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50-50: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Champions League 1 day ago
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Aug 22, 2014

James capable of replacing Ronaldo

ESPN FC's Martin Ainstein weighs in on Atletico Madrid's victory over city rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa.

And then there were five. Real Madrid's ambitious quest for all six possible trophies this season came to an end within two minutes at the Vicente Calderon. Mario Mandzukic struck after 81 seconds and Atletico Madrid saw the job through as Diego Simeone's teams usually do.

The last time they did not etched a painful memory into the minds of Los Rojiblancos' faithful from their May day in Lisbon. A Spanish Super Cup success, their first since 1985 and a first Madrid derby win on home soil since 1999, may not be the ultimate revenge mission, but it at least provided Simeone's men with some comfort and left Carlo Ancelotti with some concerns ahead of a season in which they had targeted it all.

- Corrigan: Three Points - Super Cup second leg
- Manager reaction: Simeone | Ancelotti

It also left the Italian with his first two-legged defeat since joining Madrid after clinching both the Champions League and Copa del Rey last season and left him with an unwanted statistic of a Blancos side failing to score at the Calderon for the first time in 22 matches. While no panic buttons will be pushed just yet, there are issues to address.

The biggest will be whether to include an injury-plagued Cristiano Ronaldo in the early stages of the campaign or give the Portugal international some seemingly vital rest. Ronaldo was passed fit to play by Ancelotti in Thursday's pre-match news conference after suffering a leg injury in Tuesday's first leg, but the 29-year-old did not start at the home of the Spanish champions. Instead, James Rodriguez, who scored on his debut as the sides drew 1-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu, started on the left of Los Blancos' three-pronged attack -- and shone.

The performance of the Colombian, who won the World Cup Golden Boot and arrived for over 60 million pounds from Monaco this summer, should give Ancelotti some confidence that he can plug the gap left by the Ballon d'Or winner should he decide to rest the former Manchester United man. He had Madrid's best chance in the first half, heading wide from an inswinging Luka Modric cross, and put another appetising chance on a plate for Gareth Bale only for the Welshman to slide his effort agonisingly wide.

James was Madrid's stand-out performer in a first half that the hosts may have edged but one the visitors battled their way back into, largely thanks to the performance of the former Monaco man. Much has been discussed over just where the World Cup star will fit into the European champions' team, but he showed that his attributes are more suited to a role further up the field and not in a middle three as he reverted to in the second half following the arrival of Madrid's No. 7.

Madrid threw Ronaldo on in the second half but although he stung the hands of Miguel Moya with one powerful long-range attack to end a fast and clinical Blancos counter-attack and enjoyed a few penetrating raids down Atleti's right flank, the Portuguese failed to have the desired impact on the contest. Instead, his introduction diluted the performance of James, who started the second half in a No. 10 role before dropping further back into a midfield three and eventually being replaced by Isco just after the hour mark.

Should Cristiano Ronaldo need to take some time away, Real Madrid should be in good hands with James Rodriguez.

Ancelotti has said he will stick to his preferred 4-3-3 formation line-up for the foreseeable future, such is the ability of his star-studded squad to adapt, and that left fans questioning where James would fit in. A back-up "false 9?" A deeper-lying midfield role? While Madrid's "BBC" of Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano are among the first names down on Madrid's teamsheet, a place in the three-pronged attack seems most suited for James, and with Ronaldo seemingly in need of some time off, now offers the perfect opportunity for Ancelotti to integrate his big-money arrival into first-team affairs.

His side couldn't integrate to their fiery surroundings on a match that spanned Friday night and Saturday morning, however. Ancelotti said he knew what to expect from Atleti and that Simeone's side would play the same way as they did at the Bernabeu three days earlier -- but Los Blancos could do nothing about it.

Los Colchoneros were like a firework that had just been lit in the opening five minutes and Madrid had no reply. The impressive Mandzukic offered an early warning when he was put through on goal only to be denied by a last-ditch tackle by Raphael Varane, who replaced Pepe at the back. The Croatian international wasn't to be denied with his next effort, however, with a clinical finish beyond Iker Casillas, who again got the nod ahead of Keylor Navas, to bag the decisive goal.

If anybody bought into Simeone's comments that his side should be challenging the likes of Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla and Valencia this season and not Barcelona and Madrid, then Atleti's performance proved they shouldn't have. On top of a toughness at the back and in midfield that has been the trademark of Simeone's team, the champions have replaced Diego Costa superbly with Mandzukic and have added more attacking flair in Antoine Griezmann. Arda Turan was still injured and didn't even feature.

Atletico MadridAtletico Madrid
Real MadridReal Madrid
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Leg 2Aggregate: 2 - 1
Game Details

While Atleti have provided sufficient evidence that their performances can match those of last year's albeit only in two Super Cup ties, their case for a defence of La Liga was helped by Madrid's failings. Sergio Ramos and Varane didn't strike up an immediate partnership and did not link up as successfully as May's Champions League final, while Fabio Coentrao's poor performance may have opened the door for Marcelo at left-back. Dani Carvajal was the only one of Madrid's back four to leave the Calderon with much credit.

All eyes were on Casillas, and whether his manager knows who will start in La Liga this season, the Spain international provided a reminder that he is not completely finished at the top level. The highlight was a brilliant reaction to deny the waiting Mandzukic a second after Raul Garcia's thunderbolt had struck the crossbar. Casillas had the woodwork to thank for stopping the initial strike but his fast reactions got to the rebound in the nick of time to swipe the ball away from the Croatian, who was ready to pounce and put the game to bed.

All eyes were also on the teamsheet and on seeing whether Angel Di Maria would be included after providing an impressive 15 minutes as a substitute in the first leg. Simeone rather cunningly labelled his fellow countryman as Madrid's best player after the match but the former Benfica man did not make the squad and his manager said after the match that he did not need him. It seems the man who topped La Liga's assists charts and took the man-of-the-match plaudits in Lisbon has played his last game for the club. As does Sami Khedira, who seemingly wanted to be anywhere other than the Calderon.

Despite the big movers away from Atleti over the summer, there are no such problems with the red and white side of Madrid. While Simeone takes great pride in Atleti's success being a team job rather than individuals, Los Blancos have been relying on Ronaldo all too often of late. In Rodriguez, however, they can provide an alternative and give the former Manchester United man a rest he desperately needs before the season has even begun. A star role on a disappointing night was the one ray of light for Ancelotti's side.

Whether Ronaldo, and whether Madrid, want to heed the fears over his long-term future remain to be seen.

Nicholas Rigg

Nicholas Rigg writes about Real Madrid for ESPN FC and also blogs about La Liga for The Independent. Former sports journalist at the Wakefield Express and the editor of Vital Sheffield Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @nicholasrigg.

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