A strong start to the season is well and truly in the rear-view mirror as Julen Lopetegui contemplates three goalless games without a victory
Some in Real Madrid colours might have felt like they saw a version of this game before. It is just over three months since the likes of Dani Carvajal, Marco Asensio, Nacho Fernandez, Lucas Vazquez and Alvaro Odriozola either watched on from the bench or played in Spain’s impotent 1-1 draw in the World Cup round of 16 against Russia at the Luzkniki Stadium, which eventually saw them eliminated on penalty kicks.
Julen Lopetegui finally got a look at Russia’s finest stadium, having being dismissed from overseeing Spain’s summer efforts on the eve of the tournament, but he might well wish he hadn’t. Fernando Hierro was the coach that Sunday afternoon when La Roja had no proper answer to the Russian rear-guard action. And here with CSKA Moscow going into an early lead, the game settled into that wearingly familiar pattern.
Toni Kroos has some pretty harrowing memories of this ground too having been on it when Germany were beaten by Mexico at the outset of their ill-fated World Cup campaign. His boneheaded contribution to Nikola Vlasic’s opener won’t have exorcised those demons.
From there Madrid went side to side and back again. They had loads of the ball and dominated most of the rest of the statistics but could not trouble Igor Akinfeev in the CSKA goal, another one of Russia’s summer heroes. His outburst deep into injury time yielded a red card and threatened to derail CSKA’s efforts but they managed to survive.
Before that, substitute Mariano Diaz came on and made trouble but his headers either hit the crossbar or went over; it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Real Madrid’s previous No. 7 might well have had more success in front of goal. This was the type of game where Cristiano Ronaldo might well have been accused of stat-padding. How they could have done with a handy hat-trick here.
Akinfeev is an old stager who along with Sergi Ignashevich took his leave from the international stage after the glory of the World Cup. The Berezutskiy twins went before that and only the goalkeeper remains in what is a drastically different CSKA line-up these days.
The average age of the team has come way down and those looking for a familiar face might only find recognisable ones – Akinfeev aside – in Alan Dzagoev and Mario Fernandes.
Viktor Goncharenko has been tasked with overhauling the club and he put his trust in a fresh-faced team in front of around 65,000 at the Luzkniki. Football fever is still hot in Russia following the World Cup ecstasy. CSKA moved their Champions League games here in order to accommodate more fans.
Moscow might have lost some of its party buzz since the summer with the streets around the capital largely returning to normal after unprecedented scenes of jubilation. But this was not some schmaltzy rerun. This was the real thing.
And into battle went Nikita Chernov, 22, Rodrigo Becao, 22, Jaka Bijol, 19, Ivan Oblyakov, 20, Ilzat Akhmetov, 20, Fedor Chalov, 20 and Nikola Vlasic, 20. And those were only the starters; more youngsters came off the bench.
That they could perform against the famous white shirts of the European champions with such composure and panache is a testament to their growing maturity.
Madrid – under Lopetegui – are having some teething troubles in ushering in their new era. They are without a goal since beating Espanyol on September 22. This game marks three in a row without a win. Real Madrid managers of the past have arguably been sacked for less.
And Lopetegui was attempting to cope here without most of the men which made a multiple champion of Zinedine Zidane. Sergio Ramos got a rest. Dani Carvajal was forced off injured. Marcelo, Isco and Gareth Bale all missed out through injuries of their own. Luka Modric was introduced from the bench. Ronaldo – of course – is long gone.
What’s left with all those missing is a talented group of young players but a group primarily reliant on Karim Benzema for its goals.
Bale is a crucial loss and any hope that Lopetegui has of keeping Madrid on the level will be dependent on keeping him fit. The early season indications are that the Welshman will be one tasked with grabbing most of Ronaldo’s share of the goals. Without him there isn’t the same threat.
That is not the fault of those left behind; it merely indicates that world class individual talents can often be the difference between a system working and a system malfunctioning.
It’s not quite crisis territory for Lopetegui but the signs are currently worrying. There is a lack of surety in the Barcelona team as well, which should see them stay within striking range of the Catalans in La Liga. But Europe will be a different story where Madrid are three-time defending champions.
They need more goals, more penetration and as quickly as possible more wins.
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