Nervous finish as Real hangs on in Granada

Posted by Rob Train

The old adage that football is a game of two halves is a suitable one to describe Real Madrid's stuttering 1-0 victory in Granada Monday. The video of the second half, when Real wasn't so much pedestrian as waiting for the lights to change, will certainly be the one Carlo Ancelotti and his staff will be poring over Tuesday morning.

The Italian opted for Luka Modric and Isco in the center of park, in an attempt to control possession. It was a bit of a gamble against a team that has goals in it -- the Croatian is no anchorman -- and Real was very nearly made to pay as Ancelotti's side disintegrated after half-time.

A timely intervention from Pepe and the outstretched fist of Diego Lopez prevented an equalizer late on, but the home side can feel rightly aggrieved that it was not awarded a penalty when Casemiro brought Diego Buonanotte down at the tail end of the match.

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There were signs that Real is starting to function early on as Ancelotti opted for the old guard in attack. Angel di Maria was full of running and Mesut Ozil was at his impish best as Real moved the ball around crisply. Cristiano Ronaldo and Isco, too, showed more signs a profitable understanding is developing between them.

Karim Benzema provided the only goal, latching onto a cross from the Argentine winger that fell kindly at his feet when Ronaldo miscontrolled in the area. Ozil and di Maria combined from a free kick, but the ball was still rolling when the latter put the German clean through on Roberto, giving the referee little choice but to disallow the goal.

On the bright side for Ancelotti, at least he avoided the pitfall that Real Madrid didn't last season in Andalusia, where they lost four of five matches. But there were more negatives than positives in Real's overall performance.

Chief among these were Ancelotti's substitutions. A goal to the good, away from home granted, but against an opponent thrown together for roughly the annual wage of Ronaldo should not provoke a rear-guard action worthy of the darkest days of Catenaccio.

Nacho came on to replace Marcelo in the Italian's first defensive alteration, the canterano not being quite as eager to go charging down the wing as the Brazilian. But Marcelo was arguably Real's brightest spark in its opening match against Betis, and this, combined with the removal of Ozil for Casemiro, handed the initiative to the home side as Real ran out of ideas in the second half.

With his back line as shaky as it currently is the best form of defense is to not invite the opposition onto the offensive. Few Real fans will have been happy to see six defensive players on the field at the final whistle. Florentino Perez is certainly not a man who enjoys a retreat of these dimensions.

The severing of ties with the front line reduced Ronaldo to pot shots and Benzema to a handsomely paid spectator, although Real did go close through the Portuguese and Isco, who carved out chances for themselves in the absence of any coherent link-up play. There is still a lot of work for Ancelotti, Zinedine Zidane and Paul Clement to do, but of course there remains the question of who they will have at their disposal to do it with.

Only Ronaldo among the starting attacking unit is not the subject of some kind of pursuit or other, unless Arsenal's Arsene Wenger and his rather naively publicized pots of cash know something the rest of us don't. Benzema and di Maria are coveted by the Arsenal manager and Ozil is apparently exciting the interest of Manchester United. It would be suicide to part with the Frenchman, of course, unless someone else is in the frame to replace him, but Luis Suarez looks increasingly likely to stay at Liverpool.

The thunderous look on Ozil's face as he stalked straight down the tunnel after a second substitution in as many games suggests he might look favorably on the idea. Even Modric is not entirely assured of being in a Real shirt in a week's time.

In the meantime, the tedious Gareth Bale saga took a new twist this week when he arrived in Spain to considerable media interest, only to return to London and a presumably frosty reception at Spurs' Enfield training ground, amid reports of a counter bid for the Welshman.

But as another old saying goes, you can only beat what's put in front of you, and Ancelotti can only use what he has at his disposal to achieve that. On the evidence of Real's labored victory Monday, the return to fitness of Asier Illarramendi and Sami Khedira cannot come soon enough.


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