By Karl Matchett.
Into the last eight of the UEFA Champions League went Real Madrid on Tuesday night as they beat AS Roma 2-0, 4-0 on aggregate, with goalkeeper Keylor Navas making several saves along the way to ensure he still hasn't conceded a single goal in Europe this season.
The result and the progression were impressive in isolation, but the fact of the match mirrored that of Real Madrid's recent displays all round: open and susceptible to conceding chances defensively and reliant on a clinical attack to outscore the opposition.
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Over the past two fixtures, Zinedine Zidane has attempted to redress the balance of the team by bringing holding midfielder Casemiro back into the fold and, to an extent, that has worked-but injuries and rotation in the defensive quartet has made it difficult to get consistency in place elsewhere. Victories of 7-1 vs. Celta Vigo and 2-0 vs. Roma don't sound as though Real had a terribly difficult time of things, but the European tie in particular could easily have swung the other way.
Down the channels, Real are particularly weak at present. Danilo has played on both sides to cover absences to regular starters Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, and all four central defenders have partnered each other this season. The lack of partnerships and no tracking back from the wide players in attack means teams are routinely able to get behind Real's full-backs with diagonals, through passes and speedy dribbling wingers-then it's all about the delivery and finish.
Against the likes of Fabian Orellana and Iago Aspas, or even an out-of-sorts Edin Dzeko and Mohamed Salah, Real Madrid can and did get away with it.
Now into the latter stages of the Champions League, they have two options: tighten up significantly, or face elimination, despite their impressive attacking prowess.
Atletico Madrid have already beaten them in the past couple of weeks, Barcelona destroyed them earlier in the season. Elsewhere they could face prodigious goalscoring talents such as the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski or Sergio Aguero. Those players will not spurn the opportunities missed by Salah and co. on Tuesday. Chances will be dispatched, and Real will fall out of the only competition they have a chance of winning this season.
Zidane has altered his lineup with frequency since taking over, but in a tactical sense very little has changed. His 4-3-3 has been rigid almost to the point of being inflexible, even with numerous players out injured or otherwise unavailable, and only in the last Liga game or two has there been an in-game shift to 4-4-2 after subs have been made.
Surely the boss must consider whether, against more settled and offensively dangerous opponents, an alteration is required from kick-off in order to protect Keylor Navas with greater ability?
Gareth Bale is obviously most dangerous when running forward, but his tracking back and willingness to work for the team is an undervalued asset, particularly when used as a winger rather than wide forward. In a 4-4-2, he would track and be an out-ball relentlessly throughout the game, locking down one entire flank in both halves of the pitch. It immediately provides more solidity to a weak area of Real's team right now. On the opposite side, Lucas Vazquez might not be the first choice to start most weeks, but he has performed reliably in both attacking and defensive roles when given a chance-in an away match in Europe, perhaps he's a smart tactical option.
Such balance and affording of respect to the opposition does not come easily to Real Madrid. The fans and the board would rather see all the offensive players take part, a front six of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Isco, James Rodriguez, Bale, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema somehow shoehorned in alongside each other, with the leftover party the first sub to enter the fray regardless of scoreline.
It's entertaining to watch from an outsiders' perspective as someone inevitably implodes because of a poor choice of role, unhappiness at being sidelined or a perceived lessened state of importance, but it certainly isn't going to win Real the Champions League this season.
At best, they are the fifth-finest side remaining in the competition when taking into account this season's performances overall. The draw will dictate much and luck plays a part, but an inevitable outcome is on the cards if things don't change on the pitch at Real Madrid. Alter and improve the defensive framework, or face elimination and another trophyless season.