Real Madrid save it at the death, to prevent defeat, but can’t prevent the sense of a dying era.
Zinedine Zidane’s side showed their resolve to come back from 2-0 down with three minutes of normal time to go and draw 2-2 away to Borussia Monchengladbach, but the reasons they were behind in the first place should set off alarms.
The warnings have been coming for some time, and are now arriving faster than bursts from the brilliant Marcus Thuram, who scored twice.
That means the urgency of this result should not be overlooked, either. Madrid were mere minutes from being in real trouble in the Champions League group stages and likely endangering Zidane’s job. This late salvo – by the peerless Karim Benzema, and then Casemiro – kept them alive, and maybe kept the French legend in the role.
This game itself felt a juncture in football in another sense. Marco Rose’s Gladbach illustrated the most modern football style, all pressing and sharp lines. It has so many strengths, but requires a few compromises that became apparent in this game.
It just took Madrid a long time to exploit them. They will badly need to sharpen up to get through this group.
One of the characteristics of Zidane’s side – for better and worse, both of which we saw in this game – has been psychological management more than anything else. He has facilitated and nuanced the team’s talents rather than fiercely imposing an identity.
It has meant that Madrid can be a “vibes” team – when the mindset is good, they can be exceptional; when things go against them, they can struggle more than you might expect.
So it was that, as if emboldened by their win in the Clasico, they started fairly well. They looked solid and were creating some chances, most notably when Karim Benzema struck wide.
It was just that, after a while, those attacks began to look a bit too similar and a bit too pedestrian. Madrid were just constantly playing it out to the flanks, for one of the wide players to hit a predictable cross.
It meant that early confidence began to dissipate, and they soon ran out of momentum, energy and ideas.
This was a problem, and initially a big difference between the teams.
Gladbach have a much better, much more modern idea of football.
It was against this slow-moving mass that the German side looked all the sharper. Madrid just couldn’t handle their bursts and thrusts.
It was as if they didn’t know how to react to Rose’s side suddenly stretching the pitch. Gladbach weren’t all about speed and running, though. Alassane Plea offered a divine pass for Thuram’s first, curving the ball behind the Madrid backline and just out of their reach, but falling perfectly for this famous son to finish.
Thuram’s lightning-bolt strike almost epitomised the game: Gladbach so instinctive and intense, Madrid seemingly unable to handle it.
This was where we increasingly saw the flip side of Zidane’s psychological management. Madrid’s confidence temporarily collapsed. They went from relative control of the ball and the game to panic any time Gladbach pierced them and surged forward.
That is also the best explanation for what happened next. Thibaut Courtois feebly palmed the ball into the path of Thuram, who claimed his second.
It is getting to the point where we won’t feel the need to reference his famous father, Lilian, at every turn.
A turn in this game, however, was on the way.
There was a brief period when Gladbach could have put themselves out of sight, and maybe the group out of Madrid’s reach.
They had two efforts that flashed wide, and Courtois did make one fine save.
That proved much more than a reprieve.
It was also the platform for another difference between the sides to show itself.
The flip side of these approaches is that the Gladbach-German approach requires youthful energy, and that Madrid have a lot of experience.
Experience, however, tends to naturally involve greater mental resolve built up over a long time.
That made it that bit less of a surprise that Gladbach caved, and Madrid came back.
There wasn’t that much imagination to what Zidane did, it must be said.
He brought on two stars in Luka Modric and Eden Hazard, and Madrid began to just pump in what were admittedly high-quality passes.
This is the thing. Gladbach may have had the superior idea, but Madrid had the superior talent – by far.
It told. Benzema forced the first over on 86 minutes, before Casemiro claimed the second deep into stoppage time.
It is a reprieve for Madrid’s Champions League campaign, but the dramatic final minutes at Borussia-Park cannot offset a shift that looks the consequence of much longer-term forces.
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