Real Madrid fall apart as Wolfsburg race to Champions League victory
WOLFSBURG, Germany - Three things from Wolfsburg's 2-0 victory over Real madrid in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals.
1. Real fall apart
In European football, at this stage, there can't be many more worlds more different than playing and winning El Clasico at the Camp Nou and then travelling to Wolfsburg a few days later.
Yet, in the opening 15 minutes, it did not matter for Real. Some 1,300 Los Blancos supporters had made the trip to Germany's north, and saw their team take the game to the hosts from the first whistle on.
Just 70 seconds into the match, Cristiano Ronaldo's goal was ruled offside and then Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale each had chances to put their name on the scoresheet early on. Then in an instant it all changed. Bruno Henrique burst down the right wing, Danilo lost balls and was caught out of position by Julian Draxler and Maximilian Arnold, the latter gaining confidence with every minute.
In short, Real fell apart.
Danilo looked particularly out of place against man of the match Draxler. This increased the pressure on Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in the Real midfield, while Sergio Ramos' head was clearly not in the match. It didn't help Real's cause either that Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo did not track back, and left the full-backs exposed and vulnerable to Wolfsburg's counterattacks.
Similar results happened to Real Madrid against German opposition in recent Champions League season. They underestimated Schalke at the Bernabeu last year, and nearly crashed out. They survived Dortmund's furious attacks during the Decima winning campaign in 2014, but were famously beaten 4-1 by Dortmund in 2013.
Real's heads and hearts had never fully left the Camp Nou dressing room, where they posed for pictures following Saturday's 2-1 win against Barcelona -- even as they tried to turn around the match in the second half, and took the game to Wolfsburg again. Bale moved back into midfield, which lined up as a diamond with Modric on the right and Kroos in a central position, before the Croatian was replaced by Isco.
Jese, replacing the injured Benzema, and Ronaldo played in attack. The Portuguese superstar looked increasingly frustrated as holding midfielder Josuha Guilavogui guarded his back four and former Bayern player Luiz Gustavo won challenges.
It was not like Real did not create any chances. They had many in the first half, it's just they were not ruthless enough. Although the momentum could have shifted toward Los Blancos at any point, they found no way past goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, who parried shots from Benzema in the first half and denied Ronaldo who broke free after 73 minutes. This was Real's best chance to pull one back.
Going into the reverse fixture next week, Real have a mountain to climb.
2. Wolfsburg out to rescue season
In a somewhat revealing interview with German outlet Suddeutsche Zeitung, Wolfsburg's makeshift right-back Vieirinha hoped the Bundesliga club would finally be motivated on the biggest stage that European club football offers.
Back home, in the domestic league, the 2015 DFB-Pokal winners have struggled for a while. They have only picked up three wins from 11 matches in Bundesliga in 2016, and are already eight points behind Borussia Monchengladbach, currently holding the final spot for Champions League qualification.
Die Wolfe have gone through a difficult spell off the pitch where owners Volkswagen have been involved in an emissions scandal, and attackers Nicklas Bendtner and Max Kruse made headlines for various misdeeds. Yet, in only their second Champions League campaign, Wolfsburg have been highly successful so far, collecting four wins at home against CSKA Moscow, PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United and KAA Gent.
On Wednesday, in a bid to turn the season around for good and win the biggest match in the club's history, towering Brazilian defender Naldo returned from what appeared to be a season-ending shoulder injury. Andre Schurrle and Julian Draxler were also eager to show their international face.
To make a long story short, they did.
Schurrle played as a classic No. 9, and coach Dieter Hecking opted to hand a special task to winter acquisition Bruno Henrique. Maybe unscouted by Real, he was sent down the right flank, with Marcelo constantly on the back of his heels as the pacey Brazilian stormed down the flank.
Germany international Schurrle won the penalty which opened the scoring when Casemiro ran into him, and Hecking's plan to wait for the counters worked out, although Wolfsburg's second goal came after a long Draxler run through midfield.
Hecking had instructed his players to attack the central midfielders and pass the ball to the wings. The Wolves had the chance to turn the night into an even bigger humiliation for Zinedine Zidane's men, but Schurrle, brilliantly set up by Bruno Henrique, sent the ball into the Wolfsburg night from 10 metres out.
"If we can make it past Real Madrid, we can also win the Champions League," Vierinha predicted in the pre-match interview. While that still is far from thinkable, a goal at the Bernabeu could see them through to next round. Against Real, they made the most of their underdog status. Motivation and a clever match plan were the keys.
3. Draxler runs Real ragged
There are two Julian Draxlers. One is playing in Bundesliga and the other one is playing Champions League. Whereas the former is sluggish, sometimes torpid, and has been unable to lift his side during a miserable domestic campaign, the latter has all the makings of becoming one of the bigger stars of the game.
On Wednesday, taking to the field on the left wing, Draxler, alongside Arnold, was instrumental as Wolfsburg beat the runaway favourites and now can go to Bernabeu next week with a chance to cause a major sensation.
The Champions League Draxler already struck goals against Moscow and Gent and put in a brave performance against Manchester United. Against Real, he was playful and made long runs down the wing, sometimes turning toward the centre. He floated in crosses from half-field but also drove to the touchline to swing in crosses. Showing off his skills, he also tried a few stepovers just like Ronaldo had done in the opening stages of the match. Draxler was bursting with joy, and his run down the left, swinging into the middle at exactly the right time, as well as his perfectly timed curled pass to Bruno Henrique was nothing short of brilliant.
While his performance might put a smile on Germany coach Joachim Low's face, Draxler still needs to mature and accept that Wolfsburg need his Champions League form in their final six Bundesliga matches to at least ensure another year of European football at the Volkswagen Arena.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.