Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Merengue Bites 2014-2015: Preseason Episode 1

Once the the stream expires, you may listen to / download the podcast here:
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The scent of the 2014-2015 season is in the air: Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez are now onboard for our pursuit of 6 titles this season. The dark cloud of the goalkeeping question also looms over the club with the signing of Keylor Navas seemingly 'in the chamber'. Who makes way for him? Iker or Diego? or Both?
Kaushik, Rahul and I siff through the questions.
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Our listeners also ask a fun question: if Real Madrid Football's first team were to start a pickup basketball team, who would our starting 5 be? I give it my best shot. Have a listen.
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Please send us any questions and comments for our next recording: @madridistamac (via twitter).

Thursday, July 24, 2014

In the Meme Time...

Wow. Things sure went my REALLY fast. One moment, we were able to keep track of the world cup, putting out podcasts, writing about matches - and the next thing we know, it's all over.
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What can I say? A crazy few weeks in the office and at home with a new baby have that power to make time evaporate at the snap of a finger. Lucky for me, despite largely being unable to tweet, podcast or write about the goings on of the last few months, I was actually able to see most of the action and keep abreast with most of the news.
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The World Cup
Everyone was watching out for Neymar, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but it was James Rodriguez who would make the tournament his own.
I kept ranting that Germany's weakness of lacking width was going to do them in. Fortunately for them, they decided to make use of their embarrassment of riches in midfield and re-deploy Philip Lahm once again as a fullback. Together with supersub Schurrle on the left side, Germany regained their team's width and deservedly won the World Cup.
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I had a much more interesting narrative that didn't pan out: at the 40th year anniversary of the 1974 WC where a 'Total Football Holland' would fall to an unimaginative but efficient and highly functonal West Germany team, the 2 sides would meet but with reversed roles: A fluid, attack-minded Germany that would fall against a tactically-organized yet functional and unimaginative Dutch team. It didn't happen.
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It was instead Argentina, whose tactical error of bringing wide man Lavezzi off for Aguero ultimately blunted their attack and allowed the Germans to deservedly win the cup for a unified Germany.
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My Player of the Tournament: James Rodriguez.
My Goal of the Tournament: James Rodriguez vs. Uruguay
My Team of the Tournament (3-5-2):
----------- Neuer ------------
Mascherano - Vlaar - Hummels
------- Lahm - Kroos ---------
-- Robben - James - Neymar --
--------- Messi-Muller ---------

I realize that I tend to pick 3-at-the-back lineups for teams of the tournament / season. This is due tot he fact that attacking players tend to be considered to be the highlights of a season or tournament. I am also acutely aware that I've put Lahm in the midfield (despite criticizing Germany for putting him there) and Mascherano as part of a back 3 (despite playing in midfield for Argentina this WC). All I can say re: that is - well I need to at least make the lineup work somehow.
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The Transfer Market
Being married to a Liverpool fan (and thus being one myself), I honestly would have loved to see Suarez in a Real Madrid Jersey (yup, I said it!). The last thing we need however, is someone with his sort of anger management issues. After all, we already have Pepe for that sort of thing. Looking forward to seeing them kill each other this coming season though...
So after the logical signing of 2 GKs (Ter Stegen and Bravo), the club who weren't supposed to be allowed to sign players (Barca) choose to sign a  player who isn't allowed to participate in football activities for 4 months (Suarez). Suarez joins a massive front line in Barcelona that include: Neymar, Messi, Pedro and the returning (from loan) Deulofeu. On paper, a starting front 3 of Neymar, Suarez and Messi is a frightening prospect: the issue they will need to resolve however is that all 3 men are used to playing in the same area of the pitch and none of the 3 are used to being given defensive responsibility. Luis Enrique is in for a big challenge. Meanwhile, at midfield, Barca's purchase of Ivan Rakitic is an astute move: having acknowledged the failure of the Cesc Fabregas experiment, they have acquired a player who might have the makings of someone who can play the Xavi role as their midfield talisman looks towards the twilight of his career at the top level. Finally, yesterday's acquisition of the 30-year old Jeremy Mathieu from Valencia for 20m addresses an area of need. Mathieu however is 30 years old. Might they have been better off spending 40m on Mats Hummels?
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There was only one player who made me go "This dude should play for Real Madrid!" in the world cup. It was NOT Toni Kroos or James Rodriguez. It was Paul Pogba. The dude is a monster and a badass motherf*cker who ought to be patrolling the Madrid midfield with bad intentions. Having said that, the acquisition of Toni Kroos is a marvellous coup for Real Madrid. Over-reliant on Xabi Alonso at the base of our midfield, having him paired alongside Modric spraying passes all over the pitch further 'de-centralizes' the team and increases the number of areas where we can create danger to our opponents without jeopardizing the team's tactical positioning (which is what we get with Di Maria).
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Real Madrid's squad is a frightening one. How it'll play however remains a big question mark.
It was the acquisition of James Rodriguez which puzzles and intrigues me. Having never displayed an affinity towards the 4-2-3-1, Carlo Ancelotti is once again given a classic '10' to fit into his lineup. It is as if the challenge of turning Isco into a proper central midfielder wasn't enough. If my sketchy impression of James Rodriguez pre-World Cup is correct, the Colombian used to play on the right wing for Porto before moving to Monaco. Does Ancelotti try to turn him into a proper CM? Rotate him with Bale and (gasp!) Ronaldo in the wing positions? Play him as a false 9? Does Ancelotti go with a 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2? Or accept that playing a 4-2-3-1 is the most logical way to go? The signing of this magnificent player raises plenty of questions though I'm not sure if they're necessarily good or not.
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There is still one month to go in this silly season. I suppose now is the time to start getting warmed up to get ready ourselves for this rare chance to race for 6 titles.




