Modric signing has failed to aid Real Madrid's misfiring midfield

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By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

It could have been worse for Real Madrid in the end, but it should really have been better. Jose Mourinho’s men held on in Manchester despite the dismissal of defender Alvaro Arbeloa and earned a point which was enough to send the Spanish side though to the last 16 of the Champions League in second place behind Group D winners Borussia Dortmund. Earlier on in the evening, however, victory should have been wrapped up.

Karim Benzema somehow found his way unmarked through three central defenders to poke home from close range early on and Cristiano Ronaldo – on his return to Manchester – came close with a lob which was cleared off the line. The Portuguese failed to score for a second successive match and his every touch was jeered by City’s faithful, quick to mock a high-profile United old boy. Ronaldo also proved too selfish at times but, in his defence, was given absolutely nothing all night by the referee. He wasn’t Madrid’s real culprit in any case, as that honour went to Sami Khedira.

The German took up excellent scoring positions, shooting wide and heading off target from two Cristiano crosses, then going clean through only to be denied by Joe Hart. He had been in the right place at the right time on several occasions, but was unable to capitalise.

It’s a familiar story for Mourinho’s Madrid. Khedira has scored only once this term and has just five goals in 94 appearances for Los Blancos.

The 25-year-old can of course be excused because he is a defensive midfielder by nature, but he could perhaps do better given that he is increasingly to be found in goalscoring positions.

Most of Madrid’s goals are netted by Ronaldo and the starting striker, be it Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain. But when these are unable to hit the target, as with Cristiano in the last two games, some help from further back would be useful.

None of Madrid’s middle men are prolific, however. Xabi Alonso is yet to score so far this term, having missed a penalty at Levante last weekend, and has hit the back of the net just six times in 163 games for Madrid. Mesut Ozil, meanwhile, is often employed further forward but unlikely to be a solution either, having netted 19 from 123 as a Madrid player – and only two in 2012-13.

Madrid fans had hoped that summer signing Luka Modric would bring more goals after his switch from Tottenham. However, the Croat chips in with very few strikes and never scored more than five in a season while at White Hart Lane.

Modric started on Tuesday and floated freely in space behind the attackers. He offers Madrid vision, technique and even tenacity in the centre of the park, but not goals. Like fellow summer signing Michael Essien, the 27-year-old opened his Madrid account with a goal in the 4-0 win over Zaragoza at the beginning of November but, aside from one deflected effort against City, he never looked likely to add to that sole strike.

Tactical tinkering, then, is unlikely to solve the issue; it appears more of a personnel problem for Mourinho, as he saw his side suffer much more than they needed to in his 100th Champions League match. Had Khedira converted one or two of those chances, Madrid would have been way out in front before City’s leveller. As it was, a dubious dismissal and penalty call saw them on the back foot in the final stages. So Madrid may be safely through, but, without a goal threat from midfield, Mourinho’s men might just be found wanting later on in this competition.

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Casillas: We should have put the match to bed before the break

Iker Casillas feels that Real Madrid should have decided Wednesday’s Champions League match against Manchester City in the opening 45 minutes, but added that qualification for the knockout stages was eventually all that mattered.

The Liga champions missed numerous chances to double their 1-0 lead before half-time, and saw City restore parity after the interval as Sergio Aguero converted a penalty, much to the disappointment of the Madrid goalkeeper.

“We had chances to finish the match off before the break, but Manchester City made things difficult in the second half,” Casillas was quoted as saying on the official Uefa website.

“We had a tough time after [Alvaro] Arbeloa’s sending-off, and they got some momentum from that, the penalty and the equaliser.

“We struggled but we managed to get what we needed from the match and to qualify.

“I agree with [Jose] Mourinho. The important thing was that we got through to the round of 16, we had a very tough group.”

Madrid sit second in Group D with eight points from five games, four points ahead of third-placed Ajax, while Borussia Dortmund top the table.

Hart rues sloppy defending and poor refereeing for Manchester City's Champions League exit

Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart blamed poor defending and refereeing as Roberto Mancini’s side bowed out of the Champions League group stage for the second successive season as they drew with Real Madrid.

Karim Benzema gave Real the lead inside the opening 10 minutes when he ghosted in behind Maicon to sweep home from close range, before Cristiano Ronaldo’s delicate chip was scrambled off the goal-line.

Sergio Aguero was then awarded a second-half penalty after he was adjudged to have been felled by Alvaro Arbeloa – who received his marching orders for a second bookable offence – but it proved to be too little, too late for Mancini’ side who have still yet to win a game in the competition this season.

“We’re very disappointed,” Hart told Sky Sports at full-time.

“We have had a few opportunities in this group where we could have done a lot better.

“It’s tough tonight, obviously. I don’t think the referee has had a great game, I’m not one to blame things like that but the ball was out of play for 20 minutes. I’m very surprised that they did that, but we’re out of the competition.”

