[dropcap]I[/dropcap]talian giants Juventus made a statement of intent in their Champions League semi-final first leg last night, taking the advantage against Real Madrid with a 2-1 home victory.
The Bianconeri are fresh from winning their fourth consecutive Italian top-flight title, with Max Allegri charged with replicating domestic dominance on the continent.
The Spanish capital city side cannot be written off despite losing the first leg, but it is clear that Carlo Ancelotti’s men are not currently the same animal that looked unstoppable in the first half of the campaign.
The tie sits delectably even, with both sides having reason to believe that they can make it through to the final after next week’s reverse fixture at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
Here five key observations from the first leg.
Morata proves his worth against former employers
The script could have written itself; young Madrid talent not truly trusted, leaves club to play regularly only to haunt his former employers at a later date.
Although Álvaro Morata scored the opening goal, his all-round contribution to his side’s victory was comprehensive.
The newly-capped Spain international has clearly developed as a player since his switch to Turin, with his movement off the ball and hold-up play impressive in his side’s win.
Madrid, without Karim Benzema, were crying out for a player of Morata’s ilk to lead their line.
Ramos in midfield a mistake
Luka Modrić’s absence robs Ancelotti of one of the best central midfielders in world football, but a team of Madrid’s calibre clearly have adequate replacements.
However, the Italian trainer’s experiment of playing Sergio Ramos in midfield may well have been good enough to get the team through in recent La Liga games, but it backfired here.
José Mourinho deployed Pepe in defensive midfield on occasion during his reign as an enforcer, while the logic of having Madrid’s captain as a destructive force in the boiler room made sense on paper.
But, Ramos was guilty of being caught out of position repeatedly, while his distribution while in possession was substandard at best.
With the disillusioned but technically gifted Asier Illarramendi sitting on the bench, Ancelotti’s decision was clearly flawed.
Juventus’ tactical versatility a real asset
Under former coach Antonio Conte, Juve’s domestic potency was based around three central defenders and marauding wing-backs, but Allegri has switched to a back four this season in an attempt to accommodate a star-studded midfield.
The Turin-based side have taken to the change in formation with aplomb, but their ability to switch between the two systems seamlessly is a real asset for the Bianconeri.
Starting with the back four was a bold attacking choice that reaped dividends, while the introduction of Andrea Barzagli after Carlos Tevez’s second-half goal allowed the side to change to 3-5-2.
This move from Allegri congested the midfield, made Juventus more difficult to break down, stifled Madrid’s ball-players and eventually resulted in the hosts winning the game.
Marcelo’s delivery poor, Bale’s role undetermined
The lack of a central striker in Benzema’s absence robbed Madrid of a central threat in the penalty box, but the visitors still insisted on crossing the ball.
In the first half, left-back Marcelo found himself in space on a number of occasions but his final delivery was severely lacking.
Meanwhile, a seemingly half-fit Gareth Bale flitted between flanks with limited influence in a continuation of recent underwhelming form.
The Wales international’s only telling contributions came in the second half when he cut back onto his left foot and crossed tantalisingly on a number of occasions.
The presence of a poacher could have resulted in a Madrid equaliser, but in the long-term deciding whether the former Tottenham man is an individual attacking threat akin to Cristiano Ronaldo or a provider is necessary for the Spaniards to get the best from the world’s most expensive player.
The most impressive performer? Martin Atkinson
In the tense environment of a Champions League semi-final in a hostile Turin, it would have been easy for referee Martin Atkinson to be overawed, but the official put in an excellent performance.
After the previous round I wrote an article highlighting the unsavoury elements of modern football being on show in the Madrid derby, with stern action from the officials the key to stamping this out of the sport.
Atkinson got the penalty decision right, with Dani Carvajal not being booked or sent-off for the foul on Tevez due to the Argentine heading away from goal.
The Juventus players, not content with the mere awarding of a spot-kick, crowded the referee and asked for further action against the Madrid right-back.
The imaginary card was thrown by Arturo Vidal, who was correctly shown a real yellow card as a consequence of his petulance.
With both first-half goals having a hint of offside about them, the assistants also got their respective decisions correct by allowing the strikes to stand.
All up the officials and Atkinson in particular should be lauded for their performance – something that does not happen enough in the modern game.
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