Friday, June 20, 2014

Football in Sickness (and In Health)

So my health has finally caught up with me. I started showing symptoms of the flu last Monday and here I am wheezing, sneezing, snorting and sniffing my way through the day. Having caught the flu though, my wife has now kicked me out of the bedroom lest I infect her and the 2 kids. So behold my new mistress: football. Here are a couple of thoughts on the last 2 matches:
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Belgium 2 - Algeria 1
If they're not going to entertain us with their football, they should at least do it with their hair. Come on Mark Wilmots: play the all-afro midfield of Witsel and Fellaini!
I looked forward to seeing the hipster's choice for the tournament. They have the best young goalkeeper in the world (Courtois), one of the best CBs (Kompany) and 2 of the best young attacking players in the world (Hazard, Lukaku). They were in turn surrounded by plenty of great players whom almost much every nation would like to have in their team (Witsel, Fellaini, De Bruyne, etc.). What Belgium don't have however are fullbacks, and it is this weakness of theirs that I think will be exposed... and that's exactly what happened when Jan Vertonghen (a CB made to play as a LB) conceded a penalty to allow Algeria to take the lead.
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Playing CBs as fullbacks usually means that the opposing wide player will be facing a slower, less-mobile man when going forward. On defense, it also means that the team in question will have a limited ability in spreading the pitch open as most CBs deputizing as full backs have neither the pace, nor the crossing ability to threaten you. All this was exposed in the game vs. Algeria.
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Belgium also lacked that much-needed zing going forward. De Bruyne didn't give Belgium the much-needed spark that a '10' brings while Lukaku's first touch and passing was a let down. Too often, especially in the first half, Eden Hazard was given the ball (or his team mates let him have the ball) in the oddest parts of the pitch as if expecting him to turn into the Lionel Messi of 2-3 years ago (who could dribble his way into, around and through a defense at will) to create a scoring chance. Trouble is, Hazard is no Messi.
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Belgium in the end had to resort to 'Route 1 Football' tactics: relying on Fellaini to open the scoring and using a counter attack to win the game. They will still get past the group stages. Their stock as the hipster's choice however is rapidly taking a nose dive.
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Brazil 0 - Mexico 0
Here's the shocking bit: Brazil lack creativity. Instead of a legend-class striker to lead the line (e.g. Romario, Ronaldo), they have the functional, feigning Fred. And behind him are Brazil's 'only' have 2 creative players: Neymar and Oscar - whom they are way too dependent on to create and score. Faced with a plucky organized team, they will struggle. And struggle they did against Mexico whose GK Guillermo Ochoa played the match of his life. Credit must not go to Ochoa alone though. We must remember that in the London Olympics (where many of this Brazil and Mexico team played), it was the Mexicans who walked away with Gold.
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Spain 0 - Chile 2
Marca's painful and poignant cover marking an end to the era of the Spanish National Team's dominance. 
The problem is NOT that Tiki-Taka dead.
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The problem is that Spain's ability to play Tiki-Taka well has died.
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The ‘Tiki-Taka’ football that saw Spain win Euro 2008, 2012 and the World Cup in 2010 was built around the ability of the team to retain possession at an enormously high level. And when the ball was lost, the team would then expend incredible amounts of energy to press the opponent into surrendering it back. It was these 2 elements in their play that saw Guardiola’s Barcelona and Aragones + Del Bosque’s Spain reach the highest quality levels in possession play.  At its zenith, ‘tiki-taka’ football as we know it, functioned both as a vicious attacking strategy (see Barca’s 5-0 mauling of Mourinho’s Madrid) and as an effective (albeit boring) defensive strategy (see Spain’s Euro 2012 performance, except for their performance vs. Italy in the final).
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Here’s the thing about tiki-taka though: like any other tactical strategy in playing any sport, when played badly, the strategy is shit.
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Spain is out of the World Cup not because it played tiki-taka. It is out of the World Cup because it played tiki-taka BADLY. Bereft of a midfield engine who can choreograph play, construct space and dictate the tempo of the game as he sees fit, Spain could no longer command possession of the ball in the manner it used to. That midfield engine, that choreographer was Xavi Hernandez. He is 34 now and clearly no longer has the same engine as the midfield conductor of Spain’s Euro 2008, WC 2010 and Euro 2012 Xavi. He was off the pace against the Netherlands, and wasn’t even on the pitch against Chile last night. Without Xavi in his prime, Spain in possession are still a great team, but they are not at the level of the seemingly immortal Spain (or Barca) circa 2008-2012.
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To make things worse, this Spain team no longer hunt in packs like starved wolves for the ball once it is lost. A lost ball or a broken attacking play from Spain is now an immediate opportunity for the opponent to start an attack. La Roja’s opponents no longer look over their shoulder in fear of being blindsided by 3-4 red shirts when they are in possession of the ball. They instead are able to push the ball forward at pace to start a counter attack which in turn catches the Spanish’s high defensive line (a tiki-taka staple) flat footed and vulnerable.
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And once you add all that to a goalkeeper who was once the source of the team’s absolute confidence, and is now instead the subject of the team’s insecurities (Casillas) – the result is fatal.
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Tiki Taka isn’t dead. Bayern Munich will terrify us all with it at club level again next season, and perhaps Spain will do so again with their new young crop of players.
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The only thing that has died (or has passed on) is the era of this Golden Generation of Spain’s national team. I for one, am just glad that I was a witness to its greatness in all its pomp. Perhaps one day in the future, my son will gush about some great team able to dominate ball possession, win multiple titles and strike fear into the hearts and minds of the rest of the football world. And maybe, just maybe, my reply might be: “yeah they’re great… almost like Spain 2008-2012. But not quite there yet.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Weekday World Cup Musings - June 16


