By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
And now for something completely different. Jose Mourinho said on Tuesday that he hoped Real Madrid would be much more solid in Wednesday's Champions League semi-final first leg at Dortmund than in October's Group D defeat at BVB.
They almost certainly will be because Mourinho announced a starting line-up featuring Fabio Coentrao at left-back and Sergio Ramos on the right, with Pepe and Raphael Varane in the centre of defence. In the group game, injuries on international duty to Marcelo (also sidelined now), Alvaro Arbeloa (suspended this time) and Coentrao forced the Portuguese coach to field Michael Essien at left-back - and the Ghanaian was easily exposed by BVB's brilliant forwards. Indeed, as if to rub it in, it was a left-back, Marcel Schmelzer, who hit the winner for last season's Bundesliga champions. The lesson has been learned.
But there is much more to it than that. Despite defeat in the group game and an unconvincing 2-2 draw at home (when Mesut Ozil rescued a point with an 89th-minute free kick), Madrid look like favourites to overcome Jurgen Klopp's men this time around. Because, quite simply, this is a different team to the one which looked lost and lacklustre on that night in late October.
|PEP LENDS A HELPING HAND
|It was inadvertent, of course, but Pep Guardiola may have helped rivals Real Madrid in their semi-final tie with Dortmund, after it was announced on Tuesday morning that BVB forward Mario Gotze would be moving to Bayern Munich in the summer.
Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp later revealed the 20-year-old had been attracted by the possibility of playing under Guardiola, while Bayern claimed they had planned to wait until after the first leg to announce the signing but had been forced to confirm the news after Bild revealed the deal on Monday night.
Real Madrid have won just one of 24 competitive games in Germany (and have lost 17 of those), but beat Borussia Dortmund in the semi-finals on the way to the Champions League crown in 1998.
The loss in Dortmund was Madrid's third reverse of the season and two more followed before Christmas. With La Liga lost, it was time to regroup after Christmas. But instead of getting better, things initially got worse: Iker Casillas fractured his hand at Valencia in the Copa del Rey and Mourinho was hit by more negative press as Marca claimed club captains Casillas and Ramos had handed an ultimatum to president Florentino Perez: "Presi, either Mourinho leaves, or we will..."
That turned out to be a watershed moment in the club's season. Florentino faced the press, the same Madrid media which had bent over backwards to support his return to the club in 2009 and welcomed Mourinho as coach the following year. They had gone too far, he said, and accused Marca of publishing lies.
The newspaper responded by printing an offending text message on their front page under the headline: "Marca doesn't lie." But Madrid had taken a stand and the whole episode appeared to help the club unite for the tough tests ahead.
In goal, Diego Lopez had been signed as cover for the injured Iker and the former Madrid canterano proved to be a talisman. He made an impressive debut in the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg against Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu, which the two teams drew 1-1, and stayed in the side for the 3-1 win at Camp Nou and the last-16 success over Manchester United, when he earned praise from Sir Alex Ferguson. "Casillas wouldn't have saved the shots that the boy Lopez did," the Scot said after Madrid's 2-1 win at Old Trafford.
That game also saw summer signing Luka Modric pay back a large chunk of his transfer fee with a wonder goal which got Madrid back in it, while the emergence of Raphael Varane in defence helped the club negotiate the biggest of tests. In the two Copa Clasico clashes, his performances proved pivotal, with two headed goals and a number of saving tackles swinging the tie in Madrid's favour.
Furthermore, strikers Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain are now scoring again after a series of poor performances earlier on in the campaign, while Xabi Alonso is looking imperious and Ozil has found his brilliant best just at the right time, having netted twice in each of the last two Liga games.
And then, of course, there's Ronaldo. The Portuguese forward has had the unconditional support of the Madrid faithful since missing out on the Ballon d'Or to Lionel Messi in early January and has saved his finest football for the very biggest games since then. He scored a double at Barcelona, one in each match against Manchester United and three of Madrid's five versus Galatasaray to take his Champions League tally to 11 in 10 games this term. His early-season sadness is firmly in the past and, earlier this week, Perez assured socios that he would soon be signing a new deal at the Santiago Bernabeu.
So suddenly, everything is looking rosy again for Real Madrid. The momentum is well and truly with the Spanish side and even key decisions appear to be going their way, notably Nani's dubious dismissal at Old Trafford in the last 16. Whether the universe is indeed conspiring to help Mourinho's men claim La Decima remains to be seen, but one thing is certain - this team is much, much stronger than the one which lost in Dortmund back in October. And that's more bad news for BVB.
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