By Paul Gardner
So here we have two coaches devoted to offense. Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho. I know that to be the case, because that's what
they've told us. Before last night’s game between Real Madrid and Manchester City, Mancini announced that "Our mentality is not to go there -- to Madrid or anywhere -- for a draw, or to lose. We
want to win always." As for Mourinho, well this was Real’s home game, no need for assurances of attacking play when you’re playing at home.
And what did we
get? In the first half we got Real Madrid with a midfield featuring Michael Essien, Sami Khedira and Xavi Alonso. Athletic yes, hard-tackling yes, but creative? An offensive set up? Hardly -
doubly not when you consider that Mesut Ozil and Luka Modric and Kaka were all watching from the bench. As for ManCity -- they hardly got into the Real half of the field, so cautious was its
We got a half dominated by Real, in which the key player was a member of Mancini’s win-seeking side, goalkeeper Joe Hart.
I’ve asked this
before: Why do we listen to the coaches? But I go on listening, so I shouldn’t be surprised that their statements are usually so much trash talk.
creaking midfield -- I mean, Essien is well past his dubious best -- failed to provide much in the way of exploitable passes for forwards Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria. Both players were easily
contained by ManCity’s defensive play. Not so Cristiano Ronaldo, who threatened every time he got the ball, repeatedly blowing past Maicon with insulting ease and getting off dangerous
right-foot shots as he cut in from the left wing.
But Ronaldo was really the only evidence that either coach was determined to win this game. Mancini underlined his
cautious approach when attacking midfielder Samir Nasri had to leave the game with a first-half injury; his replacement was defender Aleksandar Kolarov. Without Ronaldo, that first half - whatever the
coaches may have asserted -- would have been your classic tactical bore.
Both coaches were evidently satisfied with their teams’ performances; there were no subs
to start the second half. ManCity seemed slightly more adventurous than in the first half -- it was difficult to be sure. At last, in the 64th minute, a detectably attacking move was made --
goalscorer Edin Dzeko replaced David Silva for ManCity. Two minutes later Real replied in kind, with the absurdly-delayed removal of Essien, bringing on Ozil.
daring -- from both teams! It paid off quickly -- the loping Yaya Toure bulldozed his way forward. Too quick for the Real defenders, he fed Dzeko a perfect pass, and the lanky Bosnian finished
ManCity did most definitely not deserve to be ahead, but at that point, who cared? Because the goal looked likely to do what goals usually do -- bring the
game to life. And so it did. Five minutes later, Mourinho had a rush of blood to the head and took off Khedira, replacing him with Modric. He now had two playmaking midfielders on the field. At the
same time Karim Benzema came on for Higuain, a fresh-legged goalscorer for a struggling goalscorer. At last -- with only 20 minutes left in the game -- it began to look as though we would get the
attack-oriented soccer we’d been assured would be played.
But not so fast there. Mancini’s response was to bolster his defense, taking off Maicon, who had
been having all sorts of problems with the quicksilver Ronaldo, and inserting fullback Pablo Zabaleta.
With its usual perversity, soccer then made sure that it would be
a defender who struck the decisive blow for the offense. Real’s impish fullback, the Brazilian Marcelo -- he had already struck two wicked left-foot shots that were not far off the target --
tried an 18-yarder with his right foot. Aided by a deflection off Javi Garcia, this one tore past Hart’s desperate lunge and Real was level.
This was turning into
a proper game at last -- in defiance of what looked like reluctant coaches. Ten minutes of nip-and-tuck, end-to-end soccer followed, all of it worth watching, until in the 86th minute, ManCity once
again made a nonsense of the possession stats (they ended up at 56%-44% in Real’s favor) and snatched the lead for the second time. More perversity. If there’s any such thing as a
defensive goal this was it -- scored by defender Kolarov when his 30-yard free was badly misplayed by the entire Real defense, including goalkeeper Iker Casillas. So badly, in fact, that no one, from
either team, played the ball at all as it bounced in front of Casillas and zoomed into the net.
ManCity was permitted just two minutes to savor
an unlikely victory, until pure attacking play paid off for Real with the equalizer. DiMaria’s trickery got him free of close marking, his short pass to Benzema at the edge of the ManCity
penalty area was perfect. Benzema spun neatly away from Matija Nastasic and in the same movement fired the ball low, just inside the post. A goal worth waiting for.
this fickle game had more to offer. In the 90th minute came the winner for Real. It was, rightly, deservedly, Ronaldo who scored it. Ronaldo, who had kept the flag of attacking soccer flying proudly
in that bleak first half, cut inside once again -- past Zabaleta, who had presumably been sent on to stop that happening. Not this time. Then came Ronaldo’s right-footed shot, not well struck,
not nearly as good as his thunderbolts of the first half. Those, Hart had saved. This one somehow got past him. Probably, it should have been saved. But Ronaldo, and Real Madrid, had got their
Pity that the moment was soiled by Mourinho acting like an idiot, sliding on his knees on to the field of play, as though he himself had scored the goal. Is
dignity too much to ask of coaches these days?
The game had not gone the way the coaches had evidently wanted it to. Why were those attack-oriented substitutions delayed
so long? Does it make any sense at all to praise the coaches for “clever” substitutions when it seems more than likely that much more could have been accomplished had the players involved
entered the game much earlier?
I suppose that is merely romantic dreaming. Or is it? Because once the subs had been made, we got a game that could breathe, a game freed
of tactical chains, a game that moved swiftly to a memorably exciting climax.
It had become that most dangerous of happenings, the one coaches like least, a game that
suddenly found its own momentum, its own personality ... a game in which, of all things, goalscoring seemed to be running out of control. And that, in one of the greatest of soccer’s many
contradictions, is something that terrifies the modern coach.