The fans in the Bernabeu may have given in to the odd bout of impatient whistling, the home defence may have been exposed with worryingly familiar frequency and Ruud van Nistelrooy may have spurned a hatful of chances before notching the goal that proved to be the winner, but there was enough in Real Madrid’s 2-1 win over Werder Bremen in the Champions League on Tuesday night to suggest that Bernd Schuster’s post-Capello revolution is well underway.

Mindful of the Madridistas’ disdainful attitude towards the defensive tactics of his predecessor, Schuster arrived at the Bernabeu promising to create a team capable of a brand of fluid, attacking football more in keeping with the traditions of Puskas, Gento, Di Stefano and co.

The key difference against Bremen was one of shape. Whereas Capello favoured a 4-2-3-1 with Diarra and Emerson (who has now been shipped off to Milan) protecting the back four and van Nistelrooy ploughing a lone furrow up front, Schuster fielded a 4-1-3-2, with Fernando Gago the sole holding midfielder, Raul alongside van Nistelrooy up front, Wesley Schneijder and Gonzalo Higuain attacking from the flanks, and Guti setting the pace in the middle.

The tactical shift made for more cohesive use of the ball in the final third, with Schneijder, Guti and Higuain linking up well with Raul to provide chances for van Nistelrooy. Raul seems to relish being restored to the role of centre forward, and he turned in a tigrish, industrious performance illuminated by some wonderful touches.

Playing with no less than three attacking midfielders enabled Madrid to introduce all manner of different patterns to their play, and with Bremen’s central defenders and central midfielders preoccupied, there was plenty of room on the flanks for full-backs Sergio Ramos and the impressive Brazilian Marcelo to exploit.

Typically, Madrid were often caught short at the back, and with the impish, artful Diego prompting in midfield, Bremen went close on occasion. But then, that is the beauty of Madrid, as it is with Brazil. They exist to play attacking football, and when it clicks – as it did on occasion here – it is wonderful to behold.

And with Diarra, Gabriel Heinze, Royston Drenthe, Arjen Robben, Julio Baptista, Robinho and Javier Saviola also in the squad, this might just be the season that Madrid add another European Cup to the nine they have already won in such sparkling style.

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The dust has settled, the hype has abated, and United have once again been found wanting in the Champions League.

But before we begin to assess the reasons for this failure, it should be noted that United were eliminated by an AC Milan team Back to the tactics board...playing at the peak of their organisational and expressive powers.

Fatigue was obviously a factor, as was the lack of no less than three first-choice defenders. No matter how dangerous your attack, no team can be expected to win when confusion reigns supreme in the back four. Gabriel Heinze’s erratic performance was particularly disappointing, but sadly not without precedent this season.

I think Fergie missed a trick with his tactics. 4-3-2-1, with a three-man midfield shield, looks solid enough on paper, but last night it succeeded only in inviting Milan to set up camp within striking distance of the perilously nervous United defence.

The 4-2-3-1 – a subtle but nonetheless significant variation – would have allowed United to take the game to Milan and peg them back in their own half. It was, after all, the formation that bewildered Roma so unforgettably in the second leg of the quarter-final, and it is the shape that has yielded United’s finest football in the last few weeks.

A 4-2-3-1 with Smith or Saha at its head allows Rooney to come deep in search of the ball, and doesn’t put him under the pressure of being the team’s only nominated centre forward. The World Cup demonstrated that he simply cannot lead the line on his own.

On Wednesday night Rooney struggled with the burden of the lone striker, and as he, Ronaldo and Giggs found themselves outnumbered, the Milan defence was able to step up and push them back towards the three men behind them who, in spite of their number, were unable to get to grips with Kaka’s movement and Seedorf’s subtlety.

Rafa Benitez has demonstrated on at least two occasions this season that when it comes to playing away from home in Europe, attack really is the best form of defence. As such, he fielded an attacking 4-4-2 against both PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona, and this tactic was only negated in the away leg of the semi-final against Chelsea by a similarly bold performance from the home side.

It is this unique understanding of the demands of European football that currently puts Benitez above Ferguson and Mourinho when it comes to the Champions League.

Fergie may claim to favour attacking, expansive football – and the heights United’s football has reached at times this season certainly bears testament to that – but in the big European games a natural (and understandable) tendency towards conservatism costs him dearly.

United's match-winner Wayne Rooney tussles with Alessandro NestaAnother memorable European night at Old Trafford, and another impressive performance by United, particularly in the second half. 

This compilation sums thing up nicely. Good to see a YouTube video put together with a bit of finesse. 

With Milan 2-1 up and apparently in control, I began to fear that United hadn’t learnt anything from the lesson Milan so coldly and ruthlessly taught them in 2005. 

But the sustained intensity of their attacking play was a fine thing to behold, and with all the pre-match focus on Cristiano Ronaldo, it was perhaps inevitable that Rooney would prove to be the match-winner. 

His first goal owed a lot to Scholes’s sublime scooped through ball, but he nonetheless showed commendable strength and composure to hold off Nesta’s challenge and push the ball past Dida. 

