It’s fitting, really, that Real Madrid’s famous home kits are all white with black trim. They are the Stormtroopers of the footballing Galactic Empire, a monied juggernaught steamrolling all in their path, their unfashionable grey kit in this match a visual marker of the Imperial Star Destroyers. This was the Battle of the forest moon of Yavin IV had it happened in real life. Roma played the part of the Ewoks.
After the opening exchanges, tentative pokes at each other, it became clear that Roma would struggle. In the first few minutes they pressed, gently, high up the pitch, keeping the ball with the Madrid centre-backs. Their forwards, Salah and El Shaarawy, covered Madrid’s full-backs.
Unfortunately, it soon appeared that this was the only area that Roma could contain their opposition competently. They seemed to have two settings, an organised team shape with the ball at Madrid’s very back; or compact in their own third. It was as if the coaching staff had lost the tactics sheet on how to defend the midfield on the way to the stadium. This was exhibited so well that it could have been scripted in the 33rd minute, Roma’s seemingly good defensive system undone in a single pass by Ramos to Ronaldo cutting straight through the middle third.
Madrid, when they had to, pressed more aggressively. Kroos charged down players and balls in midfield; James Rodriguez, at one point, closed down Roma centre-back Antonio Rudiger within fifteen yards of the defender’s byline with Karim Benzema just close by to prevent an escape pass to the keeper. It was a force choke.
The touch and movement of the Real Madrid players, particularly in midfield, was the difference between the sides. Roma did have sequences where they passed around and through the Madrid line but often a miscontrol let them down. Their primary, if not only, offensive tactic also hindered them. There is only so much that giving the ball to Salah to run very fast with can do, and while Madrid’s attackers were often high up the pitch, their defenders were generally fairly deep, and quick to boot.
The best chance of the first half was also the most joyous of the match. Ronaldo, standing up Pjanic and Roma right-back and captain Florenzi, scooped the ball over them on the left side of the box, Marcelo meeting it with a dipping volley that only just went wide of the right post. He smiled, I smiled, briefly forgetting that this was the tyrannical leather fist of Vader et al at work.
Ronaldo acts as a magnificent Anakin Skywalker. Stroppy but handsome, the poster boy of the dark side, their cry-acting propagandist. It was he who scored the first goal too, ‘doing a Roma’ (ie running fast, on his own) down the left hand side before chopping onto his right foot and getting a deflection off Florenzi, looping the ball into the top right of the net.
My description of ‘doing a Roma’ is sadly accurate. They were incredibly one-dimensional in attack, all of their runs in one straight line directly forwards a la a child on FIFA. Occasionally they got in positions for cut-backs but there were always too many Madrid defenders around, ready to clear the ball fairly easily.
Their best chances was a shot from Vainqueur in the 72nd minute, teed up at a nice height by Dzeko (subbed on for El Shaarawy ten minutes previously), but it went wide. Eight minutes later they had a soft penalty shout, a Carvajal tackle coming in on Florenzi as the Roma full-back got a shot away.
Roma’s defensive frailties spread to their back line in the latter part of the second half though, James getting a completely free header from a standing start in the 78th minute. Less than 10 minutes later, Madrid substitute Jesé scored the second, driving through a nonexistent Roma midfield on the right before shooting low just inside the box into the bottom left-hand corner. Both goals had a degree of slim margins, but were the match played the same way on another day they would almost certainly have won every time.
[FT: Roma 0; Real Madrid 2 (Ronaldo 57′, Jesé 86′)]