Real Madrid face a must-win Champions League trip to the hostile environment of Galatasaray on Tuesday night, with Zinedine Zidane’s men knowing they would be in serious danger of an early and embarrassing elimination if they suffer another bad result.
Los Blancos are also tasked with bouncing back from a poor performance in Saturday night’s shock La Liga loss to lowly Mallorca, so there’s no doubt about it: the heat is well and truly on.
Hazard back to save the day?
Real boss Zinedine Zidane was without no less than eight players for Saturday’s trip to Mallorca, and although Luka Modric and Gareth Bale are still sidelined he will be relieved to welcome back a clutch of key men including Toni Kroos and Dani Carvajal.
The most important returnee, however, could well be Eden Hazard. The former Chelsea star skipped weekend duty with Zidane’s blessing after his wife gave birth to their fourth child on Friday night, and his ability to penetrate the penalty box was badly missed as Real stuttered through the game in Mallorca, creating hardly any clear chances as they stumbled to a highly disappointing defeat.
Hazard has struggled to shine during the opening weeks of his Bernabeu stint, scoring just once in six games, but this is exactly the kind of game he was signed for and the Belgian star will carry a heavy weight of expectation on his shoulders. This could be – and should be – his chance to write his first serious lines in the Madrid history book. Hazard has been recruited for this kind of occasion, and he is under pressure to deliver.
Hazard’s starting place is beyond doubt, but the identity of his companions in the front six is less than certain.
The first decision facing Zidane is the formation of his team. Will it be a 4-4-2 with Hazard, James Rodriguez, Isco or the struggling Luka Jovic supporting Karim Benzema, or the French coach’s more accustomed 4-3-3 shape with Hazard on the left wing and either James, Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo Goes or even Brahim Diaz on the right?
Casemiro and the returning Kroos are set to start in the centre of the pitch but perhaps Zidane’s biggest call is whether to field young Uruguayan Fede Valverde, who has never failed to impress and surely deserves the chance to strengthen a midfield battleground which has often – most recently in Mallorca on Saturday – looked undermanned.
Even without Bale, Modric, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio, there are still plenty of options at Zidane’s disposal. Finding the right recipe could be a key to the outcome.
Zidane’s last chance?
Whichever combination of players Zidane chooses to field, and whichever strategical set-up he decides to employ, there is a growing sense within the Spanish media that this could be the French coach’s last chance to put things right.
Defeat would leave Real bottom of Group A and at least three points – perhaps as many as five – away from the top two at the midway stage of the group phase, and the prospect of being dumped into an unappetising diet of Thursday night Europa League football for the second half of the season would be unpalatable for president Florentino Perez.
Monday’s pre-match press conference was dominated by questions over the coach’s future, and those doubts would inevitably intensify with a negative result in Istanbul. With the shadow of Jose Mourinho lurking ever present in the background, it seems clear that Zidane cannot afford many more slip-ups. Will this be his last stand?
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Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola says they are still not ready to win the Champions League, insisting they must improve if they wish to achieve that goal.
The Premier League champions responded to the 2-0 loss to Wolves at the beginning of October with a win by the same scoreline at Crystal Palace on Saturday.
City still trail Liverpool in the table after losing twice already in the league this season and are next in action on Tuesday at home to Atalanta in Group C of the Champions League.
It is a competition the club and Guardiola have longed to win, but the Spaniard suggested after the victory at Selhurst Park it is a long way off yet.
“We miss a lot of chances in the final third and we have to do that to be clinical. When the people say about the Champions League being the target, we are still not ready,” he said.
“We create a lot and we don’t concede, but we can still improve. We are a team in the last two seasons who score a lot and create a lot. I don’t have doubt about that, but still we have to keep going and work on that.”
Guardiola referenced the save Ederson made from Christian Benteke in the second half, which ensured City remained in control at Selhurst Park.
Had the Palace substitute netted in the 76th minute, it would have set up a dramatic finale in south London.
Yet City remained on top and should have scored a couple more late on with Kevin De Bruyne hitting the post and Raheem Sterling firing wide from close range.
It did not matter, after first-half goals from Gabriel Jesus and the excellent David Silva, and Guardiola praised the Brazilian forward, who netted his 50th goal for the club since moving to the Etihad in January 2017 from Palmeiras for a deal worth a reported £27 million.