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Spain 1 - Netherlands 5: The 'Roja' Wedding
It's painful to see Iker like this.
This would be perhaps the most shocking result of the WC thus far. The shock does not come from the fact that the Dutch won, but from how badly they destroyed Spain. For the few who don't follow the HBO series Game of Thrones, the 'Red Wedding' is an infamous scene in the series that sees major protagonists get massacred whilst attending a wedding. Well, we were all geared up and in a festive mood to kick off the events for Group B in the world cup until we saw the World and European Champions get butchered.
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I had predicted a 2-1 Spain win but advised a friend (who gets the betting man's disease when the WC rolls around) that the odds for a draw would probably be good and that would be worth a punt. So, when Van Persie equalized with his 'salmon leap' header, I thought that 45 minutes would be plenty of time for my anticipated result to pan out.
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And then it happened.
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Let me say this: all the goals that Spain conceded were the result of individual errors particularly by Iker Casillas, Gerard Pique, and to a lesser extent, Sergio Ramos.
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The Van Persie's first goal was a result of Pique dropping too deep and playing Van Persie onside. Robben's first goal was Pique's fault too: coming too late, he forgot what the entire world already knew: that Robben would cut to his left foot and shoot, he sealed off Robben's right foot instead and duly got turned. The next 2 goals would be on Iker. De Vrij's goal was very similar to the once Casillas conceded to Diego Godin in the Champions League final: flapping and misjudging a cross and getting punished for the loose ball. Ditto for Van Persie's second, where Casillas had a 'Paul Robinson moment' (remember him!?!?! I'm embarrassed to put the 2 names in the same sentence!). Robben's second goal was a repeat of his first: this time with Casillas making the mistake. Pique was trying to seal off Robben's left foot - what was Casillas doing trying to dive at the Dutchman's right? When did the best goalkeeper in the world, Real Madrid's all-time greatest goalkeeper become Calamity Casillas?
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Whatever happens to Spain in this WC, Casillas must look himself in the mirror and admit that the time has come for him to let David De Gea take his place as Spain's #1. I would in fact, not mind seeing the change happening in the next match. Yup, you just heard that from a Real Madrid fan.
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As for the rest of the team, Del Bosque I think needs to have a tactical re-think. The team's width comes almost exclusively from the fullbacks alone with the 2 supposed wide midfielders (Iniesta and Silva) drifting inside. This makes the team predictable, and less incisive, especially with Xavi unable to single-handedly control the match with his passing any more. A real winger with pace (Pedro?) is needed. Diego Costa needs someone who he can be in synch with on the pitch too, so perhaps Koke ought to be considered. The temptation is great to stick to the old guard, but we must all know when the time has come to make changes.
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Here's another thought: the second-placed team in this group will play the first-placed team of Group A, likely to be hosts Brazil. Is this the WC where we will see the Spanish Armada get shipwrecked?
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England 1 - Italy 2: Guilt
I have to admit that I really enjoyed watching this fresh young and fearless England side vs. Italy
I have NO idea who to support in this WC. Many Filipinos have always had an affection for Brazilians during World Cups, and I am no different. I supported the Romario-led Brazil in USA 94, had Zidane break my heart in France 98 and went crazy with a pack of strangers when Ronaldo redeemed himself in Japan-Korea '02. I never got over the heartbreak caused by the implosion of Brazil's 06 side and thus went on to cheer for Spain in 2010, dancing on my bed at the sight of Iniesta scoring.
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Before this tournament began however, I had already decided I wasn't going to be cheering for Spain. I told myself that I'd watch the group stage games and make my mind up from there. And here's where my guilty confession comes in: of all the games I've seen so far in this WC, no team has entertained me as much as England.
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Props must go to Roy Hodgson for letting majority of the old guard make way for the fresh and fearless youngsters in the team: Sturridge, Sterling, Welbeck, Henderson who all gave good accounts of themselves against Italy. They lost to an Italy side who showed the frightening savvy of a side who understands what it takes to win this competition: tactical nous (Prandelli), calm and clear-headedness (Pirlo), grit (Marchisio, Candreva), ruthlessness (Balotelli) and verve (Darmian). Did we just see the sort of performance that makes this team a dark horse for the title?
