Moscow awakens nostalgia for Cristiano Ronaldo
The game began with a colossal error from Toni Kroos, who sloppily knocked a ball back towards his own area. CSKA forward Nikola Vlasic (incidentally, the brother of champion high-jumper Blanka), saw what was coming, threw himself into the breach, pinched the ball just before Raphael Varane arrived, skipped past the Frenchman and stroked the ball past Keylor Navas and into the corner. The clock read 65 seconds. That early advantage allowed CSKA to do what they did: shut up shop and leave Real Madrid with possession of the ball and the pitch. And it has to be said they defended well, initially with a line of six and later with five, all impeccable in their concentration, sacrifice, spirit and team ethic.
That is what Madrid found themselves up against, and they spent the evening rowing against the tide: Probing the flanks, manoeuvring through the middle, sending in free kicks in a futile search for a goal that didn’t arrive. But the way was firmly blocked. And in attack, when corners and free-kicks arrived, there was no Gareth Bale and no Sergio Ramos to aim at. And, of course, the absence of a certain Portuguese. Still, Madrid came close, hitting the post twice in the first half, through a cracking shot from Casemiro and a fine header from Karim Benzema. Julen Lopetegui changed things up after the break, sending on Mariano and Luka Modric for Lucas Vázquez and Casemiro. The side redoubled their efforts, pressured the hosts and were on the whole more energetic than in the first half but the net return was another piece of woodwork rattled, off the head of Mariano.
Madrid have now gone three games without a goal, something that last occurred in 2007, during Fabio Capello’s second stint at the Bernabéu. The mitigating factor on this occasion is that at least the woodwork was given a good workout. And although the result was a slap in the face, nobody truly believes that progression from the group stage is in doubt. Moscow did though of course invoke a strong nostalgia for Cristiano Ronaldo, who used to make the difference in these kinds of European encounters. Every season, Real’s erstwhile number seven would score a hatful of goals in this competition. He holds the record for Champions League goals in a season with 17 and scored 15 in his last campaign in Madrid. The idea that the collective approach and the goals scored by Benzema and Bale would cover for Ronaldo’s absence now doesn’t carry quite as much weight.