“He will have a long career and with his mentality always he will have success. He is hungry, he will become an important striker around the world and we are lucky to have him,” City’s manager added.
“Gabriel was always good from the beginning. Unfortunately he had the two tough injuries. Last season it was tough for him, after the World Cup it was not easy, but he is strong.
“He is a number nine for Brazil. The club brought an incredible, young player for an incredible price. One of the best signings.
“To compete with Sergio (Aguero) is maybe the most difficult thing. Sergio is a legend, an outrageous player – amazing, but Gabriel is so calm.
“He is a competitor, he accepts the decision and every training session he fights like an animal, but he is so young and can improve.”
Barcelona overcame Inter Milan in a classic game of two halves in Wednesday’s big game in the Champions League.
The visitors took an early lead through Lautaro Martinez and were deservedly ahead at the break against a ragged Barca team, but Luis Suarez bagged a brilliant brace in the second half to fire his team to three points.
The key moment came early in the second half, when Barca boss Ernesto Valverde changed the game with a bold substitution – and that kicks off our talking points from the game.
Busquets days numbered?
Barca’s improvement in this game coincided exactly with the removal of Sergio Busquets, who was replaced by Arturo Vidal early in the second half as Valverde reconfigured his midfield, positioning Frenkie de Jong and Arthur as a central double pivot while Vidal pushed on to support the attack.
The move transformed Barca. Both Arthur and de Jong looked far more comfortable and effective in their new roles, contrasting sharply with the marginal and sporadic influence they had exerted in the opening period when they were playing either side of Busquets. Vidal also made a big difference, with his more advanced position adding a new dimension to the team’s attacking play as a midfielder who was capable of getting between Inter’s lines of defence and attack.
Worryingly for Busquets, this is not the first time he has looked off the pace against top quality opposition, and since turning 30 last summer he appears to have entered an irreversible physical decline which leaves him hugely vulnerable to intense pressing. In the past, Busquets would invariably escape pressure with a clever turn or sharp pass, but now he loses possession in dangerous areas far too often. His place as an assured starter must now be under threat.
Messi back…and so is Suarez
Barca were handed a big boost before kick-off when skipper Lionel Messi was named in the starting line-up for only the second time this season. Selecting Messi to start after his injury-marred start to the campaign was clearly a risk – something manager Ernesto Valverde had regularly insisted he would avoid – but the importance of the game was such that if Messi was ready, he had to play.
Remarkably, Messi didn’t only play from the start, but he was somehow also able to play the full 90 minutes and end the game in flying form, surging forward to weave past defenders and tee up Suarez for the winner in the final stages.
Barca will have to continue to be careful with Messi’s return to action and he may need to be rested from this weekend’s meeting with Sevilla, but the international break after that game will come at a perfect time.
Suarez, meanwhile, gave the perfect riposte to the growing number of fans who doubt his suitability to continue to lead the team’s attack. The Uruguayan veteran may be past his very best and now lacks pace and finesse, but his two brilliantly taken goals show he is still a devastating finisher and worthy of his place in any team – especially when his best buddy Messi is there to find him.
Lionel Messi created more chances (6) than any other player on the pitch against Inter Milan.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 2, 2019
A delightful assist to go with it. 🎯 pic.twitter.com/Fjuyxrbsei
Inter in trouble?
Borussia Dortmund’s 2-0 victory at Slavia Prague earlier in the evening firmly piled on the pressure on those two teams ahead of the game, and the outcome of this game means the Italian team are now in trouble at the foot of the group, three points behind Barca and Dortmund.
This game left the question of how good Antonio Conte’s team really are wide open. In the first half they looked brilliant, with Diego Godin and Stefan de Vrij expertly marshalling the defence, Stefano Sensi running riot in midfield and Lautaro Martinez combining superbly with Alexis Sanchez in attack.
But Inter nosedived in the second half, finding no answer to Barca’s greater control in the centre of the field after Busquets was taken off and de Jong and Arthur repositioned. Their first half tactics of breaking sharply through the centre of the field were no longer working, and Conte appeared to have no Plan B once Barca gained control.
The team clearly has great potential and Conte is still in the early days of his managerial reign, but Inter now need some big results to overhaul Dortmund or Barca in the remaining four group games. If not, they might be forced to continue finding their feet under their new manager in the Europa League.