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Either way, I find myself covered in guilt as I feel as if I'm getting myself sucked into becoming an England fan (no offense to England supporters out there). At the end of the day however, I truly believe that if they play with the sort of verve, energy and fearlessness that they displayed vs. Italy for the rest of the competition, I have no doubts that they will make a dent in Brazil.
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Ivory Coast 2 - Japan 1: Elephants Trample on the Samurai
Honda's Karate Kick goal gave me hope Japan could pull it off, but the Ivorians' power was just way too much for the Japanese to handle.
As an Asian, I will cheer the Asian teams by default, so I was cheering for the Blue Samurai when they faced the Elephants of the Ivory Coast. I had my father-in-law, who probably never saw a single football match in his life, cheering for them too. We both leapt off the couch when Keisuke Honda pulled off his Karate-kick shot to make it 1-0 for Japan. After that, all we hoped for was for them to hold on for the win.
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The analogy of Blue Samurai vs. Elephants was no exaggeration however. Japan fought and tried, but could not handle the physical power of their Ivorian counterparts. The Ivorians were too big, too powerful. The Japanese were mangled in pretty much every physical challenge. Exhausted, the Japanese had no answer for the energy and motivational boost that the Ivorians enjoyed once their 'King Elephant' (Drogba) turned up and duly conceded 2 goals in a matter of minutes.
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A word for Arsenal, who is rumored to be looking at Serge Aurier to replace Sagna (who joined Man City) as the team's Right Back: Sign him up!
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Argentina 2 - Bosnia Herzegovina 1: Pushing me towards England
Messi had the best goal of the tournament thus far but his team raised plenty of tactical questions.
A colleague asked me today if the reason I looked like a panda bear was because of the World Cup or if it was because of my newborn daughter. I had only gotten up to watch one match at an ungodly hour over the weekend (Spain vs. Netherlands at 3am). The others were at 12mn, or 6 in the morning, just an hour earlier than my usual wake up time. Argentina-Bosnia was on at 6am today and after the opening goal (a Bosnia OG), I dozed off for the rest of the first half.
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I have NO idea that Argentina were trying to accomplish with the 3-4-1-2 they started the game with (with what looked to me like Mascherano as a '10!'). In my half-unconscious state, I could hear the play-by-play commentator calling the game as if it was Bosnia-Herzegovina who were creating the scoring chances. Argentina couldn't string 3 passes together!
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I had to get ready for work by the second half. And so did Sabella, reverting to a more logical 4-3-3 with ex-Real Madrid player Fernando Gago in the central midfield. The front 3 remained unconvincing for me: with Messi playing as a false 9 means that striking talents of the team like Higuain and Aguero will be playing in the flanks. Yes, yes, yes, Messi might be the best player in the world when on song (and his goal duly demonstrated that), but in this situation, his role doesn't make full use of his teammates' talents.
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One of my picks to possible make the final remains unconvincing.
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Germany 4 - Portugal 0: Pepe goes mad. AGAIN.
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Pepe self-destructs AGAIN.
I cheered for the Germans in Euro 2012 but became a skeptic of theirs because they're essentially playing this tournament with a 36(?) year old striker (Klose). Loew's side looks slightly different this tournament though. They looked like a 4-3-3 with Lahm and Kroos sitting deep and dictating play from there: creating a weird situation of Sami Khedira freely receiving passes in advanced position with space to feed the front 3 (as if he was a #10). Ozil and Gotze, both natural #10s, played on the flanks with Thomas Muller playing as the striker. Muller scored a hat trick and the scoreline looked great for the Germans. 
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Here's my tactical critique though: playing with natural CBs as fullbacks (Boateng and Howedes) and with #10s (Ozil and Gotze) as wide midfielders, they're the sort of team that can get choked up against a team with a great defensive set up.
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Let's call it what it really is. Germany won so handsomely because Portugal's players had their minds in Mars when this game happened. Pereira's silly, early conceded penalty, Rui Patricio passing the ball directly to a German player twice and most of all Pepe having completely lost his mind (2 red-card offenses: fouling a player who might have a clear goalscoring chance, and headbutting Muller). Pepe might never set foot on a world cup pitch again because of this, and it's hard to argue that he didn't deserve it. His team played a man down for majority of the match and look to miss him (their 2nd most important player to Ronaldo) for the rest of the competition.
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Portugal Iberian neighbour Spain as having been butchered at the hands of a Western European neighbor (Germany, Netherlands).