The winning goal showcased Rooney at his instinctive best, firing home first-time before Dida had had a chance to set himself. The celebration showed how much it meant to him. No open-mouthed fist-pumping here. Instead, having slid into the corner on his knees he turned around, put his head in his hands and sunk to the ground. This – you realised – was a goal he will cherish forever. 

In spite of United’s stellar season, Rooney hasn’t been on top form (although his 23 goals this season represent his best scoring figures to date). He’s drifted in and out of games, and his temperament continues to let him down. 

But by rising to the occasion in such spectacular fashion last night, he suggested he is learning to ally patience and perseverance to his already formidable talents.

United goal-scorers Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Smith celebrate Great matches change football, and United’s stunning 7-1 victory over Roma last night certainly did.

The bar has suddenly been raised. Not since their 5-1 demolition of Benfica in 1966 have United hit such stellar heights in Europe, and only Arsenal’s 5-1 victory over Inter Milan in the San Siro in November 2003 bears comparison in recent history, and that was in the group stages.

This was a quarter-final against the second best team in Italy. And from a team shorn of no less than five first-team regulars, coming off the back of two gruelling 2-1 defeats.

Needless to say, it was an absolutely incredible performance. A finer display of pacy, free-flowing football you could not wish to see in any competition in any country in the world.

The promise of a final showdown with Chelsea or Liverpool (if, of course, Bayern Munich or AC Milan can be safely circumnavigated en route) is tantalising in the extreme. Will there have ever been a bigger game in the history of English club football?

Improbable thought it may have seemed at the beginning of the season, this might just turn out to be the greatest season in United’s history. If only Chelsea would stop fluking winning goals in injury time…

Portsmouth party-poopersSo the title race has been “blown wide open”. Ah well. Not much point having a six-point gap if you’re not going to use it.

It’s hardly surprising though. Last season United had a pretty dismal season, and yet, one Michael Carrick and a fit-again Paul Scholes later, and they’re leading the Premiership, in the semi-finals of the Cup and gunning for the semi-finals of the Champions League.

The simple fact is that the United squad isn’t strong enough to challenge for honours on three fronts. The subs bench boasts reliable reserves like John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher, but no-one who can come on and change the game single-handedly.

Every game between now and the end of the season is a must-win, and any United fan who thought they had an easy run-in might be forced to reconsider once away trips to Everton, City and Chelsea are taken into account.

It may be sacrilegious, but as a United fan I would sacrifice our participation in the Champions League if it would guarantee us the Premiership. Of course we want to win as many trophies as possible, but with the squad stretched as thinly as it is, the league has to be the priority.

England expects…

March 8 2007

The top teams in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Scotland and Spain have all now been eliminated from the Champions League.

Germany’s highest representatives are fourth-placed Bayern Munich. Spain’s leading team is third-placed Valencia. Roma fly the flag for Italy, despite being sixteen points behind runaway Serie A leaders Inter Milan.

England, by contrast, are represented by the top three teams in the Premiership. What price an all-English final now

Champions League quarter-finalists:

AC Milan (6th in Serie A)
Bayern Munich (4th in the Bundesliga)
Chelsea (2nd in the Premiership)
Liverpool (3rd in the Premiership)
Manchester United (1st in the Premiership)
PSV Eindhoven (1st in the Eredivisie)
Roma (2nd in Serie A)
Valencia (3rd in the Primera Liga)

Advantage Liverpool

February 22 2007

John Arne Riise celebrates his goal against Barcelona in last night's Champions League gameBarcelona 1-2 Liverpool. It sticks in the throat a bit, but I thought Liverpool were excellent last night.

The absence of a real, defence-stretching frontman in the Barca team meant they were forced to field a more compact team than they would prefer to, and Benitez robbed Deco, Messi and Ronaldinho of the space on which they thrive by packing the midfield with Sissoko, Alonso and Gerrard. It enabled Liverpool to play a classic counter-attacking game, and even though Barcelona just shaded possession, there wasn’t much between the teams in terms of shots on goal.

The lack of space in front of the Liverpool back four frustrated Barca’s attackers, and the persistent harrying of the Barca defence by Bellamy and Kuyt meant that the Catalans were frequently hurried out of their usual passing game. As a consequence Barca began to look ragged, but Liverpool retained commendable caution by sitting back and trying to pick them off on the break.

Before the game I thought the Liverpool team looked a little unbalanced with a left midfielder (Riise) and a centre forward (Bellamy) on the left, and two right-backs (Arbeloa and Finnan) on the right, but Riise and Bellamy did a great job of shackling Messi, and both Liverpool’s goals came from attacks down the right.

Frank Rijkaard’s post-match comments will not inspire much confidence in the Barca faithful: “We must always be positive, but we have to be realistic. It will be difficult to make a comeback.”

Hardly Churchillian, but it demonstrates the unyielding pragmatism of many European clubs. The never-say-die attitude synonymous with British football is something that a lot of Spanish and Italian teams just do not understand, but it’s looking stronger than ever in this season’s Champions League.