Real Madrid scrape through – but Leipzig spoil their birthday party

If you wanted to know how disappointed Real Madrid fans were with their team’s 1-1 draw with RB Leipzig to send them through to the Champions League quarter-finals, you only had to listen to their reaction at half-time and full-time.

There were boos at the Santiago Bernabeu following the first 45 minutes after Leipzig spurned a number of chances. More damningly, there was total silence when the referee blew the final whistle. Just like the players on the pitch, supporters shuffled out with their heads bowed and dejected looks on their faces.

It was a stark contrast to just before the game, when a huge banner had been unfurled at the Bernabeu’s south end with the words ‘El Rey de Europa’ (The King of Europe) to mark Madrid’s 122nd anniversary. Fans even chanted “Happy Birthday” for the 14-time European champions, but Leipzig spoiled the party.

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Madrid were celebrating their 122nd anniversary (Manu Reino/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Yes, Los Blancos made it through to the quarter-finals 2-1 on aggregate. Yes, they are still top of La Liga, seven points above second-placed Girona. Yes, they have only lost twice in 37 matches this season. And yes, even head coach Carlo Ancelotti has said he “would have signed up to be here” if you had offered him this at the start of the campaign.

But all those positives seemed to evaporate with Madrid’s drab first half at the Bernabeu. In fact, if you’re reading this and don’t usually watch Madrid, then relax — this is not what we’re used to seeing this season.



Real Madrid 1 RB Leipzig 1: Vinicius goal sees lucky Real scrape through 2-1 on aggregate

Ancelotti’s tactical gambit did not help. Instead of using a hybrid 4-4-2 system as he has throughout the season, the Italian switched to a 4-3-3 formation that featured five midfielders: Toni Kroos, Aurelien Tchouameni, Eduardo Camavinga, Federico Valverde and Jude Bellingham. Vinicius Junior was playing as the sole forward and his fellow Brazilian Rodrygo started on the bench.

As Madrid’s head coach explained, he was trying to ensure “control of the game” and “avoid the transitions” of Leipzig’s mobile forwards Xavi Simons, Dani Olmo, Lois Openda and Benjamin Sesko. But Ancelotti’s extremely conservative lineup meant his team were playing based on their opponents’ approach, something Madrid do not tend to do.

When Marco Rose’s side managed three strikes on goal in quick succession, Ancelotti’s error became clear. Both he and his son and assistant coach Davide, along with fellow assistant Francesco Mauri, rushed off the bench in unison to reshuffle the team barely 20 minutes in. They shouted from the sidelines, but the message did not reach everyone on the pitch.

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Ancelotti’s five-midfielders system did not help Madrid (Jan Woitas/picture alliance via Getty Images)

One of the keys to Madrid conceding just 18 times in La Liga — the best rate in the Spanish top-flight — has been their pressing in the opposition half. But starting with five midfielders left the team too entrenched against Leipzig and some players at a loss as to who they should mark.

Bellingham, who as well as being Spain’s top scorer has made the most blocks for Madrid in La Liga and plays a crucial role in defence, was out of position. At times next to Vinicius Jr when Los Blancos were pressing and at others just behind him, the Englishman managed zero blocks, zero tackles won, zero clearances and just one recovery in the first half.

Worse still was Madrid’s attack. Leipzig racked up five shots in the first half compared to the hosts’ one. Opta reported that Madrid had registered 0.09 expected goals in the first 45 minutes, their lowest figure in a first half of a game all season.

Madrid remain unbeaten at their home stadium this campaign, but it was no surprise the boos followed at half-time. Only against Almeria in January — when the visitors led 2-0 at the break before Madrid came back to win 3-2 in controversial circumstances — had Madridistas seen such an underwhelming first period.

Ancelotti’s half-time talk is usually enough to inspire Madrid, but this time it did not make much of a difference. Rodrygo was introduced and Vinicius Jr put them ahead with a fine goal in the 65th minute after an inch-perfect pass from Bellingham, but they still looked shaky at the back. Three minutes after Vinicius Jr’s effort, poor defending led to Willi Orban’s equaliser.

“We were never comfortable, not even with Vinicius’ goal,” captain Nacho said.

Madrid improved their attacking fluency and ended with five shots (two on target, two off target and the goal). But compare that to Lepzig, who managed nine (five off target, two on target and Orban’s goal) and who could have forced extra-time in the closing minutes when Olmo’s shot clipped the crossbar — bringing even more boos from the Bernabeu.

“I may have made a mistake with the line-up,” Ancelotti said. “I don’t understand what we did.” It is rare to hear the Italian so dissatisfied.

So, even though history repeats itself — with Madrid going through in the Champions League despite having suffered — there are key doubts at a decisive moment of the season. It is unlikely they would have enjoyed the same luck against another European giant.

The quarter-finals await. But this game showed that Madrid’s future will be shaped as much by Ancelotti’s tactical decisions as their impressive transfer planning.

(Top photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

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