A Look At The Opposition: Can Spurs Push Real Madrid All the Way?
Despite facing a fierce battle to secure Champions League football via the league on the domestic front, Tottenham Hotspur’s blockbuster tie with Real Madrid will come as Spurs’s biggest examination under Harry Redknapp. The club from north London qualified for the last 16 after topping a group containing Werder Bremen, FC Twente, and current holders Inter Milan, and beat favoured AC Milan 1-0 over two legs to book their spot in the quarter-finals, and during the process they put in a host of impressive performances, notably a 3-1 victory over Inter at White Hart Lane, and 3-0 demolitions of both Twente and Werder. Gareth Bale also hit a hat trick in Milan, but Inter still held out to win 4-3. AC Milan, currently top of the heap in Serie A, were thought to prove too tough a test for Spurs, but a Peter Crouch goal in the first leg proved to be enough, despite Milan having the better of Spurs for much of the 180 minutes.
But Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid will prove the sternest test Redknapp and co have faced all season, without a doubt. Iker Casillas is the best goalkeeper in the world, and a back line containing the always assured Ricardo Carvalho and Pepe in the middle, with Sergio Ramos and Marcelo patrolling the flanks, will indeed be tough to break down.
However, the most fearsome aspect of Los Blancos is undoubtedly their acumen in going forward, and it is a group which could have Huerelho Gomes in cold sweats in the nights leading up to the match. Sami Khedira protects the back four extremely well, leaving fellow defensive midfielder Xabi Alonso to lie deep and pick out passes to start the attack, with the freedom to push up and over-extend the defence.
Mesut Ozil already has a goal and five assists in just 6 Champions League matches, and the German has been in fantastic form since joining Real in August from Werder Bremen, scoring 5 goals and notching 10 assists in the league. Angel Di Maria has proved to be another smart buy for Mourinho, with the Argentine contributing 6 league goals and 11 assists, accompanied with 2 goals and 2 assists in the Champions League.
Up front, Karim Benzema has been hot as of late, after there was much speculation over his future due to a string of poor performances earlier in the season, and the former Lyon striker has scored 9 in Real’s last 7 matches in all competitions. Of course, there is no way of understating Cristiano Ronaldo’s importance to the team; the immensely talented winger has scored more goals than the number of appearances he has made for Real in La Liga this year (27 in 26 matches), and has also been a focal point in Europe.
The match-up of Gareth Bale on the same side as Ronaldo is surely one that will be entertaining. To control the Portugese wonder, Benoit Assou-Ekotto will have to be on his best form defensively, meaning he will probably venture past the half-way line very little. Bale’s individual skill from his recent time as a left back will likely be put to the test, with the task of shutting down Ronaldo’s dangerous runs in midfield before he can find space and get near the box.
Sandro was immense in the last 16 tie, and the Brazilian midfielder will again be called on to stomp out potential opportunities. Tom Huddlestone or Wilson Palacios could partner him in the first leg, as giving up a goal at the Bernabeu could be fatal to Redknapp’s hopes of progressing. Aaron Lennon will have to make the most of any possession he gets, and the pacy winger will be targeting Marcelo on the counter in hopes of the Brazilian over-committing. Luka Modric is a maestro in midfield, and the Croatian has been linked with Europe’s top clubs, and could arguably make Mourinho’s first eleven, but he will have to fight to win the ball in midfield and put in a tough shift. Rafael Van Der Vaart struggled to establish himself while in the Spanish capital, but a last-minute deadline day move to White Hart Lane has seen the Dutch international in scintillating form for Spurs, often the main man involved when goals are scored. He will certainly be keen to get revenge on the club that discarded him.
Whether Redknapp will go with Peter Crouch of Jermaine Defoe, who has recently returned from injury, remains to be seen. Peter Crouch has been frustrating at times, but his aerial presence and hold-up play should give Van Der Vaart space to work off of, and he will also be a big threat at set pieces. Defoe has struggled with injuries and suspensions this campaign, but he finally got off the mark in the Premier League in his side’s 3-3 draw with Wolves, bagging a brace. He may find himself coming off the bench, and could be unleashed in the second leg if Spurs go on the attack.
Real Madrid have a firepower and depth unlike nothing Spurs have come across, and while they remain in contention in La Liga, Mourinho would love nothing more than to lift the trophy twice in two years, and become the first manager to win the competition with three different clubs. Their English opposition have shown amazing fight and spirit to get this far already, and will certainly not lie down. If Real Madrid are able to control play from the outset and impose their will on Spurs, the goals could be quick and plentiful, with Ronaldo’s searing pace the main component of the regular clinics they dish out in La Liga. Spurs cannot allow them to dictate play, and will likely have to grow into the game and keep possession of the ball.
As we have seen, if they can keep it competitive going into the second leg, anything can happen in football, and though I expect Real Madrid to progress into the last four, I do think it will be only barely.