APOEL deployed perhaps the ideal game plan for Toronto FC's two-legged tie against Santos Laguna when it hosted Real Madrid in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday.
Like scores of outgunned and unfancied sides before it, APOEL chose to rely on graft and organization to fuel the quest for an unexpected result. APOEL manager Ivan Jovanovic opted for his usual 4-5-1 setup and told his players to defend deeply and soak up pressure at all costs.
These negative tactics (and, as more than a few Cypriots would interject, some deft work on the break, though not against Madrid) carried APOEL through to the last eight and held Madrid at bay for 74 minutes in Nicosia. Jose Mourinho's side enjoyed plenty of the ball, but APOEL closed down smartly, kept its shape and rode its luck at times to survive even after the influential Marcelo de Oliveira limped off early and forced a change in the back four.
The dreams were starting to take root in reality until a couple of deft Mourinho subs and Karim Benzema's goal after 74 minutes opened the floodgates. Two further tallies rendered that long spell of defiance obsolete and all but sealed Madrid's inevitable place in the semifinals before the second leg at the Bernabéu.
Santos Laguna will feel its spot in the CONCACAF Champions League final is similarly secure even before it visits BMO Field on Wednesday night for the first leg. Most observers feel the same way. After all, Benjamin Galindo's side currently tops the Mexican league and recently brushed aside a far stronger Seattle side with a resounding 6-1 victory in the second leg down in Mexico a fortnight ago.
In light of that evidence and the significant gap in quality between the two teams, TFC coach Aron Winter must find a way to ensure his side remains competitive over the two legs. It is, in short, a complex and difficult task.
Unfortunately for Winter, APOEL's approach against Madrid makes little sense for his team. TFC exhibits only a scant semblance of a defensive shape in its 4-3-3 formation. Its defensive personnel – particularly with Torsten Frings unavailable through injury – cannot sit deeply for 90 minutes without conceding, though the Reds did do well enough against Los Angeles in the late stages to reach this point. If the Reds all of a sudden decided to shut up shop, then Santos would expect the likes of Herculez Gomez, Darwin Quintero and Oribe Peralta to bust the door down.
With the batten-down-the-hatches mindset all but relegated to the circular file, survival likely starts with a combination of modest ambition and resolute defiance. TFC must find a way to ally a stronger defensive core with the occasional foray into the attacking half. The script in two-legged ties usually shuns calls for a counterattacking approach at home, but this particular job – especially with the perils of pressing too high and inviting Santos to push forward into acres of space and place the tie beyond doubt before the return leg – mandates a tempered approach.
TFC isn't known for its ability to strike the right balance in these sorts of situations. Winter's entire system is founded upon the principle that his side should serve as the aggressive, attacking force in the game. As San Jose showed in domestic play on Saturday, this tactical mindset tends to leave plenty of gaps for opposing teams to exploit on the counter. TFC hasn't shown the ability or the inclination to limit those spaces and reduce the forward forays when given a chance to do so, but it will have to learn quickly to keep its flickering hopes alive for the second leg in Torreon.
All in all, this match presents a tactical nightmare for Winter and the Reds. Leaning on their strengths (breaking quickly and locating Danny Koevermans in dangerous areas) would likely permit Santos to secure an away goal or three. Their weaknesses (defensive shape) preclude the type of preventative measures most teams take when they try to preserve their second-leg hopes. Perhaps the best the Reds can muster is something like APOEL managed to accomplish on their own home turf: a determined, valiant and ultimately futile effort designed to show exactly how they managed to reach this point in the first place.
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