Smells like team spirit for Madrid

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

"There are very few heads who are committed and concentrated, and who have football as the priority in their lives. When you don't have people who are committed, it's tough." - Jose Mourinho after Madrid's 1-0 loss at Sevilla.

All the talk before Real Madrid's Champions League opener against Manchester City at the Bernabeu on Tuesday night was that of the spirit in the camp of the Spanish champions -- or the lack of it. Just four points from a possible 12 in their opening four La Liga fixtures, leaving them eight points behind title rivals Barcelona already. Cristiano Ronaldo revealing he was "sad" following two goals in the team's only league win of the season so far against Granada, and Madrid-based journalists putting Mourinho firmly in the firing line at such an early stage of the season.

All was not right at the Bernabeu, and Roberto Mancini probably couldn't have been taking his Premier League champions to the Spanish capital at a better time. Los Blancos were there for the taking, apparently.

So how about coming from behind twice against England's big-spending champions to secure a thrilling victory and secure three points in their first game of this season's Champions League? The start of the search, again, for their tenth European crown.

How's that for team spirit?

How about Ronaldo, the former Manchester United man, scoring the winner late on and celebrating with fists pumping and a smile, yes, a smile, clearly visible on his face. Did Cristiano enjoy that? Is all well for the Portuguese superstar once again in the all white of Madrid? Possibly.

Mourinho is the master of psychological mind games in football management. Whether that be against his enemies, or in confidence building, and shielding criticism, for his players. Heck, even Pep Guardiola, his great nemesis at Barcelona, infamously admitted that.

Did his post-Sevilla comments act as a big boost for his troops just when they needed it most? It certainly looks that way.

However, it could have so easily have been different.

Madrid had dominated large chunks of possession. They'd created the pick of the chances and found City goalkeeper Joe Hart in top form. They came up against a City side who clearly came to stop Madrid playing first and hit them on the break, and who could fault them? It was the first game of the Champions League, away against one of the favourites for the competition. A point would have been great for Mancini's men, and they set-up that way.

They set up to hit on the break, to try and sneak a goal. Job done, for 90 per cent of the game. Goals from Edin Dzeko and then Aleksandar Kolarov had twice put the visitors ahead and seemingly heading for a shock three points before Karim Benzema and then Ronaldo, who else, ensured those points remained at the Bernabeu.

It was only the first game of the group stages. Important, of course, especially in the so-called Group of Death. But just how important to Mourinho and his men in the long-term? Very, if the Special One's celebration for the winner is anything to go by. We've seen Mourinho do it before, namely when managing Porto to victory at Old Trafford and when he guided his Chelsea side to victory over Barcelona. Big, important matches. This one was too, seemingly.

Mourinho was well aware of the early-season problems his Madrid side had been encountering going into the match and he made changes accordingly. Big ones, relatively speaking.

Sergio Ramos out, for technical reasons and not for a pre-match argument, according to Mourinho in his post-match press conference. In came youngster Raphael Varane -- a big talent, but lacking in big-match experience. Mesut Ozil, Luka Modric and Kaka, all among the world's best attacking midfielders, were on the bench at the start, with Michael Essien, now notably a defensive midfielder, taking turns with Sami Khedira in that attacking role behind the forwards.

That line-up, a seemingly 4-3-3 approach with one of Essien, Khedira and Alonso taking turns in moving up to support the attacking line, looked to counter City's midfield three of Gareth Barry, Yaya Toure and Javi Garcia. Stalemate ensued for the best part of 70 minutes, with Madrid knocking on the City door but seemingly unable to find the key.

The change was triggered by Mancini, ironically, bringing target man Dzeko on and allowing Mourinho to add extra flair to his line-up with the addition of Ozil for Essien, who did well in his role but just isn't capable of the same creativity the German can produce. First blood to City and first blood to Mancini as Dzeko scores the opener on the break.

It resulted in Mourinho going for it, Karim Benzema and Modric both being thrown on and, eventually, being key in Madrid's win. Marcelo, able to enjoy a superb game thanks to City's inability to attack down the wings, and hence attack Madrid's weakness in the Brazilian's defensive frailties, leveled. Kolarov's swinging free-kick evaded everyone, including Iker Casillas, to end up in the back of the net.

But Madrid went some way to proving their recent doubters wrong with a stirring and spirited comeback. Benzema with a superb individual goal, which in turn should see him thrown straight into the starting eleven for the next league match, and Ronaldo putting a smile back on his, and the Madrid fans', faces with the late winner.

It was a great opening to the Champions League, entertainment wise and results-wise for Madrid, and the importance of the win can't be underestimated. Los Blancos desperately need to kick-start their season before it's too late and Tuesday night's result against City could do just that. Fine lines were the difference, but when two top-class teams are going head-to-head fine lines is usually all it takes.

It's a start for Los Blancos, but Madrid fans will be hoping it's not another false one. Their Super Copa victory against Barcelona looked set to put them back on the right track before they derailed again against Sevilla at the weekend. Now Mourinho and his men need to kick-on from this victory and back it up in emphatic fashion in their up-coming La Liga matches, especially with El Clasico just a matter of weeks away.

That tremendous record of being unbeaten in all of their opening Champions League matches at the Bernabeu, in all formats of the competition remains intact, and the dream of La Decima, although in its early stages, is still very much alive.

Follow me on Twitter @nicholasrigg

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