Friday, June 13, 2014

Pre-Weekend World Cup Ramblings, etc. (Brazil 3 - Croatia 1)

Now come on. That was NOT a penalty.
I took in the game (4am Singapore time) whilst ironing a pile of dried laundry that consisted of my clothes, my wife's, my son's, my daughter's and my in-laws'. I didn't manage to finish the entire pile (the other half will be left for tonight's Spain-Netherlands match, 3am tomorrow early morning).
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I managed to download an excel file where you plug the scorelines of the matches of the tournament, which in turn update the rankings in the group tables and eventually fill up the brackets in the elimination rounds. In filling it up and exchanging notes with some colleagues in the office, I was startled by how the groupings allow Brazil a very good chance of making it into the finals and winning it all. In my 'excel simulation', they reach the final to face either Spain or Argentina.
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Opening matches tend not to be great contests (I didn't watch South Africa's opening match in the last WC, and saw Germany steamroll Costa Rica in 2006). Brazil-Croatia was a proper contest though. Croatia had enough quality players to bother the hosts and it really looked like that when the match started.
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Brazil need to sort out how their fullbacks bomb forward. They can't just be all gung-ho about it because soon enough, someone will exploit them for it. Before Marcelo's 'opening (own) goal', Olic had already raided Brazil's right flank and sent in a dangerous cross as a 'warning'. Brazil didn't heed it and duly paid for it with Olic creating the tournament's first goal.
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The match for me was pretty balanced afterwards even after Neymar's great equalizer - and this was a great way to start the second half. Let me say it though: it was NOT a penalty. Lovren barely touched Fred who in my opinion should have been yellow carded for simulation instead. The decision altered the game completely. Oscar's goal (to make it 3-1) wouldn't have been possible if Croatia had not gone into full attack mode to get the equalizer - making the 3-1 scoreline too harsh. 
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A few things that bothered me about Brazil:
1.) Defensive coordination is a joke. When a fullback bombs down the flanks, the defense needs to adjust to the space left behind, it will be exploited by good teams and Brazil can end up paying a dear price for it.
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2.) The CB partnership isn't solid. This will be next season's PSG CB partnership... and it looks shaky. Luiz doesn't convince on clearances, last ditch interceptions / tackles, etc. Thiago Silva does NOT look like the world's best CB out there. A team with a great #9 can give this CB partnership problems if they carry on like this.
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3.) Center of midfield is dull. Gustavo and Paulinho offered no dynamism. No great passes, no ability to keep possession in advanced positions, no dynamic runs. There is way too much reliance on Neymar and Oscar alone to create. 
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My Man of the Match: Oscar
Everyone will be talking about Neymar for sure. Given the #10 shirt, he's the undisputed star player of Brazil and scored 2 goals in the opener starring for his country on home soil. That #10 shirt however, should have gone to the real #10 in the team instead: Oscar.
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He ended the season poorly for Chelsea but I have to say that I really like what I saw from the baby-faced playmaker last night. Without the ball, he was all over Modric, refusing to give Croatia's chief creator any time or space to create anything. This aggressiveness without the ball is what saw him barrel through 3 Croata players to send the ball into space for Neymar to tie the game. His tireless running is also what saw him create and capitalize on that half chance to seal the game 3-1. 
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He's got a great knack for finding a pass to open up the defense and create a scoring chances it was there for all to see last night.
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Final Thoughts: Cesc to Chelsea? Really???
Cesc wears 4 as a tribute to his idol Pep Guardiola. He instead should probably have selected #8 jersey Frank Lampard left behind.
My wife will be mighty pissed off to see this. I'm honestly surprised that this happened and a few questions / criticisms come to mind.
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1.) This is a real 'egg-in-your-face' moment for FC Barcelona. Today's bandwagoner fans of FC Barcelona will probably not remember that their club's bandwagoner fans of the past were at a state of righteous indignation when Arsenal were trying their hardest to hold on to Fabregas. They argued that it was some sort of birthright of Barca for Fabregas to return (which IMO is ridiculous). A Barca player of the time (I forgot who) even suggested that Cesc was being treated like a slave. Now they let him go to the club managed by one of their mortal enemies.
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2.) This tells me that the Fabregas signing was a tactical failure, just like like the Ibrahimovic signing (speaking of which, I read his autobiography, and it's magnificently entertaining). They signed Ibra to have a proper striker leading the line for them, only to throw money into the ocean when they decided to allow Messi to lead the line and use their most expensive signing (at the time) as a spare tire - selling him to Milan on the cheap. In a similar vein, they signed Fabregas presumably as an alternative to Xavi, or as some part of their midfield 3 but just couldn't make it work. The price paid for this process of forcing this tactical intent to work was the loss of Thiago Alcantara to Bayern (who looks much more convincing as a Xavi alternate). Cesc has instead seen plenty of time as part of the front 3 (where Barca have plenty of choices). The signing of Rakitic from Sevilla looks more likely for Barcelona now. It might turn out to be a Croatian vs. Croatian battle in midfield for the next clasico.
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3.) Is Fabregas going to become Mourinho's new Frank Lampard? Mourinho's Porto and Chelsea both made use of a 4-3-3. Having been gifted with genius-level #10s in Inter (Sneijder) and Real Madrid (Ozil / Kaka), he then found himself using a 4-2-3-1 after. Now that he has dispatched Juan Mata to Man U, the only #10 left on his team is Oscar, who has the work rate for a midfield place in a 4-3-3 and can play as part of a front 3 (like Joe Cole during Mourinho's first spell at Chelsea). Having signed his new Makelele (Nemanja Matic) in last season, while closing in on his new Drogba (Diego Costa), will Cesc become the new Frank Lampard in Mourinho's re-booted 4-3-3 in Chelsea?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Penultimate Step (Bayern Munich 0 - Real Madrid 4)

