Harder than they may have expected, Real Madrid started their Champions League campaign successfully on Wednesday, beating Union Berlin at the Santiago Bernabeu by 1-0. The only goal of the game was the work of Jude Bellingham, as the former Borussia Dortmund pounced to put a loose ball in the net from close range in the fourth minute of second-half stoppage time.
The man of the moment
Having won the race for his services this summer, Real Madrid likely already feel that the €103 million they spent on Bellingham was a great investment. The young England international has been on sensational form, scoring as many goals as the number of games he’s played for Los Blancos in each competition so far, five in La Liga, and now one in the Champions League.
There was never really much doubt about the ability of the 20-year-old to deliver top performances. It could even be said that, given his still tender age, he’s even surpassed expectations on the pitch, so early into his stint with the 14-time European champions. Not every player would’ve been capable of coming into a team like Real Madrid and making himself their main man straight away, but it seems that’s exactly what this boy has done, at least when there’s no Vinicius Junior terrorizing defences from the left attacking flank.
In this game, Bellingham was deployed just behind the attacking duo of Joselu and Rodrygo Goes, with the trio of Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni and Luka Modric tasked with controlling the middle of the park. With all due respect to Joselu, many are wondering how Real ended the summer transfer window without acquiring a star striker to replace Karim Benzema upfront. The output of the 33-year-old hasn’t been bad, with three goals in six games so far, one of them a match winner at that. But the main source of danger for any team that faces Carlo Anelotti’s men at this stage is certainly Bellingham.
Apart from his other qualities, versatility is a very important trait of the former Borussia Dortmund youngster. Fully capable of operating as a box-to-box midfielder, the role of a classic No. 10 isn’t strange to him either, and he can also trouble defences from either flank. As the season rolls on, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see Ancelotti try him in some sort of a ‘false nine’ role – he could be a real menace with Vinicius and Rodrygo on either side.
Bellingham is also showing great passion and character of a real winner in his game, and at this point in his career, he appears on course to compete for the Ballon d’Or in years to come. They may have paid a lot for him (the €103m fee could rise to €130m through add-ons which seem likely to be triggered), but Real Madrid have a proper gem on their hands. Again.
A difficult game
Though Union Berlin rarely posed a threat going forward, breaking them down was obviously a difficult task for Real. The Spanish giants took a fascinating total of 32 shots, though just seven on target, with the ball under their control for no less than 76% of the time. By comparison, the German side fired just four times towards Kepa Arrizabalaga’s goal, without the need for the Chelsea loanee to make a single save.
But for large parts of the contest, especially in the first half, the hosts barely caused a problem for Union. Their creativity was at its lowest for a while – there were no intricate team moves devised to create a position for someone to score, at least not successful ones, and no player in white seemed capable of penetrating the stubborn Berlin wall with pace and trickery. This was surely the aspect of the game where they missed the injured Vinicius the most. The only player to show any creativity in this period was unsurprisingly Modric, but for every silky pass the Croatian veteran made, there was a fine reaction from the Union defence or an unreasonable shot from very long range from Tchouameni or Nacho, far from the target.
There were half-chances for both teams very early on, with Kevin Behrens and Joselu not quite able to hit goalwards properly, but for the first 45 minutes, that was about it.
However, showing that they are as big as their reputation makes them, Real started turning up the volume after the break, and finally started creating chances. The first really big one came in the 51st minute, when Lucas Vazquez lifted a pass on the right for Rodrygo and the winger burst goalwards, forcing a fine save from Frederik Ronnow before slamming a volley onto the post a few seconds later. The Real attack continued, and eventually ended with Camavinga narrowly missing the target from over 20 yards.
Just three minutes later, Modric slipped the ball for Camavinga on the left and Camavinga pulled it back for Joselu, and Ronnow made another excellent save. The 33-year-old striker came close again just as the 62nd minute expired, as Ronnow somehow managed to tip his superb header onto the post. Next it was Modric who tested the Union ‘keeper with a blast from outside the box, but Ronnow dealt with that as well. Then it was Rodrygo again, but the Brazilian failed to control a cross that had somehow found him on the edge of six yards on the far post.
There was still no breakthrough, but Real were obviously getting closer, pushing Union against the ropes. In the 77th minute, Joselu’s low shot struck the arm of Danilho Doekhi, but the arm was supporting the Union defender against the ground and there was no thought whatsoever in the mind of referee Espen Eskaas from Norway about giving a penalty.
Both sides appeared desperate as the game went into its final stages, Real to score, Union to hold on and avoid defeat. Joselu tried a cunning volley in the 83rd minute, missing the target by a few inches.
But then, in what was surely one of their last attempts to grab the three points, luck finally favoured Real. Toni Kroos, who replaced an uninspired Tchouameni earlier, took a low corner to find Fede Valverde, also a substitute. The Uruguay international set himself up and went for goal, causing a ricochet that fell kindly to Bellingham about two yards from the goal-line. And on current form, Bellingham wasn’t going to miss the gaping net from there.
Too often such late winning goals put the winning team in the spotlight, and not many wonder what it must’ve felt like for their opponents to see all their previous effort go down the drain in a split-second. They may have come to the Spanish capital to try and defend, which isn’t something many neutral football fans appreciate these days, but they fought valiantly against the most decorated club on the planet and they certainly deserved something.
Now it’ll be all about picking themselves up for Fischer and his men, and after what must’ve been a long night of misery, their minds will have already turned to Saturday, when Hoffenheim come to the German capital. Their next chance to get something on the scoreboard in the Champions League, obviously a more realistic one, will be on October 3rd, when they welcome Braga.
As for Real, it’s business as usual after this dramatic triumph, and on Sunday, they face Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano, both for the points and the bragging rights in the city. In the Champions League, they travel to Naples to face the reigning Serie A champions, and that will surely be another great challenge.
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