Cameroon’s Joel Matip will have very few good memories of his first ever UEFA Champions League semi-final. He was part of a Shalke 04 team that lost 0-2 and was turned inside-out by Manchester United on Tuesday.
Matip started well in the centre-back role he was expected to handle in the absence of the injured Benedikt Höwedes. He made a few challenges and powerful blocks that prevented Wayne Rooney, Javier Henandez (a.k.a Chicharito) and Park Ji Sung from giving United an early breakthrough.
However, Shalke was not compact enough – leaving a lot of space between the lines. Park, Rooney and Ryan Giggs did not hesitate to fill these gaps which often meant that Matip and his centre-defensive partner, Metzelder, were often exposed and faced with 2 v 1 situations.
To make matters worse for Matip, Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Jurado who played as the central midfielders meant to protect the centre-backs (Matip’s usual role) were tame , did not press high-up the pitch to prevent United’s midfielders from passing freely and often failed to track-down the men they were supposed to mark (i.e. Rooney-Giggs/Carrick).
Jurado failed to pick-up Ryan Giggs’ run between the lines leaving the 37- year-old Welshman alone to slot the ball between the legs of goalkeeper Manuel Neuer for the curtain-raiser.
Two minutes later, Papadopoulos forgot to track Rooney who combined beautifully with Hernandez and slid into the space between Shalke’s defence and attack. Matip found himself having to decide whether to close-down Rooney or Hernandez (2 v 1) and ended-up in-between; allowing the Englishman to beat the goalkeeper for the second goal.
Matip, who is Cameroon’s lone representative at this level of the tournament, is still 19-years-old and has time on his side to reach greater heights. He is intelligent and has good positional awareness when he plays in midfield but he must work on his pace, especially when he is fielded in the centre of defence.
Shalke need to beat Manchester United with three clear goals in the second-leg to hope for a place in the final at Wembley at the end of May. That would be hard to achieve, if one has to go by the ease with which United played in Germany.
The English premier league leaders’ passing was sublime, Michael Carrick completely bossed the midfield, while Rooney displayed variety – dropping deep to support the midfield and darting forward to act as second striker. Were it not for Neuer’s great goalkeeping, United would have won by not less than 6-0.