Real Madrid vs. Lyon: 5 Things We Learned from Champions League Victory
On Wednesday night, Real Madrid made it four wins out of four in this season's Champions League, clinching automatic qualification for the knockout stages. Los Blancos beat French club Lyon away from home, by a convincing scoreline of 2-0 at the Stade de Gerland. Cristiano Ronaldo reached a century of goals for Madrid, firing Los Blancos into the Round of 16 with a clinical free-kick and penalty-kick.
José Mourinho's men continued their impressive form in Europe, keeping a clean sheet for their fourth consecutive Champions League match. Although the Portuguese tactician was forced to rotate his squad due to injuries, Madrid remained the only team with a 100 percent record in this season's Champions League.
Here are five things we learned from Madrid's Champions League victory over Lyon.
Karim Benzema's Team Play Will Be the Difference in Europe
Karim Benzema's team play has been outstanding this season. The French striker entered the 2011-12 campaign in excellent form, and he has continued to excel when given the opportunity.
Although Benzema showed great skill and combination play throughout the match, his miss in the 10th minute will go down as an opportunity wasted. The Madrid No. 9 hit a clean strike at the near post, but impressive Lyon keeper Hugo Lloris made a key save for the home side.
Benzema's first touch and creativity gave Madrid an added dimension going forward. With Mourinho recently admitting that there will be a day when he has to abandon this rotation policy with Gonzalo Higuaín and pick a first-choice striker, the Frenchman showed that his combination and team play could be the difference in Europe.
Not Selling Lassana Diarra Will Pay Dividends
Throughout the summer, there were numerous reports linking Lassana Diarra with a move away from Real Madrid. Tottenham Hotspur looked to be the likely destination for the French defensive midfielder, but the deal went cold after Harry Redknapp signed Scott Parker.
Diarra, now wearing the No. 24 for Los Blancos, has failed to cement a regular place in Mourinho's starting XI. With Sami Khedira as a first-choice defensive midfielder, the Frenchman rarely starts when the full squad if 100-percent fit.
Although he may not be the first-choice midfield partner for Xabi Alonso, Diarra's versatility has been key. The Frenchman played in a defensive midfield role against Real Sociedad, started at right-back in Wednesday's Champions League clash with Lyon, and finished the match at left-back.
The Frenchman gave a solid display across the backline, deputizing for the injured Álvaro Arbeloa. Strong in the tackle and quick to close down opponents, the former Arsenal and Chelsea man has been effective when picked by Mourinho.
Diarra's defensive work-rate and tenacity make him an important utility player as the season wears on. Madrid have great depth in the squad, but a versatile enforcer like Diarra will be essential to Los Blancos' success in domestic and European competition this season.
Mesut Özil Is Still Mesut Özil
Although Mesut Özil has struggled to find his best form in recent weeks, the Madrid playmaker gave a solid performance against Lyon.
Not known for his finishing prowess, the German international was unable to capitalize on a few goalscoring opportunities. However, his play-making ability and creativity were world class.
Özil's clever first-time pass around Lyon defender Cris put Benzema through on goal in the 10th minute. Benzema failed to score, but it was a delicate, perfectly-weighted pass by the German playmaker.
The Madrid No. 10 played a key role in Ronaldo's first goal as well. Özil's back-heel created space for Benzema outside of the area, which led to Ronaldo's thunderous free-kick.
Kaká has been in blistering form recently, but Özil showed glimpses of last seasons on Wednesday night. The Brazilian has been the team's first-choice playmaker over the past few weeks, but the German's gradual return to form should create significant competition for places in Mourinho's starting XI.
Sergio Ramos and Pepe Are the Best Centre-Back Pairing in the World Right Now
In recent weeks, Sergio Ramos and Pepe have formed the best centre-back partnership in club football.
With Ricardo Carvalho out due to injury, the Spaniard has moved into the middle with Álvaro Arbeloa deputizing at right-back. Although they did not enter the season as the first-choice centre-back pair, Ramos and Pepe have been a force at the back.
There are a few elite central defensive partnerships in Europe, including Dortmund's Mats Hummels and Neven Subotić, Barcelona's Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, Chelsea's John Terry and Branislav Ivanović, Manchester City's Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott, and AC Milan's Thiago Silva and Alessandro Nesta.
However, Mourinho has found a special combination in Ramos and Pepe. The Spaniard has the recovery pace and skill to complement the Portuguese enforcer's tough-tackling and no-nonsense defending. In addition, they both have the quickness to breakup opposition play, and the aerial strength to cope with flighted balls over the top or into the box.
Although they lack the experience of some of Europe's best central defenders, Ramos and Pepe are the best centre-back partnership in the world right now.
Europe Should Be Worried About Real Madrid's New High Line of Pressure
Over the past few weeks, Mourinho has implemented a new high line of pressure. Barcelona-esque in style, Madrid are pressing high against the opposition and working hard to win back possession quickly.
When Madrid lost possession last season, there was little emphasis on winning it back immediately. Instead, the team dropped back together and kept their defensive shape.
However, in the past few matches, Madrid have been much more aggressive when they lose the ball. The team has looked to press high up the pitch and force mistakes from opposing defenders.
The unquestionable star of Madrid's high line of pressure has been Ángel di María. The Argentine winger has an unmatched work-rate, and his determination to win back possession exemplifies Mourinho's new style of pressure.
Even Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Özil have been seen closing down defenders and tracking back once or twice.
Although Madrid only beat Lyon by a score of 2-0, it could have easily been four or five. The defensive pressure forced a few mistakes from Lyon, and it set the tempo from early on in the match.
Los Blancos are the only team with a 100 percent record in the Champions League this season, and Europe should be worried. Madrid are in exceptional form at the moment, and this Barcelona-esque style of pressure has been key to their recent success.
Real Madrid will face serious competition from Barcelona and others in the knockout stages of the Champions League, but they could be the most dangerous team in Europe right now.