I really hate these Tuesday Champions League fixtures. I know, Spurs fans should be happy just to make Champions League once, but I'm serious. The Tuesday games just sneak right up on me, as a writer who covers European football. The weekend is over, I'm in my normal Monday mood of looking for news stories, and then BOOM. It hits me. I have to write about the Champions League?!? But the weekend just ended! So, thus, we turn our attention to the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal tie between Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur at the Santiago Bernabeu.
First up, injury news. Aaron Lennon is fit and will almost certainly start. Gareth Bale is fit and will probably start. William Gallas, despite fitness concerns, has traveled with the team. I assume that if Gallas is able to walk, Harry Redknapp will throw him into the lineup over Sebastien Bassong. Steven Pienaar is hurt, but thankfully he chose the game where Bale and Lennon came back to go and hurt himself. Tom Huddlestone has played in a reserve match and made it through unscathed, in addition to the fact that he was on the bench against Wigan, but I can't find any news about whether or not he has any chance to make the 18. Regardless, it seems highly unlikely that he will start. More on that later.
Madrid also have some injury problems, but it seems like a lot of them had more to do with Jose Mourinho playing mind games than they had to do with actual injuries. Cristiano Ronaldo will make the 18, and I assume that if he's fit enough to make the 18, he's fit enough to start. Karim Benzema is definitely out, while it would be surprising to see any of the borderline fit players like Angel Di Maria, Marcelo, and Gonzalo Higuain make starts.
Real Madrid play a 4-2-3-1 system that features a deep lying player (Xabi Alonso) paired in the center of midfield with a crazy workhorse who runs everywhere and basically sprints flat out for 90 minutes (Lassana Diarra or Sami Khedira). These guys are good enough that they can outplay a lot of three man midfields. Ronaldo, Mesut Özil, and (usually) Di Maria usually act as a free flowing band of three that all have minimal defensive responsibility. If Di Maria is out, Esteban Granero is likely to take his place. Özil ends up being more of a trequarista for Madrid than the tip of the midfield three player that he is for Germany, so it's a slightly different kind of 4-2-3-1, simply due to Özil's advanced position and lessened defensive responsibilities.
Obviously, Ronaldo is one of the best players in the world, while Higuain is a key cog and Özil has gotten a lot of attention lately. In all of the discussion around these three players, it's easy to forget how hyped up Alonso was before his arrival, and how quickly he's gone back to being under-appreciated. In his Liverpool days, the likes of Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, and even Javier Mascherano were higher profile. Then, when Real Madrid started building the second generation of the modern Galacticos, they set their sights on Alonso. The likes of Ronaldo, Benzema, and Kaka stated to the press that if they failed to obtain Alonso, all of their signings would have been in vain. He was called the final piece to the puzzle; the man who would make Madrid go. And as a result, Madrid paid up.
Alonso moved from Liverpool to Madrid for £30m in a move that proved to be the beginning of the end of the Rafael Benitez era at Liverpool. He made a series of poor buys and poor team selections over his time that eventually led to Liverpool finishing outside of the top four and him getting fired, but Alonso's loss was the straw that broke the camel's back.
This weekend, Alonso was suspended for Madrid's match against Sporting Gijon. Obviously, absence of Ronaldo was probably an even bigger problem, but the lack of creativity in the midfield was apparent. Lass and Khedira showed off their athleticism and work rate as always, but creativity was absent in the middle. As a result, Los Blancos struggled to create scoring chances. Ultimately, a giveaway in midfield led to Gijon's winner. A giveaway Alonso never would have made.
So, why all the time focusing on Xabi Alonso? Simply, it's not an accident that Real look poor when he's not in the side. It's not an accident that he has a World Cup and a Champions League winners medal. But, at the same time, he is a player whose influence can be minimized by intelligent tactical decisions and tough matchups. Sure, good tactics and good players can make a difference against Ronaldo, but he's Ronaldo. If he's on his A game, he's going to rip anyone apart. It's hardly worth focusing on him when writing about a match. If he is focused and fit, he can rip anyone apart. A focused and fit Alonso can be contained.
Simply, this is where Harry Redknapp's focus needs to be. We know how we need to attack. Quickly, and down the flanks. If Arbeloa plays, he doesn't have the physical talent to hang with Lennon. If Marcelo plays, he's going to cheat on defense. Sergio Ramos is in the Maicon and Daniel Alves category for talent on the other side, but his tendency to cheat on defense is part of what allowed Sporting Gijon to score their winner this weekend. If Spurs are going to going to get a good result at the Bernabeu, they need to attack quickly and directly through those players.
Then, the focus is on the center of pitch when defending and in transition, and finding an answer for most importantly Alonso's creativity and passing ability, but also the work rate and athleticism of Lass/Khedira, as well as the great skill of Özil. Direct will likely be the name of the game going forward, so I assume Crouch will start up top. We need some playmaking ability in the center, so at least one of Luka Modric or Rafael van der Vaart has to start. Injuries might force Harry to start both, as we know Sandro will start, while Wilson Palacios is injured. If he wasn't, I'd advocate using Luka as a super sub and playing a double pivot. So, it seems like two defensive midfielders is not an option. Additionally, it would give us a lack of creativity, which might be a problem, even if we were going to play a direct style. But, there is a wildcard in the deck that can change everything.
That wildcard is Tom Huddlestone. Now, I'm not saying that a 90 minutes fit Huddlestone in the lineup makes us anything more than large underdogs, but it does increase our chances considerably. I have a giant mancrush on Luka, but let's be honest with ourselves: That crazy box-to-box tackling demon performance last season against Chelsea was NOT indicative of his abilities as a defensive player. That was a ridonkulous outlier of a performance that we might see once again, EVER, from Luka, as amazing of a player as he is. If we play someone like Palacios in his place, we suddenly have a guy who can't pass in the midfield, which is always a bad thing. But Big Tom is like the Michael Jordan of compromises, because he isn't even really a compromise.
Big Tom has the size and tackling ability of Sandro, combined with 90% of the passing ability and creativity of Modric. He's exactly the player that we need against a team like Madrid. It's terribly obvious. So terribly obvious, in fact, that I think Harry Redknapp has probably figured it out. Madrid are a better team than us, but with a midfield of Huddlestone, Sandro, and van der Vaart, we can do this. I believe in that midfield. I don't think I can bring myself to believe in a team selection that doesn't include Huddlestone. Before he got hurt this year, he was our Alonso + five inches and 40 pounds. We need him in there.
Or else, the dream is over, in my opinion. It seems like serious hyperbole to put all of our hopes on one player, but this is Real Madrid. This is Jose Mourinho. This is a team who can put out a starting XI of guys who are all not only full internationals, but guys who were excellent in the last World Cup. No matter the team selection tomorrow, I'll be cheering our boys on and yelling at the television, but there's no harm in admitting we need all the help we can get. We're the underdogs, but you know what? We like it that way. Let's hope the improbable happens again.