Xabi’s foresight, Madrid’s gain

Wednesday’s captivating draw 2-2 draw in Turin may have effectively sealed Real Madrid’s qualification for the knockout stages of this year’s Champions League, but there was a moment in the game that may be of far greater significance over the course of Los Merengues’ season.

After Gareth Bale had given the visitors the lead in the 60th minute, the cameras panned away from the celebrating mob of Madrid players to the touchline. There, Xabi Alonso wore a look of pained exasperation as he attempted to convey a rather urgent message to Coach Carlo Ancelotti. It hardly takes a genius to work out the nature of the conversation. Something along the lines of ‘I need help’ or ‘tell them I can’t do everything’. Unfortunately it seems the Coach failed to act quickly enough. Juve were level within five minutes.

Alonso’s return on Wednesday served to highlight a number of inherent flaws in the team setup this campaign. Madrid’s attacking options are such that one would encourage them to play to their strengths, yet in Turin, they were far too open – the concept of team shape once again being flung out the window to accommodate the gifts of their most gilded talents.

For a player just returning from injury, Alonso’s performance was immense in midweek. The player attempted just 43 passes in his 70 minutes on the pitch, but it was in his defensive capacity he showed his true value to the team. He rarely strayed from in front of the back four and sought to exert pressure on Juve’s main sources of creativity, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo. In so doing, he clearly frustrated the normally placid Italian, who was booked in the second half for a crude tackle as the pair clashed in midfield.

It is not a stretch to say that Madrid have been hopelessly vulnerable whenever they have lost possession this season. On Wednesday, we witnessed the re-emergence of a player who may just be able to cajole the side away from a self-indulgence that, while frequently thrilling, is likely to leave them empty handed at the end of the season.

Ancelotti is nothing if not a pragmatist, and while he likes his sides to play good football, one suspects he has garnered little enjoyment from the circus he has witnessed to date. His side has been extremely fortunate to claim victories against inferior opposition so far this campaign. The abdication from defensive responsibilities by many of his charges has undermined his fledgling project almost at every turn. Just two clean sheets this term in La Liga tells its own story.

As Ancelotti will be acutely aware, a consequence of such defensive negligence is that Madrid’s position is now so precarious that a couple more poor results will effectively see them out of the title race by Christmas. In that context, the reckless abandon with which they are playing feels increasingly like a game of Russian roulette every time they take the field.

Alonso’s urgency in conveying the message to the manager at what was a crucial time in the game would suggest that he too realises the current approach is unsustainable. From his vantage point, there was little point in celebrating.

And yet for all the side’s ills, Alonso’s return has the potential to offer Madrid exactly what they have been missing this season. Discipline, hard work and team shape should hardly be foreign concepts to elite players, yet somewhere along the way Madrid’s stars appear to have forgotten that there are in fact two sets of goalposts on the pitch.

Ancelotti will be hoping that more of Alonso’s teammates can adapt quickly to the virtues displayed by the midfielder on Wednesday night. For the sake of Madrid’s season and the Coach’s future, they simply must.

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