Sep 18, 2012, 5:08 PM EDT
Man of the Match: Is Ángel Di María still underrated? Perhaps, with today’s performance the perfect example why. The Argentine winger was vital to two Real Madrid goals, but within the context of one of the more dramatic matches you’ll see, the highlights won’t have time to adequately highlight his contributions.
On Real’s opener, Di María made a key run from the right, took a pass from Mesut Özil and drew in the defense before finding Marcelo. Moments later, Real Madrid was even, 1-1.
On Real’s second goal, the Argentine international dribbled from the right into the middle of the defense before threading a ball to Karim Benzema, who was left with only one man to beat for Real’s second equalizer.
Di María will get one, maybe two assists today, but within the context of Real’s dramatic comeback, those contributions will be undersold. As always, he was left to walk the line between overlooked and star.
Packaged for takeaway:
- The match started flat, but with four goals in the final 15 minutes of regulation time (three in the last six), day one of Champions League group stage gave us an immediate classic.
- Both teams made surprising changes in defense, starting young center halves few predicted would see time. Nineteen-year-old French defender Raphaël Varane was in Real’s XI, relegating Sergio Ramos to the bench. Serbian Matija Nastasic, also 19, came in for City, pushing Joleon Lescott out of the team.
- With Michael Essien (for Real Madrid) and Gareth Barry (for City) also in, the teams set up slightly defensive. City had sacrificed a striker to go 4-2-3-1, putting Yaya Touré behind Carlos Tévez. José Mourinho started neither of his playmakers: Mesut Özil or Luka Modric.
- Perhaps predictably, Real Madrid was able to control the first half. City was content to sit back and absorb pressure, and while that left a number of opportunities for Real to try from distance (Cristiano Ronaldo took a number of cracks at Joe Hart), the containment plan worked.
- The only cracks in City’s first half defense were two Gonzalo Higuaín chances, both times running on to Di María chips to earn chances on Hart. The first was snuffed out by a nice read from the `keeper. The second was shot wide.
- City’s best chances of the half came on counters, taking advantage of Touré’s advanced role, though chances in the 31st and 38th minute broke down before testing Iker Casillas.
- Roberto Mancini was forced into a change in the 38th minute, Samir Nasri coming on with a right leg injury. Aleksandr Kolarov came on to play in front of Gael Clichy for the rest of the half.
- The substitution eventually brought about a formation change. Kolarov played deep on the left, pushing Clichy into the left side of a central three. Maicon played Kolarov’s opposite wingback, and with Touré dropping deeper into midfield, City played a 3-5-2, with David Silva playing in support of Tévez.
- The shift served Maicon well. The former Inter defender was initially able to push up the right and disrupt Real left back Marcelo, who Real had trouble building through after the change.
- It took Real Madrid about 13 minutes to figure out what City had done. Then, they resumed the same dominance of play they had in the first half, creating 60th and 65th minute chances for Marcelo just outside the box.
- And Manchester City returned to the counter attack, with Touré finally pulling the right string in the 69th minute. A turnover created just inside City’s half gave Touré the opening to burst forward to create a two-one-one – he and Edin Dzeko versus Varane. Twenty-five yards out, Touré released a pass for Dzeko who, with Alvaro Arbeloa and Sami Khedira in pursuit, slotted the opener past Casillas.
- The lead didn’t last long. Seven minutes later, Real Madrid was able to create another chance for Marcelo. This time, the defender took his time, opted for precision instead of power, and opened his right foot on a ball that flew just under Hart’s crossbar.
- Nine minutes later, luck smiled in City’s favor when a restart by Kolarov skidded behind Madrid’s defense, possibly deflected off Xabi Alonso, and went inside Casillas’s far post, giving City their second one-goal lead. The outcome may have been fortunate, but if it wasn’t for Pablo Zabaleta – who hustled to draw the foul on Karim Benzema - the goal wouldn’t have happened.
- Benzema got revenge two minutes later, taking a pass from Di María, moving around Nastasic, and beating Hart inside the right post for another quick equalizer.
- Three minutes later, Real had their first lead. Cristiano Ronaldo, in possession just to the left of the box, cut back on Zabaleta and onto his right foot. He launched a topspin heavy shot that confused Hart, the keeper seemingly expecting Vincent Kompany to block the ball. Hart hesitated, didn’t react as the ball dipped, and let in a winner most goalkeepers would have stopped.
- The comeback would have been amazing in it’s own right, but within the context of what Real Madrid’s league struggles, it became both necessary and a possible turning point. Losing to Manchester City would have thrust the club into an identity crisis. Forced to comeback twice, Real Madrid’s attack had to wake up. That it did will help the club re-grasp its mystique.
- For City, this is a match you forget as soon as possible. They weren’t expected to get anything out of today’s game. That they lost their point on a howler makes it hard to reconcile (Javi García threw both arms up and fell to the ground when he saw the ball go in), but in the bigger picture, this one of the more acceptable losses City will ever be dealt.
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