UEFA Champions League: 5 Reasons Why Real Madrid Will Advance to the Semifinals
Robert Lewandowski turned away from Pepe and blasted one into the top corner. The humiliation was complete. As he wheeled away with four fingers raised, indicative of his tally from the night, Madrid players and fans were left baffled and shell-shocked.
Borussia Dortmund started the 2012-2013 season as relative minnows in the Champions League, in spite of having won back-to-back Bundesligas. They ended the year as Champions League runners-up and everyone's second team.
Madrid redeemed themselves in the second leg, playing a solid match, winning 2-0 and nearly progressing to the final. However, memories of the first leg remain imprinted in the minds of Madridistas. The perfect opportunity for revenge and redemption has presented itself this season with a quarterfinal matchup with Dortmund.
However, Madrid fans have reason to be optimistic this season. Here are five reasons why Los Blancos will run out winners in this enticing tie.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo
First comes the most glaring advantage Madrid has. Cristiano Ronaldo, recently crowned Ballon D'or winner, is in the form of his life.
He has been sensational this season in the Champions League even by his lofty standards. In seven games, he has scored 13 goals and even pitched in with three assists. He averages a stunning 7.3 shots per game and perhaps surprisingly even 2.9 key passes per game ahead of the premier playmakers in the game such as Eden Hazard and Mario Goetze, per WhoScored.com.
At this rate, with a minimum of two games and a possible three more beyond that, he will smash the Champions League goalscoring record in one campaign, which is currently held by Lionel Messi with 14 goals.
He seems to be more incisive, quicker and above all hungrier for goals. The second-leg dead-rubber match against Schalke encapsulated his desire and ambition. Instead of resting ahead of a tough month of fixtures, he played, scored two goals and hit the woodwork four times.
There is no predicting what this man will do. He could be having a poor game and then he will all of a sudden produce a moment of magic. Ronaldo in this form will be very difficult to handle. Dortmund's second-string defence will be up against one of the most dangerous players in the world.
2. Defensive Stability
The 4-1 loss displayed everything that was wrong with Madrid last season. One of the primary reasons for the below par season was Madrid's defence. They shipped 42 goals in La Liga and 18 goals in the Champions League.
Defensive indiscipline and untimely injuries hurt the team. Sergio Ramos and Pepe had huge lapses in concentration and a bad run of form. Alvaro Arbeloa was shockingly poor and Marcelo was out for large periods of time with injuries. The only shining light was the emergence of Raphael Varane. The young Frenchman showed ability and composure far beyond his years.
However, this season has been different. Ramos and Pepe have played with far more composure and their rash moments are few and far between. The competition between Dani Carvajal and Arbeloa in the right-back role has forced both of them to raise their game while Marcelo is playing with his usual panache. The dual-goalkeeper system used by Carlo Ancelotti has kept Diego Lopez and Iker Casillas on their toes while also ensuring favourable game time for both of them.
As long as Pepe and Ramos keep their cool, this Madrid defence will be very tough to get beyond.
3. Three-Man Midfield
Jose Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 won Madrid the La Liga title in 2011-12 and transformed the dynamics of the team. Until he came, Madrid had not settled on a particular, rigid formation for over six years.
However, the flaws in the system were evident last season. The team was often overrun in midfield against big European opposition. The double pivot wasn't able to handle teams which packed their midfield and pressed high. This issue was further aggravated due to the lack of defensive contribution from Mesut Ozil, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
The three-man midfield has rectified this issue while also helping Madrid dominate games to a larger extent. More possession has ensured that there is an alternative to the lethal counterattacks, which could be nullified by sitting deep.
Xabi Alonso controls the game from his deep-lying position with his long diagonal balls and quick short passes. His primary job is to provide defensive cover. Luka Modric is the deep-lying playmaker who makes the occasional run forward. This three-man midfield is tied together by Angel Di Maria.
His immense work rate, defensive contribution and speed make this midfield mobile and dynamic. Alonso and Modric are not particularly fast, and the absence of Di Maria or any player in his mould would render the midfield static, as was seen in the recent 2-1 defeat to Sevilla.
Bale will probably need to track back occasionally because pace is still an issue this trio finds difficult to handle. The likes of Nuri Sahin and Sebastian Kehl will not be able to cope with this attack, while Madrid's trio will in all probability restrain Marco Reus and Co.
4. Dortmund's Injuries and Lack of Form
How the mighty fall. Dortmund have suffered this season for form and continuity. Two good performances always seem to be followed by a disappointing defeat to a Bundesliga minnow. They started the season on a good note beating Bayern Munich in the German Super Cup.
However, they have steeply declined since then. Ilkay Gundogan, Lukasz Piszczek, Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Sven Bender, Robert Lewandowski, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Marcel Schmelzer have all been injured for extended periods. Mario Goetze's replacement, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, has taken a while to settle down and is only now growing into his role.
Dortmund's first XI is world class but they lack any depth whatsoever and therefore this injury crisis has deeply hurt them. It is expected that only five or six players from last year’s first XI that beat Madrid will start this quarterfinal, and the replacements do not inspire much confidence.
Dortmund's home, Signal Iduna Park or Westfalenstadion, is not the fortress it was last season. They lie 25 points behind Bayern in the Bundesliga and scraped through the quarterfinals, suffering a 2-1 defeat against Zenit St. Petersburg at home. It is hard to see them beating Los Blancos in this form.
5. New-Found Team Harmony and Revenge
By the time Jose Mourinho left Madrid at the end of the 2012-13 season, the team was in disarray. The dressing room was fractured and morale was low. Carlo Ancelotti has restored the peace.
Through his policy of rotation, he has given everyone a fair amount of playing time. He handled the Iker Casillas situation very well without appearing to be weak and succumbing to the pressure of fans and the press.
The vibes that have been coming out of the dressing room have been positive and harmonious. Team morale is an extremely important factor in winning trophies. A collective desire to win galvanizes not only the team but the fans as well.
The press, who have often carried out malicious campaigns against players or managers seem to be behind Los Blancos as well. Around this time last year Marca, the famous Spanish editorial, published reports about Sergio Ramos and Casillas giving the president an ultimatum about Mourinho’s position (h/t Daily Mail). The scene is very different this time around.
Revenge also can be a strong motivator. Most of this team played in last season’s semifinal and came within inches of advancing to the final. La Decima is an obsession of fans and players alike. Dortmund came in the way of that dream last season but Madrid will ensure that it will not be the same this year.
Prediction: Real Madrid 3-1 Borussia Dortund
Borussia Dortmund 1-1 Real Madrid