So it is done. The road to Lisbon is clear. On May 24th, Real Madrid will go to Lisbon having earned its rightful opportunity to raise its 10th European Cup - 12 years after we raised the 9th. I honestly never imagined that it would be like this. Bayern President Karl-Heinze Rummenigge warned us that the trees would burn in Munich. Despite the fact that Ancelotti non-chalantly replied that it was raining, Rummenigge's 'prophecy' came true. He failed to mention though that it would be Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo who would set fire to the Allianz Arena.
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From Zeroes to Heroes: Cristiano Delivered on his promise 2 seasons ago. And after the endless stream of jokes from his failed penalty, including from Manuel Neuer, Ramos finally made Neuer his bitch twice tonight.  
2 seasons ago, our Champions League campaign ended in tears after going out on penalties to Bayern Munich. Sergio Ramos became the butt of all jokes for his failed penalty with Manuel Neuer publicly poking fun at him as well. Cristiano Ronaldo on the other hand had his penalty saved and duly promised a final to the fans whilst commiserating in his team's failure. Tonight, both men delivered in the biggest possible way. Ramos stuck 2 early daggers to Bayern's heart early in the game. Ronaldo would then take a samurai sword and do the unspeakable to Bayern Munich.
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Should we raise the 10th on the 24th of May, there will be absolute silence about having an easy route. Real Madrid have put to sleep the 3rd, 2nd, and best teams in Germany, the country whose clubs have heaped so much misery on Madrid historically.  
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Carlo Was Right
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Great teams take on the personalities of their great coaches. Under Ancelotti's non-chalant personality, we managed to eradicate our phobia of German teams, including their best one.
Understandably, all the talk after the first leg was tactics. Ancelotti, who had preached possession football since his arrival at the club was pretty much forced by Pep's re-booted Bayern to play 2 banks of 4 while playing the sort of counter attacking football that had purists and tiki-taka taliban members up in arms. Comparisons were made to Mourinho's Chelsea (who managed a draw at the Calderon and a win at Anfield using 'similar' tactics). Guardiola's 'philosophy' was questioned, defended and scrutinized to no end. 
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I was honestly no different. I constantly asked myself whether we'd see the 4-4-2 again and as a result, see Gareth Bale on the bench. I worried at Carletto's announcement that he would play the BBC tonight. Now that he had his 2 best players back, was Carlo going to get into a gun-slinging match vs. Bayern??? At the Allianz??? Wouldn't that be too risky? I asked all sorts of questions and worried till my fingers were pretty much numb for the first 10 minutes of the match. All I thought was: 'All we need is a goal' and that just might be enough. Who knew we'd get 4???
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Carlo's wise words (channelling Star Wars' Yoda) prior to the match echo within me at the moment: "The most dangerous thing in football is fear. Fear comes from the mind. If you think too much about your opponent, you're dead." He might as well have been doing a crit on Guardiola who had spent the last 2 weeks rationalizing his team's style of possession play as a means to stymie Madrid's 'athletes.'
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The Game was NOT decided by Tactics
What's perhaps surprising was that the game was NOT decided by tactics but by simple player performances. Who played better? Who held their nerve? Who made mistakes? Who was sloppy? Who was sharp? And perhaps, who was hungrier? How else can you explain Sergio Ramos surgically removing Bayern's heart early in the first half?
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During the first leg's second half, as Bayern tired and Madrid grew in confidence during large spells of the second half, Madrid would win a handful of corners and Bayern cleared them all out comfortably. I thought to myself that with big, giant units like Schweinstieger, Boateng, Dante, even Kroos, it would be very difficult to score on a set piece against them. Was it perhaps that they faced only a 50% Ronaldo in the first leg and were suddenly overwhelmed by seeing a fully-fit Ronaldo leaping like a salmon to meet crosses? While it was Ramos who scored the 2 killer opening goals, it was Ronaldo who pretty much sucked all of the Bayern defenders' attention. Everyone was rightly worried by Ronaldo... and forgot who the king of the set piece headed goal was in Madrid before Ronaldo turned up: Ramos. Replays of the second goal show Boateng and Dante holding hands / locking arms to ensure Ronaldo doesn't dart beyond them.  When the ball goes up, the 2 CBs sandwich Ronaldo, opening up room for Ramos to head in. Or maybe they saw our weekend match vs. Osasuna (where it took Ramos 240 headed attempts to score a goal), and concluded that Ramos isn't a threat?
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Keeping possession vs. playing on the counter had absolutely NOTHING to do our 2 opening goals. It was all basics. And shockingly, Bayern failed in that regard.
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The World Gets to see the BBC
It wouldn't be a complete performance without the BBC would it? Bleeding to death after Ramos surgically removed their hearts with his 2 goals, Bayern would stammer and stumble for the rest of the match and fall into their dizzying spell of mindless, meaningless possession and eventually further stumbled into Pep Guardiola’s nightmare scenario: allowing the BBC to click into gear and make it 0-3.
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It was the sort of display that Carlo Ancelotti probably daydreamed about over a bowl of pasta: a ball won thanks to the work and industry of Di Maria who plays it to Benzema, who holds the ball for a split second (the go signal for Ronaldo and Bale to begin their sprint) before releasing it to the streaking Bale. One on one against the bigger, but slower Bayern Defender, the Welshman bursts like a Rocket with defender in toe, attempting to seal his left side to prevent him from turning and switching into that lethal left foot. But with his running mate (Ronaldo) bursting into space wide open to his left, a gentle poke would be enough to reach his goal-hungry Portuguese teammate. It was more than enough for Ronaldo, in the midst of the tournament’s greatest goalscoring feat (now at a record 16 goals) to score his 15th.  
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Talking Philosophically About Tactics
A firestorm seems to be brewing now re: tactics, formations and philosophies in lieu of all the football action that we have seen in the past 2-3 weeks. It seems pertinent now for us to seek a clearer definition of what attacking / defensive / attractive football is.
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Let me go with the easiest: for me, there is no standard for what is ‘attractive football.’ Everyone is free to decide which style or approach to the beautiful game they wish/prefer to enjoy: possession, counter-attacking, route 1, rearguard action or even catennancio. I reject the notion that there is an authority out there who can assess whether a particular way of playing is attractive or not. It is simply a matter of preference. We can observe however, that teams that like to attack are generally viewed as ‘attractive’ while teams who don’t like to attack are deemed ‘unattractive’.
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The second part of the discussion then is about how one defines an attacking team vs. a defensive team. I’ll start by saying that formations are NOT the determinants of an attacking / defensive system. The 4-3-3 / 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1, etc. can all be used as attacking or as defensive systems.
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What I learned and wish to propose however is that playing a certain style doesn’t necessarily mean your team is attacking / defensive. Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund are a team that thrive on the counter but can hardly be called a defensive team. And this is where what I have to say will sting the tiki-taka Taliban: playing possession-football does NOT mean you’re an attacking team. If the possession is played to have the team flood forward, find space and use the constant movement of players and the ball at speed against the opponent, then it is attacking. But if the possession is overly obsessed about control, about slowing the pace of the game down, then even if you have 95% possession, it is ultimately a defensive system, whether by intent or implication.
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Gripped by his fear of Madrid’s ‘athletes’, Guardiola used possession not as an offensive weapon the way his Barcelona destroyed us 2-6 and 5-0 at home, but as a defensive tool: slowing the pace of the game down to ‘take the sting off’. So here, let me say it: Pep’s use of possession-style over the 2 legs was defensive. In contrast, Ancelotti’s approach to use his players’ qualities (searing pace, power) on the counter was ‘attack-minded’: as his players flooded forward with murderous intent every time they had the ball.
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It’s time to abandon this ridiculous notion of counter-attack = defensive / possession = attacking.
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Mental Breakdwon
After the match, Pep Guardiola rightly stood up and accepted responsibility for the loss. His tactics became defensive in nature (see above) because he sought more to act out of fear for Madrid’s qualities rather than acting out of confidence on his own team’s qualities. The impact however was far greater on the pitch.

