Carlo Ancelotti said the 4-0 pounding Real Madrid received at the hands of Atletico Madrid was his worst day since arriving at the Bernabeu. Statistically it was probably the club’s worst since Jose Mourinho was on the receiving end of the manita, that 5-0 thumping against Barcelona in 2010.
Managers usually have standard approaches after defeats like this.
If you’re a good team filled with good professionals who know how to deal with setbacks, you can sell it internally as a “blip”. You come out and dress it like this: “Look, we’re not that bad and we know it. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’ll have a bad day at the office. Let’s move on and never speak of this again.”
There are two reasons why, in this instance, Ancelotti may not want to do this and they both have to do with credibility.
This was the sixth time Real played Atleti this season and all they have to show for it is two draws and four defeats. It’s not particularly credible to say it’s a blip unless it’s a weird blip that manifests itself every time you cross the red and white stripes. And in that case it’s not a blip, it’s Diego Simeone keeping you in his pocket.
The other reason is that Ancelotti’s crew have been in a rut since the turn of the year. It hasn’t really been about the results — Madrid have played nine times in all competitions, winning seven and losing vs. Valencia and Atletico — it has been the performances. In at least six of those nine matches, Real were simply subpar for long stretches, suffering the kind of dips which quality opposition punishes.
So you can’t spin Saturday’s result as a one-off. Nor can you hide behind five missing starters: they were around in previous outings and Real still did not play well. You have to take it on the chin, find the reasons and fix what you can.
Fabio Coentrao, Raphael Varane and Nacho — the three second-stringers in the back row — could all have done better, but likely weren’t the real problem. They defended what they could. Iker Casillas should have done better on Tiago’s opener and Saul Niguez’s overhead kick was a moment of individual brilliance. By the second half, Real were pushing and, inevitably, the back four were left exposed.
The real issue was in the middle of the park. Ancelotti’s decision to go with Sami Khedira — ostensibly to help defend set pieces — blew up in his face as the German and his fellow countryman Toni Kroos were a giant revolving door.
And if you’re tempted to give the latter a pass — Kroos clearly is physically spent having played more Liga minutes than any other Real Madrid player while adapting to a more defensive role — the former was simply disappointing all around. Local media say that his head is already elsewhere, that he knows he’s leaving in a few months and is simply passing time.
That’s harsh. Khedira may accept he likely has no future in Madrid but he still has professional pride and, presumably, wants to win silverware while still at the club. A more likely explanation is that he is simply badly out of form and, unlike Kroos, is less willing and able to adapt to Madrid’s defensive needs.
Up front, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo were anonymous to the point of being ethereal. At least Bale can’t be criticised for his supposed selfishness, as he has been in recent weeks, because he saw so little of the ball.
As for Ronaldo, the whole controversy over the length of his recent ban seems rather moot now: it probably would have been better for everyone involved if it had been the full three games and he’d sat this one out.
Ancelotti’s room to maneuver up front is limited anyway. You can’t bench Bale or Ronaldo, all you can do is move them around and hope you get better results and. even then there are only a couple permutations.
Where work can — and must — be done is in Madrid’s midfield. With James Rodriguez and Luka Modric out, it’s time to take the opportunity to stiffen up. Get Asier Illaramendi more minutes and see what Lucas Silva can do. If it means giving Kroos a breather, so be it. You’ll need him later.
I’ve been writing all year that this is an unbalanced team that only works because “skill players” like Modric, James and Kroos work their rear ends off like the most humble of blue-collar grunts. Well, the first two are injured now and the third is running on fumes. It’s time for someone else to offer the balance in midfield.
And maybe that’s how Ancelotti will play it in the dressing room. He’ll remind them that Real’s 2015 inconsistency was such that they were always cruising towards a bruising. He may also wish to point out that Simeone’s team beat them because they’re a good side, not because they have some kind of hex over them.
(Indeed, whereas in previous games Atleti were more defensive, this time they went for the jugular; there’s no pattern to it other than a great coach and intelligent players executing his instructions.)
The sting from this game will be felt for some time but Real are still top of La Liga. And you can spin this moment of crisis into a positive. For the likes of Bale and Ronaldo it’s time to return to being difference-makers. For guys like Nacho, Lucas, Varane and even Isco it’s a chance to prove (or continue proving in the case of the latter) that they are top-drawer stars who deserve to be regulars.
