Real Madrid V. Tottenham Hotspur: Five Keys to the Champions League Matchup
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Traditionally, I approach articles about “keys” to match-ups by analyzing battles between individual players. Whichever player wins the fight normally provides an insight into which team will eventually win the game.
In this article, I’m going a different direction, analyzing the over-arching issues that should play into the match. While I’ll spend a bit of time talking about individual players, I’m going to focus on broader issues each team will have to deal with.
This was not an easy article to write, especially considering my love of both teams—I’ve fallen in love with Spurs over the last couple of seasons, and am extremely excited to watch them play. I would have preferred almost any other draw to Spurs in this round—with the obvious examples of Shakhtar and Schalke—and have had a hard time finding ways to crack their code, so to speak.
Spurs are an exciting, fast-paced team that isn't scared to mix it up inside, and then flank teams with astounding pace on the wings. Madrid play a very similar style, but with more talent in the back and in the very front. Both teams will play for the jugular and, though I give a slight advantage to Madrid, I cannot say that I’d be shocked if Spurs pulled out a good result from the Bernabéu.
This will be a tricky round for Madrid, and will ultimately be decided by some combination of these next few factors (I decided not to include “Away Goals” as a factor, simply because it’s too obvious).
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While this will not make or break either team—both like to play fast and on the break—it could be an indicator of which way the tie is leaning. If Madrid come out and dominates possession in the first leg, it’s probable that they will win the game. If Spurs can maintain a good share of the possession, the game will be much tighter.
If Madrid hold onto 55-60 percent of the possession in the Bernabéu, they’ll be doing their job, and probably winning. If Spurs can accumulate 45-50 percent (or higher) possession, then we’re looking at a much more complicated scenario.
This is probably the most caveat-prone factor of all five, however: possession neither determines who wins, nor who plays better. There are countless examples of teams with under 40 percent possession winning games—and winning them in style, too. A beautiful counter-attack can be just as amazing and praiseworthy as a slowly built up offensive maneuver.
While you should keep track of possession in games, it’s a useless statistic unless the large numbers at the top of the screen fall in line: I could easily see Madrid retaining 55 percent possession, but tying 0-0 or 1-1 (or even losing).
4. Mental Mistakes
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While both of these teams are exciting in the open field on the break, they can only exert this sort of pressure if the opposing team commits some sort of mistake—a turnover in midfield, or off a corner with too many men forward. Both teams thrive with space in the midfield, and the best way to gain space and speed in the attack is by converting a mental mistake into a break.
This may seem like a cliché, but whoever makes the fewest mistakes will probably win. I’m not saying there’s not more to the game, but breaks off of costly turnovers in midfield become even more costly when playing fast attacking teams like Madrid and Spurs.
It’s also possible that Mourinho will go to a 4-3-3 defensive “trivot” in the away leg to reduce mistakes (and breaks)—but this will only happen if he’s defending a good result at home.
3. Accuracy in Front of Goal
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Another cliché, but whichever team puts away its’ opportunities will win the game. Remember Spain-Switzerland from this recent World Cup? Spain dominated every category—shots, possession, passing percentage—except one: goals. It’s stupid but true: Switzerland scored more goals. They got an opportunity, and they put it away. The same thing will very possibly be true about this match-up. Even if one team dominates, being wasteful in front of goal will come back to bite them.
In this case, Madrid can be very strong; los blancos are one of the better teams at putting chances away (as most of Mourinho’s teams have been in the past). The only X factor is Cristiano Ronaldo, who can be selfish and shoot from distance in big games—he’ll need to step up and play for the team in this case.
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Another sports truism: the best offense is a good defense. Both teams thrive on building strong counters from the back, and both teams can have issues defensively. It will be fascinating to see which defense cracks first—because one certainly will—and even more fascinating to see if that team implodes, or explodes.
I am pretty confident in asserting that the team that does a better job defending counter-attacks and runs in space will win this tie. I’m also confident in saying that I have no idea which team will do this better.
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The number one factor hovering over this game is health. When Cristiano Ronaldo went down a few weeks ago, his goal was to be back to full fitness by this tie. As far as we know, he is making good progress.
Madrid might also be without the services of the streaking French goalscorer Karim Benzema, who was removed from France’s recent match with a high thigh strain. While Madrid has described the injury as “not serious” according to Marca.com, he might very well miss the match.
On the other end of the spectrum, Tottenham could be without stud left-back and havoc-wrecking machine Gareth Bale, who suffered a Grade One (the lowest) hamstring strain while training with Wales. He is in the same boat as Benzema, looking at a recovery time of 7-10 days.
All of these injuries are significant, and to significant players. Madrid isn’t the same team without Ronaldo, who has scored a huge percentage of los merengues’ goals this season. Spurs won’t have the same attacking potential without the highly-touted Bale, losing speed and scoring potential on the left wing. The muscles on these players’ legs could very easily decide both teams’ fates.