNS HECTIC
With Juventus set to meet Tottenham Hotspur in Turin in the first-leg of their Champions League tie on February 13th, the Italian giants have just started to find form, with their 7-0 victory over Sassuolo on Sunday catching the eye.
This just so happens to coincide with Tottenham’s fixture schedule becoming incredibly hectic. After facing both Manchester United and Liverpool within a five day period, the North London club now have two matches to play before their meeting with Massimiliano Allegri’s side.
When the draw was made back in December, it would have taken a brave punter to suggest that Juventus were the favourites, despite reaching the final last season. This is simply not the same team as back then. Leonardo Bonucci’s departure has had such a negative impact on the club, and the rotation of Gianluigi Buffon and Wojciech Szczesny has hardly helped matters. Napoli’s own incredible season has seen Juventus’ iron grip on the Serie A title loosen. The Partenopei hold a one-point advantage at the top of the table, but Sunday’s result should be a cause of concern for Mauricio Pochettino.
There was never a suggestion that Juventus weren’t still one of the top teams in Europe; but the heavy victory over Sassuolo truly showed them at their best. Gonzalo Higuain’s hat-trick was much needed for the Argentine, and he will be a handful for a Spurs defence that is desperately missing Toby Alderweireld.
Fatigue can play a significant role in the latter stages of the season and Spurs’ fixtures against both Newport County and Arsenal will put a strain on their squad. Conversely, the Italian champions have seen their league match against Fiorentina brought forward to Friday evening, while the North London derby takes place the day after.
If Tottenham perform as they did against Real Madrid then they will win. But recreating such a high level of performance with a tired team is almost impossible. Juventus are confident and have a level of experience at the top level that Tottenham’s young charges lack. Circumstances make football matches and it’s clear to see that Juventus are entering the tie in a much stronger position than when the draw was first made.