In this week’s #360podcast, we discuss Chelsea, Juventus and Al Ain’s respective League title triumphs, as well as a look ahead to the Champions League semi-finals and the penultimate weekend of AGL action.
– PHIL BALL: The strange moments that could alter La Liga’s outcome
– OFF THE BAR: Chelsea-Mayweather Twins, Indiana Newcastle
– UCL PREVIEW: Carlo Ancelotti has Isco fever for Turin trip
Juventus v Real Madrid
Venue: Juventus Stadium
Live on: beIN Sports 11HD
Carlo Ancelotti is considering fielding Isco as an emergency centre forward for Real Madrid in tonight’s Champions League semi-final trip to Juventus after Karim Benzema was ruled out.
Benzema has been absent for three weeks with a knee injury, and Ancelotti’s hopes that he would return in time for the game in Italy were thwarted when the French frontman was left out of the travelling party.
Although Javier Hernandez initially compensated for the loss of Benzema with three goals in two games – including the quarter-final winner against Atletico – the Mexican striker has been subdued more recently, failing to score in his last two outings.
And considering Isco’s greater ability to link the play, Ancelotti may well opt for the young Spanish international in a deep-lying forward role similar to the position occupied by Lionel Messi at Barcelona in recent years.
— Isco Alarcon Fanpage (@IscoUpdates) May 5, 2015
Isco has played several games as a ‘false nine’ over the last couple of years, and Ancelotti hinted that he may opt for his game-building skills ahead of the more predatory Hernandez again tonight.
“When we don’t have space, against closed defences, difficulties arise if we don’t have good movement with and without the ball,” he said. “It is a question of moving as a team, not just with one player.”
However, Ancelotti was also at pains to emphasise that he still has confidence in Hernandez, adding: “He has helped us a lot and we’re here partly because of him.
“He has been ready whenever we’ve called upon him and he could play from the start again.”
Ever since Ramos was pushed to midfield , it looks like our depth has increased considerably even though that’s not the case
— saikrishna (@sai_crfan) May 5, 2015
Another big selection call for Ancelotti is in midfield, where he must decide whether to again move Sergio Ramos from his usual centre back position to partner German international Toni Kroos.
But the former Juve coach ruled out fielding a back three as he did in the latter stages of last weekend’s win over Celta Vigo, saying: “That option is discounted, we only used it for a few minutes. But Sergio could play in midfield again.”
Although Juve’s Serie A title challenge has been built upon the foundations of a superb defensive record, Ancelotti dismissed suggestions that the upcoming tie will be a similarly attritional encounter to the quarter-final clash with Atletico, another strong defensive outfit.
“They are teams with different characteristics,” he said. “Against Atletico we had a lot of possession of the ball, but Juve will want to control more of it themselves. Atleti and Juve have distinct qualities and they will be distinct games.”
Ancelotti also believes his side’s last-eight victory over Atletico – which included a goalless away draw in the first leg – shows that scoring an away goal, often perceived as crucial, is not necessarily a vital part of his team’s job tonight.
“The most important thing is playing at a high level and showing our quality,” the Italian added. “We could progress with two draws, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to attack. We will try to score, but we also have to defend well.”
Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo has hailed Real Madrid as the “most important club side in the world”, but insists his team will face the holders without fear.
Pirlo, who has played in seven European semi-finals and won the Champions League title twice at AC Milan under current Real coach Ancelotti, knows the Spaniards must be respected.
The 35-year-old said: “Real are the most important club in the world. They have a lot of experience in this type of games and have a team of champions.
— ☆Giovanni Maciel ★ (@Its_Just_Gio) May 4, 2015
“We weren’t ready for the Champions League in previous years. But this team has gained experience and we know we can do well and play without fear. Now that we are here, we want to go all the way. To win it would be a dream come true, for me and for my team-mates.
“We’ll be mindful but also show some swagger, because we have a dream to fulfil and nothing to lose, but also aware that there’s a second leg to follow.”
Players to watch:
The big Basque striker scored in the group stages against Madrid last season and his powerful presence and ability from set pieces should earn him the nod ahead of Alvaro Morata. The 30-year-old always seemed to enjoy playing against Real during his time at Athletic Bilbao.
Ronaldo, understandably, hogged the attention post-Sevilla after his hat-trick but there was an encouraging 24-minute cameo from Bale after his calf injury. The Welshman came alive in last year’s semi-final against Bayern and seems to enjoy the big occasion.
The Italian champions against the reigning kings of Europe promises to be a closely-contested encounter, especially in Tuesday's first leg, with neither side wanting to give too much away.
– Off The Bar: Chelsea-Mayweather Twins, Indiana Newcastle
Here are the three keys areas the tie could be won or lost.
Even though Paul Pogba is absent, the peerless passing of Andrea Pirlo and the dynamic energy of Arturo Vidal will
ensure that the centre of midfield is a strong area for Juventus.
And with Luka Modric on the sidelines, it is also a decidedly vulnerable part of the pitch for Real Madrid, demonstrated by Carlo Ancelotti’s recent emergency measure of fielding centre back Sergio Ramos out of position there.
Given Ancelotti’s obvious lack of trust in his other options Asier Illarramendi, Lucas Silva and Sami Khedira, it appears likely that Ramos will again be lined up alongside Toni Kroos tonight.
To his credit, Ramos has done a steady enough job in his previous midfield appearances. But he is clearly not a natural in the role and, with Pirlo’s tactical brain to call upon, Juve will have a big opportunity to dictate the ebb and flow of the game and prevent the visitors from finding their rhythm.
Battle of the centre-forwards
With Karim Benzema injured, another decision for Ancelotti is whether to persist with Javier Hernandez or instead opt for a ‘false nine’ in the form of Isco, whose mobility, ball skills and ability to link play with midfield would make him more of a natural replacement for the Frenchman.
Ironically, in other circumstances one man who could easily have lined up as Madrid’s number nine during Benzema’s absence is Alvaro Morata…but Los Blancos instead decided to loan him out to none other than Juventus so he could now play against them.
After an excellent run a few weeks ago, Morata has been struggling for goals in recent weeks and could start on the bench tonight. But if he does get playing time, he will have every motivation in proving his old team wrong.
Is Bale back to his best?
Gareth Bale was only on the pitch for 24 minutes as he made a successful comeback from injury against Sevilla on Saturday, but he made a strong impression with a bright cameo capped by a good cross for Cristiano Ronaldo’s third.
Considering Juventus’s outstanding defensive abilities, Madrid have a tough task on their hands in scoring a crucial away goal. And that challenge would be, without doubt, significantly boosted if Bale is fully fit and fully firing – something, in truth, we have rarely seen this season.
James Rodriguez is in great form and Cristiano Ronaldo is always capable of poaching or bludgeoning a goal, but against Juve’s ultra-tight defence Madrid will need as many of their weapons as possible.