Monday 19 February 2018

Classy Higuain display helps Mourinho keep Spanish on upward curve


Oliver Brown IN MADRID

SIXTY-SIX days after Johannesburg staged a Castilian carnival, it was time for Madrid to savour the World Cup final all over again. Well,almost.

Real Madrid, harbouring five members of Spain’s all-conquering team, confronted four fully-fledged ‘Oranje’ among their Ajax opponents – and just as in South Africa, the outcome was a decisive victory for the Spanish.

So Jose Mourinho’s attempt to earn a 10th European Cup for his storied club opened with promise, thanks to two goals for free-scoring Argentine Gonzalo Higuain.

For his third game in charge, Mourinho adhered to the custom of his predecessor, Manuel Pellegrini, by deploying an irresistible fourman attack.

This was the theory, at least; the reality initially proved more prosaic as Ronaldo struggled to gain any foothold. The fickle Bernabeu fans had voiced their impatience when the £80m signing disappointed in a 1-0 La Liga win over Osasuna, and had little cause to relent here, so clearly was Ronaldo eclipsed by the brilliant Mesut Ozil.


Ronaldo's lack of influence was hardly to his team-mates' detriment, so easily did they assume dominance over an Ajax team shorn of striker Luis Suarez.

Higuain signalled his threat early, crashing a fierce drive against the bar. Angel Di Maria was also a menace, dancing around several challenges before going to ground under pressure from the accomplished Ajax keeper Maarten Stekelenburg. Sensibly, referee Damir Skomina turned down appeals for a penalty, but Real merely redoubled their efforts to force the first goal.

It duly arrived when Xabi Alonso swung in a fine corner from the left, finding the fast-advancing figure of Higuain, who delicately glanced the ball into the net. Cue backslapping all around, involving everyone but Mourinho, who was furious with his players for squandering the chance of going two in front straight afterwards.

Higuain was the culprit, missing his moment when Marcelo had squared for a simple finish. But Higuain was far from finished, taking his game to a different level in the second half and combining more fluently with his strike partners.

Martin Jol's enfeebled Ajax could offer scant riposte. Di Maria lofted the crispest pass to Ozil, whose volley was parried by Stekelenburg – although no further than the waiting German, who crossed for the Argentine to head home. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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