The England international was left to bemoan Jose Mourinho’s time-wasting tactics, in spite of the officials reducing the visitors to 10-men in the second half.

But the lapse in concentration from both wing-backs that allowed Benzema to give the Spanish giants the lead in the opening exchanges left him more frustrated.

“Of course, all goals are [disappointing],” Hart added.

“A free man from seven yards out, it’s sloppy. I don’t know if it was a blessing, we’re good enough to get back into games but we just didn’t quite have enough time tonight.

“But we move on to a big game on Sunday.”

Mancini’s side have slipped to defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu and Amsterdam ArenA, in spite of leading in both fixtures.

They could only muster three draws in front of their home support and Hart admitted City have surprised themselves with how poor their campaign has been.

He said: “All games have cost us. We’ve lost our two away games and not won at home, so I think you’ve got to look at both opportunities. We led in Amsterdam and in Madrid, so it’s a bad campaign for us.

“It’s incredibly frustrating because we’re a very good team, I think we’ve surprised ourselves in a very, very bad way in this campaign.

“Unfortunately we weren’t able to do the business when it mattered and that is Champions League football.”

'I won the Champions League twice after finishing second' – Mourinho defiant after Real Madrid draw

Jose Mourinho has refused to read too much into Real Madrid’s second-placed finish in the Champions League group stage, stating that his previous successes in the competition with Porto and Inter came after finishing as runners-up.

Los Blancos had to beat Manchester City on Wednesday to have any chance of progressing to the knock-out rounds as pool winners, but Sergio Aguero’s late penalty distinguished any hopes of them pipping Borussia Dortmund, who ran out 4-1 winners over Ajax, to the post.

“On two occasions I finished second in the group stage, I won the Champions League,” he told Sky Sports.

“I finished behind Real Madrid with Porto and we won, and with Inter I finished behind Barcelona and won.

“The other times I finished first, I never won the competition.  My experience proves that it doesn’t mean so much.

“I think the teams that finished first did well, but after that they are waiting for an opponent who, in principle, is easier for them to overcome, only to discover that they get Real Madrid in the draw.”

Mourinho then reflected on Madrid’s 1-1 draw against the English champions and was disappointed not to have come away from the match with more than a point, despite a dominant performance.

“I think [we deserved to win], because we had plenty of chances to score the second goal, and if you do that in the first half, the match should be over early on,” he continued.

“But we didn’t score. [Man City] reacted and got the penalty that you on television are in a better position to judge.
 
“Arbeloa was shown a red card. Again, you are on TV and in a better position to analyse the situation. After that, we were in no position to win and we played for the point to progress to the next round.”
 
The 49-year-old’s previous club Chelsea sacked Champions League-winning coach Roberto Di Matteo earlier in the day, but while he sympathises with the Italian, he will offer his unrequited backing to former rival Rafa Benitez.
 
“That’s football,” he admitted. “I’m never happy when a manager is sacked because it can happen to me and it’s a feeling that nobody wants to have.

“At the same time, everybody knows I like Chelsea and I’ll support any Chelsea manager, the same way I supported Roberto and I wished him to do well. I’ll do the same for the next manager.”

Manchester City set to win race to sign 'Balkan Messi' Alen Halilovic

By Chris Myson

Manchester City are set to win the race to sign Alen Halilovic, the Dinamo Zagreb sensation who has been coined the ‘Balkan Lionel Messi’.

Roberto Mancini’s side have beaten off fierce competition from clubs around Europe, most notably Manchester United and Real Madrid, both of whom have long been credited with holding an interest in the 16-year-old wonderkid.

City officials have been in Zagreb since Monday trying to thrash out terms to bring the starlet to the Etihad and an agreement is now in place for a deal that could eventually be worth around £9 million.

Halilovic is the latest impressive graduate from Dinamo Zagreb’s academy, which has also produced stars such as Luka Modric, Niko Kranjcar, Vedran Corluka and Mateo Kovacic.

The attacking midfielder has already been touted as the finest Balkan player of his generation despite the limited amount of first-team experience has picked up so far.

He made his senior debut off the substitutes’ bench in a 3-1 win over bitter rivals Hajduk Split in September, an appearance that made him the youngest ever debutant in the Croatian top flight at 16 years and 102 days.

Just 10 days later Halilovic broke another record – this time becoming the league’s youngest ever goalscorer after netting with a superb Messi-esque chip in a 4-1 rout of Slaven Belupo, while last month he became the youngest player to play for Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League when he appeared against Paris Saint-Germain.

Once the transfer is announced, he would become City’s seventh signing of the season following the arrivals of Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia, Maicon, Scott Sinclair, Matija Nastasic and Richard Wright.

While Mancini’s men were drawing 1-1 to Real Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday night, Halilovic was getting another small taste of European action, coming off the bench for the closing stages of Dinamo Zagreb’s defeat to Porto.

Halilovic is a Croatia youth international, currently playing at under-17 level for his country.

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