It was literally impossible to avert one’s eyes from last night’s pulsating Madrid derby anyway, but there is little doubt that Señor Rafael Benitez will have seen plenty to warm himself amidst a freezing Saturday night on Merseyside.
In front of a baying Bernabeu crowd, a contrast to the usually silent demands, Real & Atletico went at it hammer and tong for the bragging rights in Spain’s capital, with Juande Ramos’ men seemingly leaving little in reserve for Tuesday’s make-or-break trip to Anfield in the Champions League.
Ok, so Gonzalo Higuain was left on the bench in favour of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar- ineligible for European competition following the kind of administrative oversight that sees office juniors all over Britain sacked on a regular basis- and Wesley Sneijder & Pepe were suspended, but Real were in no mood to take it easy with one eye on their quest for a historic tenth European crown.
Nor should they. After all, Ramos’ quiet progress had taken Real to within four points of Barcelona ahead of kick off yesterday, and with Pep Guardiola’s men facing a resurgent Athletic Bilbao- fresh from securing a Copa Del Rey final clash with Barça on Tuesday- Ramos and his men knew that victory over their neighbours was paramount.
Benitez therefore will have been delighted to see Real run ragged for long periods by an Atleti side possessing attacking treats and defensive nightmares in equal abundance. The visiting strikeforce of Kun Agüero & Diego Forlan, ably assisted by wide men SimÄƒo Sabrosa & Maxi Rodriguez, carved Real open time and time again, with only the solidity of Iker Casillas and some wasteful finishing from the front two sparing Ramos’ side a heavy defeat.
The Atleti goal was a case in point, a Real corner was cleared sensibly by SimÄƒo to Agüero on the halfway line, the son-in-law of Maradona laid the ball off intelligently and spun in behind Fabio Cannavaro with ease to latch onto the perfectly weighted return pass, and Atleti had two men over on the last defender, allowing Forlan to be slid in to beat Casillas with a clinical finish.
All around the Bernabeu gasps of astonishment were drawn at how easily Real had been opened up. After all, this is a side that has based its excellent league form on a formidable defence in the past couple of months.
Real did level things after the break, Higuain emerging from the bench to set up Huntelaar for an emphatic 4th goal of the season, but despite the threat of Robben & the predatory instincts of Raul, it was Atleti who looked the more likely winners. Agüero wasted two chances in as many minutes, dragging one wide on his left foot before drawing a save from Casillas with his right, whilst twice Forlan attempted to blast inside the near post (a la Anfield & Dudek in 2002- shudder) with team-mates screaming for a pull back. Even Florent Sinama-Pongolle, introduced for skipper Maxi, had a glorious chance that he skewed wide on his left foot. The more Real chased the win, the more they looked likely to lose.
Of course a derby tends to have a different pattern to most games, especially to a Champions League last sixteen match, but the difference in Real between the first leg against Liverpool and last night against Atletico was frightening. Against Liverpool, Ramos’ side looked to keep possession, keep things tight and play a waiting game. Last night it looked like someone at the start had announced that “next goal wins”, Real looked to pour forward at every opportunity, even with plenty of time remaining to grab a winner. It was stunning to watch, the sight of Sergio Ramos striding out of defence and demanding to be played in down the left wing was incredible, but Ramos will surely be wary of falling into a similar trap at Anfield on Tuesday.
In the second leg, Real know that they must score to have any chance of progression. And in Raul, Higuain, Robben, Sneijder, Van der Vaart & Guti, they have both the means to create, and the ability to finish chances. But Benitez will have noted the space that Real leave behind when they go forward, and it would not surprise at all to see the likes of Ryan Babel & Fernando Torres have a big role to play- if only from the substitutes’ bench.
Real should welcome Diarra back into midfield, after he was forced to fill-in at right back last night, which will give them a shield that was lacking last night. Guti is a fine passer of a ball, but his physical presence and energy levels do not allow him to offer the protection the likes of Javier Mascherano & Xabi Alonso can afford to their backlines, whilst Fernando Gago appears to me to be the “Lucas Leiva” of Real Madrid, albeit a more technically gifted one. Liverpool should have no fears in the midfield area, with Robben the only real loose cannon in that respect. Expect Fabio Aurelio to have his work cut out on that one.
In terms of Liverpool going forward, much will of course depend on the attacking options available to Benitez (i.e. whether Torres is fit). Benitez’s past suggests that El Nino will more likely be used from the bench, meaning that Kuyt should start alone up front, with Gerrard playing off him and Benayoun out wide. This will limit the counter attacking threat of course, Kuyt possesses neither the pace nor touch to play an effective part in that sort of game, but with Gerrard back in the side there should be a lot of space come the second half to utilise the speed of the subs, particularly if Real are still chasing the game at this point.
Of course Tuesday’s game will most probably bear little resemblance to the basketball-esque fare served up last night, as if Benitez would allow some of the defending on show from Tomas Ujfalusi & Pablo Ibanez last night(!), but the former Madrid coach will have seen enough of Real in the past few weeks to have plenty of confidence in his side to progress. Either way, Real’s first trip to Anfield promises to be an intriguing one.
Read more about the Atleti – Real derby.