Real Madrid analysis: Toni Kroos control may give extra edge that enables Real Madrid to retain Champions League crown

Holders have arguably improved since last season’s victory

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The Independent Online

Having secured la decima, the next historic quest for Real Madrid is the retention of the European Cup 25 years after Milan were the last team to double up. There is added weight to the challenge since no club have won the old pot back-to-back in the Champions League era.

The 10 European Cup triumphs have become Real’s crowning achievement, the differentiator setting them apart from the rest. Milan have seven, Liverpool and Bayern Munich five, Barcelona and Ajax four, Manchester United three.

If we discount the opening tranche, won in the first five years of the event when only 16 clubs participated and Real were top-loaded with the best players from around the world, Los Blancos still boast a  formidable record. On Wednesday at Anfield we saw why they are among the favourites to win it again.

This is not the Liverpool of last season, of course. Pretentions to nobility were exposed with the streaky, last-minute win at the Premier League’s  bottom club, Queen’s Park Rangers, last Sunday. Not only is the team shorn of one of the world’s most devastating goalscorers in Luis Suarez, with his replacement, the epic show pony Mario Balotelli, Liverpool are arguably playing with 10 men.

Balotelli did not appear for the second half of Wednesday’s 3-0 defeat, the decision to hook him coming before manager Brendan Rodgers was aware he was trading shirts with the Real defender Pepe in the tunnel. Liverpool were toast by then, singed by the spread and depth of talent before them.

Cristiano Ronaldo needs no introduction. It is sufficient to recognise that he requires only one more goal to equal the competition record, 71, held by Madrid matador of old, Raul. Lionel Messi, Ronaldo’s rival for the sobriquet “best in the world”, has 69 and from fewer appearances. The debate about who eclipses whom will doubtless rage at the first clasico of the season in the Bernabeu on Saturday.

Ronaldo is supported by a cast arguably greater in potential than last year’s champions since it includes Toni Kroos, the snip of the season at £24m from Bayern Munich. The imperious German strolls about the middle of the park like a neo-Günter Netzer, his awareness of space and sense of anticipation in a league all their own.

In Wednesday’s diamond formation Luka Modric and the irrepressible Isco proved able attendants to Kroos, combining discipline, industry and art. Isco, in particular, made life miserable for the home team with his dominance of Real’s left side.

If there is a weakness in the line-up it lies at the back, both in the centre when Sergio Ramos is absent, and at left-back, where Marcelo’s love of the flying counter leaves space behind for better teams than Liverpool to exploit. Without Ramos to organise him, Pepe appears cumbersome and accident-prone, and the fading goalkeeper Iker Casillas is more exposed.

At Anfield, Real were rarely discomfited once Ronaldo had put them ahead. Even without  Ramos and Gareth Bale, Madrid were good enough to coast into a 3-0 lead by the break. They barely left second gear in the final quarter with Ronaldo already on cigar duty in the bath, soon to be joined by Kroos.

If the forum on the bus back to Lime Street is any guide the competition comes down to a three-horse-race, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich the other runners. OK, it doesn’t take a Nostradamus to come up with that list. If we look beyond them, the field is deepened with Chelsea obvious contenders, ahead of Paris Saint-German and Manchester City, if the latter ever learn how to apply themselves in this environment. 

 

Liverpool were fortunate Real eased up. Had they not had one eye on Saturday’s Barcelona engagement the visitors might have emulated the plunder elsewhere this week. Bayern’s seven-goal evisceration of Roma in the Eternal City was the standout result and suggests that at their best the Germans hold a notional edge.

The addition of Robert Lewandowski, the growing influence of World Cup final scorer Mario Götze, the maverick swagger of Thomas Müller and the continued excellence of Arjen Robben make Bayern an even more formidable foe. 

And then there is the Messi/Neymar/Suarez axis to consider at Barcelona. A potential first sighting of that mighty-three ball at the Bernabeu adds another dimension to an already fabulous encounter.

Given the skewed nature of the competition in La Liga, it is in Europe that the broader test comes for both Spanish clubs, at least when we  reach the knockout stage in February.

On Wednesday, Madrid demonstrated their readiness to make Champions League history by retaining the jug in Berlin in June. The bar is raised after Christmas but none in the game jumps higher than Ronaldo. If he stays fit, impossible is nothing, as the Greek goddess of victory might have said.

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