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Champions League tactical analysis: AS Roma 0-2 Real Madrid

How did Zinedine Zidane earn his first Champions League win as Real Madrid manager?

ronaldo ramos zidane
This was Zizou’s first Champions League victory as a manager

The return of the UEFA Champions League saw Europe’s biggest clubs back in action in the continent’s elite club competition this week, and it was the last-16 knockout duel between AS Roma and Real Madrid that particularly captured the imagination.

An enthralling encounter soon unfolded as both sides vied for victory from the get-go, but it was Los Blancos who eventually emerged victorious over their Serie A counterparts on a final score-line of 2-0.

Goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Jese Rodriguez in the second half ensured Madrid put one foot in the quarter-final stage, but things could well have panned out much differently had La Maggica showed a more clinical side to their game. The result meant that new Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane earned his first UCL win from the dugout with the 10-time European Cup winners and will have managed to fend off any back-biters for now.

But exactly how did they go about it?

Stubborn Roma couldn’t maintain solid defensive start

The early exchanges promised a lot for Luciano Spalletti’s charges. Heading into the match with home advantage behind them, the Stadio Olimpico faithful were a constant source of enthusiasm and encouragement as their troops rallied to every cry they emitted their way.

Offering motivation in spades, the imposing environment helped the underdogs cause plenty of trouble with a staunch defence that refused to give up until it was ultimately undone in the second half thanks to a mixture of misfortune and simply being out-manoeuvred.

Few things are guaranteed in life but Ronaldo scoring in the Champions League is as sure as taxes, death and, er, a Kanye West twitter meltdown.

Threatened by the presence of the tournament’s all-time top scorer, organisation was always going to be the name of the game for the hosts as they looked to create an upset by way of some determined defending that had Madrid frustrated for much of the opening 45 minutes.

Time and again blocks flew in, sliding interceptions cropped up, challenges were made and the team in red made a normally razor-sharp team in attack look toothless, as epitomised by Rudiger’s no-nonsense clearing  tackle on James Rodriguez with half-time seconds away from the referee’s whistle.

Their confidence grew in the face of some audacious efforts from Ronaldo and Marcelo, and as the belief began to mount, it looked as though we could see them pull off a memorable result. In fact, the favourites went nearly an hour without producing a shot on target thanks to some fantastic concentration from their opponents as a whole as well as a finely-executed plan to starve them of any sniff at goal.

It was a credit to Roma’s hard work and tidy performance that it wasn’t until a tamely-hit Dani Carvajal effort in the 54th minute that Roma’s custodian was forced to stop a shot accurately directed between the posts.

As the clock ticked by without Wojciech Szczesny forced into denying an effort on target, some on social media began to find their voice as Spalletti was championed for his choice of astute tactics which saw him densely populate his back line as well as getting his midfield to hassle and harry at every opportunity.

Ultimately, the seemingly inevitable became a reality as Szczesny was beaten, but Roma fans will rightly feel hard done by with the final scoreline which was, ultimately, flattering to Madrid. Having defended superbly for much of the match, it was always going to be difficult to keep a lid on a bunch of players who had netted 13 goals in their previous three UCL encounters against Malmo FF, Shakhtar Donetsk and Paris Saint-Germain.

Lop-sided attack dealt with admirably by Zizou’s Galacticos

marcelo ramos v roma
Sergio Ramos made an astonishing ten tackles in the match

With a reflexive back four of Lucas Digne, Antonio Rudiger, Kostas Manolas and Alessandro Florenzi in operation for Spalletti, it was clear from the outset that the Italians were looking to break out from the rear whenever possible. However, it was only by way of clever interceptions, industrious defending and smart tackling that they were able to set up a number of promising attacks.

Twice inside the opening 10 minutes, the home side fashioned speedy breakaways from the edge of their 18-yard box. Indeed, their desire to hit their opponents hard and fast with surprising counter attacks was a theme they persisted with throughout, but it was undoubtedly their first-rate defending that afforded them the opportunity to do so.

The connection between Szczesny, Florenzi and Mohamed Salah was a telekinetic one for much of the encounter, and they managed to put Madrid under considerable pressure with swift attacks down the right flank. Getting bums off seats with a number of exciting forays just as often as the home crowd were booing a certain Portugal international meant that they were clearly doing something right.

Some might argue that Madrid rode their luck a bit too much at times, particularly following the introduction of Edin Dzeko and the penalty that could well have been awarded against them, but it would be unfair to deny that they didn’t cancel out the threats thrown at them throughout thanks to some world-class defending. Sergio Ramos was widely viewed as the man of the match, not least because he produced a whopping 10 tackles, which has been more than any player in this season’s UCL.

Although the home team succeeded in creating a few jitters for their match-day nemeses,  the end product was lacking and it became apparent as the match dragged on that they had put all their eggs in one very obvious basket.

Eventually, Zizou’s players wisened up to that fact their left flank was being targeted and they did well to fend it off for as long as they did. Ultimately, with Stephan El Shaarawy not utilised often enough on the left-hand side, I Giallorossi  began to see their attacks dwindle invisibility.

The introduction of Dzeko for the final 30 minutes offered a lifeline as he became the focal point up top that they had been crying out for all night long. With a physical striker to aim for in the box, Roma teased themselves with the possibility of a fightback, but whenever it was Los Blancos’ turn to defend, it was a case of ‘whatever you can do, I can do better’, and that was refreshing to see.

Industry, patience part and parcel of Los Merengues’ new style

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Clearly, Zidane wants his team to dominate possession

There were times during Wednesday’s continental clash where it looked as if both teams would cancel each other out. Lots of sideways passing from Madrid in the centre through Toni Kroos and Luka Modric gave the impression that this was going to end up as a bit of a scoreless snoozefest. The match was going nowhere fast.

As the first half came to a disappointing close, doubts began to creep in about just how effective and direct Zidane could be as a coach. It wasn’t just the absence of shots on target, but the unwillingness to shoot from distance, combined with a lack of urgency at times that surely had some fans very worried. In the end, it transpired that his tactics worked a treat, and their win allowed us all a greater insight into exactly what it is he’s trying to achieve at the club.

Most obviously, he wants his team to dictate possession. Scoring goals without the ball is a bit of a tall order and the former France international is certainly doing his best to ensure that doesn’t become a problem.

Additionally, he’s fusing real patience into the side. Because they controlled the ball for the majority of the tie, they were able to make Roma do all the running and the hard graft which was a clever energy-sapping ploy that eventually paid dividends.

The more their adversaries continued to drop deeper with every passing minute, the more Madrid began to test them.

It’s no coincidence that both their goals came in the final third of the match as tired legs and tired minds began to seep into the Serie A club’s play – so it was very much a case of Madrid showing patience with how they moved the ball as well as when they decided to really go for the jugular.

Zidane has set himself up nicely to instigate real change at the club and although talk of a managerial legacy is still some way off, a healthy cushion heading into the second leg is certainly a nice way to get people thinking.

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