If Bayern had a poor tactical approach alone, they might’ve lost 1-0 again (to the BBC goal), or even 2-0 with Ronaldo’s clever free kick. There would have been no shame in getting bounced out by a team that tactically outfoxed them. The humiliation however came from the scoreline and from how thorough Madrid’s superiority was over them.
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It was very clear to me that Bayern mentally collapsed during the game. They mentally collapsed because after 90 minutes plus a bit more, it became very clear that their approach to the game was not going to work. We could have played in this manner for another 180 minutes or even 360 minutes and the outcome might have been 5-1, 10-2, 15-3, and so forth – and every Bayern player on the pitch knew it. Ancelotti’s tactics and the team’s perfect execution exposed the Pep’s error and drained the fighting spirit from Bayern’s players.
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They conceded 2 goals from cheap defensive errors, grew frustrated and lashed out with their anti-football: violent tackles (Dante), picking fights and even slapping our players (Ribery).
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Ancelotti’s confidence in his approach and in his team was so great that when told that Real Madrid had never won in Munich, he replied with 2 words: “I have.” He did it too without gloating, taunting or stirring up any controversy. He only smiled and lifted his famous eyebrow.
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Bayern on the other hand, after the match at least, acted graciously in defeat. They acknowledged our team’s superiority and accepted their errors. No one blamed the pitch, or pointed to the possession / passing statistics to indignantly insist that they played more football.
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The Final Step
Tonight was the penultimate test. The final test will be on the 24th of May – and Real Madrid must take that step without Xabi Alonso on the pitch. The final test will be a very different one too, and Real Madrid must find a way to pass the very test which they made Bayern fail: to win it all while being the team in control of possession.
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If we meet Chelsea in the final, they are sure to park the bus(ses).
Neither Atleti nor Chelsea will be interested to play possession football. Chelsea have found their formula (sit deep, wait for mistakes), whilst Atleti have theirs (chase the opponent all over the pitch). Tactically speaking, the absence of Alonso might be felt more vs. Atleti (where the ability to move the ball when pressed is more critical) than against Chelsea. But both will pose a very different challenge from the one we just faced. It is important to remember that. But with still a month to go, now isn't the time to think about that.
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I never imagined this day: looking forward to seeing my team in the Champions League final. It’s been too long and the road to arrive at this point has been paved with so many bitter memories and disappointments. Everything feels new. I’m pretty sure many have this very same feeling. The feeling of being reborn.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Spray Painting the Black Beast White (Real Madrid 1 – Bayern Munich 0)

'Reyes De Europa': The Kings of Europe. 2 more matches like last night and it will come true.
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Nevermind that the scoreline could have been 3-0. Last night, Real Madrid delivered a performance that demonstrated that IF (and it still remains to be a big ‘IF’) they were to lift La Decima this season: that they were capable of the sort of performance that Champions League trophy winners deliver. All that is left now is to repeat the trick twice… and hopefully, next week, we won’t have to do it with our 2 best players only at 50% fitness.
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Growing a Spine and showing our Guts
I recently joined the ever growing band of critics of this Real Madrid side who charged that despite the team’s newfound ability to play possession football, that it was a spineless, gutless bunch of chokers (who couldn’t beat big teams) following their near-catastrophic collapse at the Signal Igduna Park. It didn’t take long however, before this team shut me and my fellow critics and skeptics up with their Copa Del Rey winning performance vs. Barca. Perhaps it was in that match where one could say that this team began to display the positive symptoms of a championship-winning side: defensive organization, the absence of suicidal / stupid errors, work rate and the ability to kill the enemy when the opportunity presented itself (or as in the case of Bale’s goal, insisting on the presence of an opportunity to kill the enemy even when that didn’t seem to be the case).
People say Xavi, Yaya Toure, Vidal, etc. when they talk about the world's best Central Midfielders. I say Modric should be included in the discussion.
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Bereft of our 2 best players at their best (Ronaldo and Bale), Madrid relied on the same qualities that gave us the opportunity to see Sergio Ramos drop his second Copa Del Rey trophy off the team bus (an opportunity he thankfully didn’t take). Across the board, the team played superbly: Ramos and Pepe had ZERO errors (their first this season), Carvajal had Ribery in his pocket, Di Maria had Alaba in his. Coentrao and Isco worked together to sterilize Robben (Coentrao in fact, reminded me of Bassam's bold statement that when he's on his game, he's the best left back in the world). Alonso was an absolute boss. Modric demonstrated that when we talk about the world's best Central Midfielders, he should be in the conversation (Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox were BOTH singling him out for praise). Iker became a forcefield when it was needed. Benzema showed why he is the perfect striker for this team. And Ronaldo, even at 50%, showed that he learned A LOT watching the Copa Del Rey Final from the bench (that he too can make a killer pass and doesn’t need to sprint with the ball every single time he gets it).

