FOX Soccer Exclusive
Red card turns classic into milk dud
Real Madrid’s 2-1 victory over Juventus Wednesday night to cement their grip of Group B in the Champions League was a classic game of two halves. The first saw some really excellent soccer; the second was an underwhelming and scoreless mismatch. Why? Juventus were cruelly reduced to 10-men with 43 minutes still remaining. They -- and neutral fans alike -- were left the losers.
This was a shame as the game had been shaping up to be a classic. Both teams had their spells of dominance during a thrilling first period -- with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring twice and the visitors’ Fernando Llorente also on the mark -- as the play pulsed first one way then the other.
But Juve will leave the Bernabeu angry at two decisions from German referee Manuel Grafe: his award of a first half penalty was probably fair, but his red card for Giorgio Chiellini for a brush against Ronaldo was harsh in the extreme.
Chiellini’s dismissal was more than unfortunate. The game had the feel of a proper and historic Champions League night, with two of Europe’s real giants clashing. The two had notably tangled before, Madrid’s 1997 final win top of everyone's mind. And the 80,000 fans inside the stadium -- including a noisy 6,000 or so traveling contingent -- expected an epic clash. What they got was half a match.
The game had barely begun when Madrid were ahead -- Ronaldo going around Gianluigi Buffon and finishing expertly from a tight angle -- after a neat Angel di Maria pass had split a dozy offside trap. The finish from the Portuguese attacker was excellent, while di Maria had again shown how important he must be for coach Carlo Ancelotti, even when Gareth Bale is fully fit.
The defending Serie A champions were not rattled however, and soon settled into the game, with young French midfielder Paul Pogba and the older Argentine forward Carlos Tevez very involved and impressive. With the visitors peppering Iker Casillas’ goal with shots the equalizer was no surprise. Casillas got a hand to Pogba’s header, but Llorente -- who hinted this week he was close to joining Madrid instead of Juve last summer -- knocked in the rebound.
At this point, Juve looked much the better side, but the awful defending which had seen them blow a 2-0 lead to lose 4-2 last weekend at Fiorentina resurfaced, as Italian international defender Chiellini tried a crafty tug on Sergio Ramos’ jersey inside the area. Grafe appeared not to notice at first, but amid a huge roar from the home fans he pointed to the spot. Juve’s players were outraged for naught, and Ronaldo converted emphatically.
The game shifted again, with Madrid now taking control. Luka Modric was doing very well in midfield, mixing short and long passes to ensure his team kept the ball and pushed Juve back.
The Croatian outperformed Andrea Pirlo, who was being well closed down by a noticeably hardworking Karim Benzema. Ronaldo was also spotted back in his own half helping out. Madrid’s hard work was clogging the Juve gears, but the game remained wide open at the half.
And that’s why hopes were so high after the restart, and the fans seemed to rewarded when Juve immediately went on the attack. They, and their fans, were soon left reeling. Chiellini did put a hand across Ronaldo’s body as the pair chased a long ball, but the reaction was far too dramatic. Even the supposed victim in the incident must have been surprised when Grafe brandished a straight red card.
That more or less did for the game as a contest. Anrtonio Conte made a few switches to try and do something with just 10-men, but his decision to withdraw Pirlo on the 57th minute signaled he thought the game was likely up. Madrid also seemed to think they’d already done enough, and the game’s pace fell away completely -- with a quiet lull descending on the stadium.
This gave time for Madrid’s fans to debate among themselves what they thought of Benzema, clearly still lacking confidence in front of goal. The French striker would spoon one wide when it seemed easier to score, and the crowd began to whistle the unfortunate forward, causing the other half to try and lift his spirits with supportive applause.
Ancelotti used the final stages to give another run out to Gareth Bale -- who was not too involved in his 20 odd minutes on the pitch. Bale still looks tentative as if not trusting his own match fitness.
The result leaves Madrid already set well for the group stages and a seeding in the last 16. Juve may now need to win all three of their remaining games to progress -- including when these two teams meet again in Turin in two weeks time. The Old Lady will be looking for a bit more care from the referee. And, of course, for revenge.
More Stories From Dermot Corrigan