This defeat wasn’t a blip but, if Real Madrid can react in the right way, then they can ensure it will be remembered as one.
No time for a party, Cristiano
Nobody would argue that Cristiano Ronaldo does not have a right to celebrate his 30th birthday in his spare time and, Saturday night was his spare time, with Sunday being a day off.
What, rankles, though is the lack of sensitivity and awareness. After a 4-0 defeat, you know that the supporters and the media are going to be hurt and furious. And the last thing they want to see if Ronaldo in a silly hat prancing around with singer Kevin Roldan.
Jorge Mendes, Ronaldo’s agent, took to the airwaves to defend his client.
“The fact is his birthday party had been organized more than a month ago and he had family coming from abroad,” he said. “He didn’t want to cancel out of respect for the people that came… he continues to be the best professional in the world.”
Nobody who has been around Ronaldo’s teammates and coaches would question his commitment, his intensity in training and his professionalism. What you would question though is his common sense and that of the people who are paid to look after him and his image (including, yes, Mendes).
When you lose a derby 4-0 and have one of your worst games of the season, logic should tell you that having a party with a celebrity isn’t a good idea. It simply fuels controversy and bitterness.
Mendes went on to complain about the fact that one of those present released a video of the event showing Roldan and Cristiano singing. Well, when you rent a restaurant and invite 150 of your closest friends, that’s what’s going to happen. Someone — either a guest or a member of staff — might be tempted to get footage of the birthday boy.
It’s 2015, Jorge. People have cameras in their phones. (And even if they didn’t, the most famous footballer in the world not named David renting out a restaurant in Madrid is not going to go unnoticed.)
If Ronaldo was really so concerned about his family members flying in from abroad — and, by the way, his relatives are from Madeira, not Melbourne, so it’s not as if they traveled from halfway around the world — he could simply have had a party in his house and done some karaoke with Roldan there.
That would have been a far better solution than this.
Ronaldo reportedly invited all his teammates and the club’s staff. Seven players showed up, tellingly only two of them — Coentrao and Khedira — who played earlier that day. That suggests the others understood just how inappropriate the whole thing was.
It’s not a big deal in the sense that it will all be forgotten the next time he performs to his standard. However, until that happens, it simply adds more controversy, which his team really don’t need.
Heroic Barry saves Ivory Coast
Every so often, this sport does its fairytale thing.
Ivory Coast goalkeeper Boubacar “Copa” Barry went into the African Nations Cup thinking his time as the Elephants’ No. 1 was over. Manager Herve Renard had made Sylvain Gbohouo the starter, bringing to an end an international career that had spanned 15 years, more than half of them spent as the undisputed keeper of Ivory Coast’s Golden Generation.
But then Gbohouo injured his thigh in the semifinal win over DR Congo and Barry was called in for the final vs. Ghana. You wonder if, in the back of his mind, his thoughts traveled back to the 2012 final when Zambia upset the heavily favored Ivorians on penalty kicks.
Barry was between the sticks that day and Ivory Coast steamrollered the opposition but somehow failed to get the job done in 120 minutes. The game went to what seemed like an interminable series of spot-kicks — Barry conceded eight of nine — before Gervinho’s miss gave the cup to the Zambians in what would be the feel-good story of that year.
He probably knew Sunday would be different. His team were still favored, but there was no chance they would be underestimating a prickly opponent like Ghana. They didn’t but fear and nerves ruled over the 90 minutes and extra time and we were back at penalty kicks.
Initially, it looked like heartbreak once more, as Ivory Coast came up short on its first two penalties, giving Ghana the kind of 2-0 lead which, in such situations, is usually insurmountable. But then it was the Black Stars who missed a pair and the Ivorians who buckled down.Before you knew it, we were in sudden death, the most classic of shootout duels.
Barry made his experience count, especially vis-a-vis his opposite number. Where Brimah Razak’s face was a stone wall of concentration (and maybe nerves), Barry went through the whole compendium of tricks.
He cheered when teammates scored, he pulled faces when Ghana equalized. He windmilled his arms, he paced up and down and he fell to the ground with cramp (Real? Fake? Who knows?).
Eventually, when we’d cycled through all 10 outfield players and it was the goalkeepers’ turn from the spot, Barry saved Razak’s penalty, first rejoicing and then collapsing to the ground, clutching his hand. (Again, was this some sort of mind game? A ritual? It’s more fun to keep it as a mystery.)
