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Feb 24, 2011

Lessons from the Champions League

Five things I learned about the Champions League this week in France.

1. History is bunk

For Henry Ford in 1916, read José Mourinho in 2011. The Special One was in ebullient mood leading up to the first leg against Lyon at the Stade Gerland - where Real Madrid had never even scored, let alone got a positive result in three previous visits.

"There's nothing negative to go into the game with," he told journalists before the match, gently arching an eyebrow. "I already eliminated Lyon and when I did, I went on to win the Champions League with Porto. Ricardo (Carvalho) already scored against them and eliminated them, just as Cristiano (Ronaldo) eliminated them with Manchester United. We come here respecting the opponents for the quality they have today, not the past, not the statistics, not last year."

Records are made to be broken, and there was of course a fair irony that it was a former Lyon idol, Karim Benzema, that ended that miserable run. Of course, Mourinho was being a touch disingenuous in suggesting that history is nothing, even if a club shouldn't be unduly bound by it. "We are Real Madrid, the champion of champions in the history of European football," he trumpeted soon after. "It's a pressure but also a sense of conviction."

2. Substitutes make the difference

In often extremely tight matches of high intensity, making the right change at the right time can be pivotal. Impact substitutes don't come much more effective than Benzema, who struck 43 seconds after replacing Emmanuel Adebayor at the Gerland. Mourinho claimed afterwards that he had always intended to use Benzema to use the extra space he knew would open up in the second half, after Adebayor did the physical work early on. Judicious substitutions made the difference in a few last-16 matches last season; Miroslav Klose provided Bayern Munich's crucial first-leg winner against Fiorentina (even if he should have been flagged offside when doing so), and the half-time entrance of Maxime Gonalons and Kim Kallstrom for Lyon at the Bernabeu allowed them to stem El Real's attacking flow, and ultimately qualify in the Spaniards' stead.

3. Even the coolest coaches are prone to cracking under the tension

Pep Guardiola had erred in replacing David Villa with Seydou Keita and ceding the advantage at the Emirates last week, and his domestic rival Jose Mourinho showed he was not immune to feeling the pressure himself in the second wave of first leg matches.

Los Merengues had clearly benefitted from a few half-time words of encouragement from their coach, starting the second 45 at a gallop and not slowing to a canter until they had control of the game - all to Mourinho's plan, as he told us. Yet his angry outburst at referee Wolfgang Stark post-match for failing to give his team a penalty (for Yoann Gourcuff's handball) betrayed how high the stakes are. "It's unacceptable. It was obvious. He (Stark) was five yards away," Mourinho growled. The Portuguese was not placated by the knowledge that his team took the lead minutes later.

4. Never underestimate the power of an atmosphere

Real Madrid seemed a little taken aback by the roar of a wet and windy night in Lyon, looking more like their timid predecessors who visited eastern France rather than the renewed Copa del Rey finalists itching putting pressure on Barcelona at the top of La Liga. While demonstrably more measured in possession, Real were on the back foot for much of the opening period. With Lyon cheered on by a packed house and full of attacking bluster, the pattern of the match's opening stanzas closely mirrored that of the previous years. On the other hand, it is clear that Claude Puel's side played with more heart than head, at an unsustainable pace, and nearly paid the price for getting caught up in the occasion as they tired in the second period.

It's no secret, however, that Marseille's Stade Velodrome is the ultimate stadium for atmosphere in France. Locals complain that the atmosphere was better before the roof was removed, when the stadium was renovated for the 1998 World Cup, with the noise better contained. One can only imagine what it was like then.

Didier Deschamps' men did well to keep their emotions in check for the most part of the evening, though when the temperature rise in the stands in the second half, so it did on the pitch. Marseille began to believe they could create a shock, and started to take the game to United more, though they resisted the temptation to leave themselves to counter-punches. The good news for the fans is that further renewal - ahead of Euro 2016 - will see a roof restored.

5. 4-2-3-1 can be a positive formation. But it isn't being played that way

Real Madrid and Lyon was an unusual battle, between two teams set up to counter attack. Ostensibly Mourinho's fielding of Ozil, Di Maria and Ronaldo behind Adebayor. Yet they struggled to see much of the ball in the opening half, with Xabi Alonso dropping so deep he was almost playing as an auxiliary centre-back. Lyon relied on the bursts of Delgado and Bastos on the flanks, leaving their nominal playmaker Gourcuff as just that for much of the match.

Marseille and Manchester United played with similar tactical plans on the following night 200 miles south. While it's necessary to acknowledge the amount of injuries in the United midfield, a central trio comprised of a pair of sitters in Carrick and Fletcher and Darron Gibson roaming in front didn't convince us of a team who had gone to the south of France looking for the result which would finish the tie.

It took the home side the best part of 70 minutes to dare to think they could win the game, making a lightly positive change in introducing Benoit Cheyrou for Edouard Cisse, before finally risking the nippy Mathieu Valbuena in the last 12 minutes. The absence of the injured Andre-Pierre Gignac meant Brandao was available as a perfect foil to hold up the ball for onrushing midfielders, but few seemed willing to risk it.

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