Sergio Ramos and Pepe were Defensive Titans vs. Bayern. Not often you hear that said about them, but it was certainly true last night.
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We are now at that point of this tournament where winning does not come only from moments of magic and sorcery from the special players, but more importantly, it comes from the ENTIRE TEAM doing the simple things perfectly over and over again ad nauseum. We didn’t win because this or that guy did something out of this world. We won because from player 1-11 plus the 3 subs, everyone did every simple little thing to near perfection and the other team wasn’t able to do it as well. This is what great championship teams routinely do. And our boys managed to do it in the biggest of games against the biggest of teams time last night.
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Cup-Tie Strategy
Bayern Munich are Real Madrid’s ultimate Champions League Black Beast. UK Sky Sports / ESPN FC’s Graham Hunter (writer of that Barca book) pointed out a really neat fact: that the only times Real Madrid have ever eliminated Bayern Munich in a Champions League elimination ties was when we kept a clean sheet at home. Until last night, this has only happened 4 times: in 1988, 2000, 2002 (when we won the 9th) and 2004.
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Last night’s scoreline was 1-0. I value the ‘0’ more than the ‘1’. And even if it was 2-0 or 3-0, I would still have valued the ‘0’ more. I would in fact argue that it may not be that bad that the current aggregate scoreline is only 1-0. Bringing a 2-0 or a 3-0 to Munich might be a recipe for a repeat of the Debacle at Dortmund (with more serious consequences). A 1 goal lead gives us an advantage, but also ensures that the team retains its edge and helps a great deal in eliminating any false sense of security that might creep in (like what happened vs. Dortmund).
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I am also perhaps part of a minority that prefers to play the second leg of a cup tie away. Despite playing in hostile territory, your goals count for more when things REALLY count. And heading into next week’s tie with no away goals conceded means that every goal we score is easily worth more than theirs. We’ve seized the initiative in this battle, on Tuesday, it’s time to ‘take it home.’
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Pondering, Ponderous Pep
Pep Guardiola had 2 important tactical dilemmas heading into last night’s match. And in my opinion, on both counts, he opted for the wrong option.
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His first dilemma was on where to play Philip Lahm: as defensive midfielder? Or right back? Lahm seems to be Pep’s favourite player due to the Germany Captain’s intelligence on the ball. It was this very quality that has led Pep to ‘convert’ Lahm into a defensive midfielder. Lahm however, also happens to be the world’s best right back, perhaps the only player who will not make his manager lose sleep at the thought of going head to head with Cristiano Ronaldo. Last night, Pep decided to play Lahm as his midfield pivot: and duly enjoyed a good performance from the little German, especially in the opening 15++ minutes of the match where he controlled the match. This meant however that Arjen Robben and the mediocre Rafinha would have to defend against the world’s best attacking left wing combo (even a 50% CR and Coentrao, instead of Marcelo, Madrid still has the best attacking left flank in world football). He duly paid the price when Ronaldo and Coentrao combined to create Benzema’s goal. Javi Martinez would come in later on to play the pivot with Lahm back as Right Back. It was too late though.
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Pep’s second dilemma was about tempo. His greatest triumphs as Barca manager was his 5-0 and 2-6 El Clasico wins against us which all featured pinball-on-steroids style of passing and moving on possession. When possession is lost whilst playing at such a frenzied pace however, Bayern become more susceptible to pace on the counter. And having seen how lethal we were vs. Barca during the Copa Del Rey final, plus the fact that we now have TWO cheetahs in the team (Ronaldo and Bale), he probably thought that there was merit to a more measured, probing-style approach to the game. I do not understand however why he did not consider the fact that Ronaldo wasn’t 100% and that Bale was ill. Last night, Bayern, controlled possession (75%) but they were slow and lacked incisiveness. Choosing to be ponderous rather than to play pin-ball-style sterilized their possession and played right into our hands: it allowed us those few precious additional split-seconds to organize and set up to prepare for their next wave of attacks.
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Pep got it wrong last night. He probably knows it. For Madrid, the team must brace itself for a more intense and frenetic Bayern at the Allianz Arena. Hopefully by then, our 2 Cheetahs (CR and Bale) will both be fit and hungry enough to tear their flesh.
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Changing Gears
Ancelotti won the tactical battle vs. Guardiola last night, giving the Ex-Barca coach his first loss in the Bernabeu
Stage 1 of the ‘Ancelotti Era’ has seen the team find its preferred system: an attacking, possession-based 4-3-3 that utilized Alonso’s intelligence and passing range together with Modric and Di Maria’s work rate and dynamism in midfield behind the BBC. The team took a few knocks while ‘stumbling’ into this system but has now managed to use the system comfortably. No longer is the team addicted to running at the opponent at 200 mph once the ball is won, only to struggle and ‘hit a wall’ once they are met with a compact and organized team. Playing in this ‘Mode 1’, the team has learned to be comfortable in keeping the ball, circulating possession and probing for an opening. What we all learned the hard way however was that there are teams out there like Barcelona or Bayern who can and will out-possess and out-pass us – and that there are teams out there, who are quick, energetic and athletic who can punish us by capitalizing on the inherent weaknesses in ‘Mode 1’.
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Stage 2 of the ‘Ancelotti Era’ is where the 4-3-3 becomes a 4-4-2 when the ball is lost. When in ‘4-4-2 mode’ it gives the team 2 neat banks of 4 to defend against teams who are out to out-possess us, gives us a second pivot next to Alonso to protect the Basque (normally Modric) and a wide midfielder to track the opposing attacking fullbacks. The ‘4-4-2 mode’ is also Ancelotti’s celebration of Mourinho’s ‘Formula 1 Football’ legacy: making use of the fact that we have the world’s 2 deadliest and fastest winger-forwards (Ronaldo and Bale).
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Ancelotti’s triumph however is the team’s ability to change gears as and when. We saw it in the Mestalla last week and we saw it again last night: when in ‘4-4-2 mode’ while defending, the team punished Barcelona and Bayern viciously on the counter, but when given time and space on the ball, Real Madrid would switch to ‘4-3-3 mode’, and was completely comfortable in possession, probing the opponent for openings to exploit.
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I never believed it possible that within one season, Real Madrid would be able to find a tactical approach as flexible and as sophisticated as the one which we have showcased over the last 2 matches against 2 of the world’s biggest clubs in the most critical of matches. Ancelotti deserves praise, credit and admiration for this.
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Facing our Inner Demons
They say that victory is attained when we are able to face and vanquish our innermost demons. In the Champions League, German Teams have become the vilest and most evil of inner demons that haunt us. They are, as many call them our ‘Black Beast.’ This season in the Champions League, we’ve eliminated the 3rd best team (Schalke 04), the 2nd best team (Borussia Dortmund) and now hold a slimmest of advantages over their champion (Bayern Munich) heading into next week’s 2nd leg. Might this be the season where we can truly slay the beast?
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If Real Madrid makes it to Lisbon on the 24th of May, the perhaps it’s time to spray paint this Black Beast White.