Moments later, he sprang up and beat Razak from the spot, giving the Ivorians their first African Nations Cup win since 1992.
What a way to leave the big stage, assuming he is leaving. After what we saw, it would take a brave coach (or at least a thoroughly unsuperstitious one) to leave Barry out again.
Mourinho is not getting complacent
Chelsea’s win at Aston Villa, coupled with Manchester City’s two points dropped at home to Hull City puts the Blues’ Premier League lead at seven points with 14 games to go.
“It’s nothing,” said Jose Mourinho afterwards. “Maybe in another country it’s over, here, it’s nothing.”
It’s his way of keeping his team on his toes and it’s obviously the right thing to say in these circumstances. There have been late-season collapses before and he is personally aware of how quickly the things you hold can shatter and run through your fingers like dust.
In 2009-10 he was managing Inter and, by Feb. 10, he had a nine-point lead over second-placed Roma with 15 games left. Two months later, on Apr. 10, he found himself one point behind the giallorossi, who had somehow made up 10 points in as many games.
Mourinho turned it around of course in the last five matches, winning Serie A by two points and then, famously, going on to win the Coppa Italia and Champions League. But he knows all too well what can happen come March and April, particularly for a team looking to also win in Europe..
And that’s why he’s taking nothing for granted.
Lyon show they have what it takes
Yep, Lyon are for real. The club with eight homegrown starters and a total wage bill lower than Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s salary deftly navigated Sunday’s Ligue 1 clash vs. Paris Saint-Germain.
Don’t let the 1-1 result fool you. League leaders Lyon achieved it without their resident superstar, 21-goal Alexandre Lacazette, and PSG’s equalizer only came thanks to a contentious penalty won by Marco Verratti, which Ibrahimovic first missed and then retook and buried.
Over the 90 minutes PSG did create more chances — Edinson Cavani was having one of those days and Antony Lopes was reminding everyone why he’s one of the best young keepers around — and if you drink the Laurent Blanc kool-aid you can even persuade yourself that this was a good point for the defending champions. A defeat would have left them five points back and in third place. This way, they’re one Lyon slip away from sneaking back into first.
Maybe so but, if you’re Lyon, you’ve just proven — again — that you can go toe-to-toe with the best Ligue 1 has to offer and that you can do it without your goal machine, Lacazette.
Stars shine as Barca march on
Barcelona’s thrashing of Athletic Bilbao may have marked the first time the front trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez have fired together in harmony.
Perhaps Athletic Club made it easier for them because they turned the match into a slugfest which, given they have less firepower, they were bound to lose. So if you want to be hyper-negative and critical of Luis Enrique you’ll point out that most games won’t be like Sunday’s and that the three superstars will have to find different ways to be the difference-makers against most opponents.
That’s fine but don’t discount the psychological and moral boost that comes from a performance like this, not only for Suarez, Neymar and Messi but for the rest of the side. Barca’s current run of wins — nine in a row in all competitions — continues and, more importantly, they have shown they can win in different ways.
Bayern stop the rot
One of the best teams in the world going away from home to win against one of the worst sides in the Bundesliga should not be noteworthy.
However, in this case it is because Bayern’s 2-0 win at Stuttgart came on the heels of two winless outings — a 4-1 pummeling in Wolfsburg and a home draw against Schalke — to start 2015.
Their Bundesliga lead over Wolfsburg stays at eight points and there’s a run of manageable games coming, Pep Guardiola can now focus on getting his injured guys back and his off-key ones back in tune.
Faith in youth pays off
Italian clubs, especially the bigger ones, are notorious for their annoying habit of sending gifted youngsters out on endless loan stints or keeping them on the shelf until they are 23 or 24. The thinking is that it helps avoid burnout and loss of confidence. That may be so but it also means players mature a lot more slowly and you’re deprived of genuine talent.
That’s why it was nice to see Daniele Verde get the start for Roma against Cagliari. It was the 18-year-old’s fourth career appearance for the gialorossi and the first from the first minute. And he rewarded Rudi Garcia’s faith by playing a part in both goals in the 2-1 victory, including a delicious assist for Adem Ljajic’s opener.
Nice to see a manager willing to once again tap the academy that produced Alessandro Florenzi, Daniele De Rossi and some guy named Francesco Totti.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.