Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Merengue Bites: Happy Bridesmaids

It was only 2nd place in La Liga for us - but a great run nonetheless for Zidane and the boys as they recovered from the Rafa regime. Ryan, Rahul and I also talked about our chances vs. Atleti in the UCL Final


The Podcast can also be streamed / downloaded here:


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Merengue Bites: A May Day Comeback

Long Time, No Talk. I even forgot the name of the podcast before recording. But here we are after a long time.
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We talked about the suddenly-available possibilities of end-of-season trophies and what we'd like to see happen beyond.
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Enjoy!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Warm-Up (Real Madrid 4 - Sevilla 0)

Real Madrid-Sevilla in pictures
Keylor Navas was brilliant AGAIN last night for us.
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Applause is in order for Real Madrid last night. Nevermind that we faced Sevilla at home (who are terrible on the road) - we were always the favorites to win anyway. Let's make no mistake about it: Zinedine Zidane is doing a 'live practice season' as we speak: we are out of La Liga (nevemind that both Atleti and Barca dropped points this weekend) and we are out of the Copa Del Rey. We did we get lucky avoiding Barca, Atleti, Bayern and PSG in the Champions League Quarter-final though, facing one of them in the semi-final however, is an inevitability. And let's not kid ourselves too much about having the ability to beat them. The moment we get to the CL semi-finals, when we begin to tread in the waters of Barca and Bayern, it's good to be honest with ourselves as to the team's current capability. We as fans are not playing for anything any longer. Zidane and the boys however are: they are playing for their places in the team next season. So when Sevilla turns up in town, it's best for them to be on their best 'behaviour' - most especially if it's a prelude to a clasico. 
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Letdowns
Real Madrid-Sevilla in pictures
It was good to see Jese get on the scoresheet again last night. I did notice though that Vasquez was warming up too: I'm pretty sure it would have been Vasquez to play had Madrid not scored that late flurry of goals last night.
One of the things that I have found curious about Zidane's few months in charge is that he has displayed a tremendous amount of pragmatism in his spell as manager. His early weeks in charge have displayed a preference to work based not on the foundations laid out by Rafa Benitez at the start of the season, but on the principles of Carlo Ancelotti. We saw a 4-3-3 on attack that switched into a 4-4-2 on defense, featuring Kroos as the team's central 'pivot' with Modric pushing up and down to the German's right, whilst accompanied by a '10' on this left. We saw Gareth Bale deployed on the right wing and we also saw the  resumption of  the "Jese development project". 
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Specific to Zidane however was the selection of Isco over James in the '10' spot beside Kroos, presumably over James' injury and fitness issues. But then things started to go badly... the Isco/James-as-part-of-the-midfield-3 experiment was only ever going to work if the 2 were willing to put in the sort of effort that Angel Di Maria applied into the role. And neither did so. Isco was, to use basketball terminology, a 'ball-stopper' too: that player who dribbled too much instead of making the necessary quick touch passes to create momentum for the team on attack. So as far as Isco was concerned, he essentially reached a point where he wasn't giving what the team needed on attack (because he was a 'ball-stopper') and neither was we giving what the team needed in defense. Jese wasn't doing enough to merit his 'development project' status as well. He became too inconsistent and stopped taking his playing opportunities with both hands like he used to. To put it simply, many of these guys were not repaying Zidane's faith in them. They were becoming letdowns.
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'Re-Discovering Rafa'
Real Madrid-Sevilla in pictures
Casemiro's performances have necessitated for us to to re-open the conversation again: Should Real Madrid play with a specialist defensive midfielder again? I'm on the 'yes' camp.
So to put it simply, Zidane began 're-discovering' Rafa Benitez's findings. Lucas Vasquez got playing time and repaid Zizou's faith in him with a couple of assists. And most importantly, Carlos Casemiro was unearthed from the bench to give the team that much-needed player who would happily sit in front of the back 4, tackle and make the 4-yard pass. Yes, yes,, yes, he is no Xabi Alonso. But he is no Lass Diarra either. Remember him? The 'great' tackling midfielder who asked for the '10' jersey and would suffer fits of hallucination on the pitch where he thought he was Zidane and dribbled the ball on solo-slaloming runs to the opposition third - only to be dispossessed and concede a counterattacking chance to his opponent?  Yes - I remember him. He was the one some delusional fans used to describe as 'Lass is Class'. 
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Carlos Casemiro isn't Claude Makelele just yet either. The young Brazilian however is happy to play the role and nothing more. He will tackle anything that comes near him (even if after the referee blows his whistle, which was how he got his yellow card yesterday), he will recover balls to keep the momentum of the attack, and he will make simple passes no longer than 10 yards to the guy next to him (who most frequently are Kroos or Modric). Having played with Makelele, Zidane knows not just the value, but the absolute need for a player like Casemiro on the team.
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At our team's very best, we've always had great players in this role for us everytime we won titles: Redondo, Makelele and most recently, Khedira (for Mourinho's 100 point, 100 goal league-title-winning team). Most recently, this role was equally shared by Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria. Neither are still with us and we are in season #2 of trying to re-create the combination. Perhaps it's time to search for Makelele, or Khedira again - and that Casemiro might be the man for the job. When on the pitch, Casemiro allows Kroos to push up higher allowing Real Madrid's 'attacking platform' to be a good 10-15 meters closer to the opponents' goal. 
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I really believe that Kroos can still deputize in that role for games without Casemiro. But more and more, I am becoming convinced that if we are in need of a proper defensive midfielder out there. Isco and James will have to wait for their turn as alternatives to Modric and Kroos for the rest of the season. 
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The BBC Broadcasts again
Real Madrid-Sevilla in pictures
The BBC was at it again last night

In this season of Barcelona's South American (a unique combo of Argentine, Uruguayan and Brazilian talent) ''MSN' trio destroying everything in its wake. it's too easy to forget that this has been the season where our own European (a Portuguese, A Frenchman and a Welshman) 'BBC' trident has had an injury-plagued season. And when Benzema hasn't been hurt, he's been embroiled in a sex-tape scandal, and now in a drug-trafficking scandal. I know that Messi's had to miss a part of the season and that Neymar owes the taxman 45m Euros (or dollars?), but Madrid's trident have missed a bigger part of the season and have had to play larger parts of it only partially fit.
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But let's not argue. On talent alone, the MSN are in my opinion easily better than the BBC. Messi is better than Ronaldo, Neymar is better than Bale and Suarez is better than Benzema. Yeah, I said it. being better on talent alone however doesn't make a better team. After all I watched the 'Fantastic 4' (Etoo, Ronaldinho, Messi and Henry) fall against a squad that featured an ageing Raul, RVN and a young 'can't hit the wide side of a barn' Gonzalo Higuain. What is key the the team's chemistry and its ability to function TOGETHER as a unit. At the moment, the MSN is better at this than the BBC too.
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Last night's performance however showed glimpses of the BBC re-synchronizing with each other again: with Benzema's goal assisted by Bale, and Bale's goal started by Ronaldo and assisted by Benzema. It's a good start.
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Warm-Up
I will leave it to you the reader whether you prefer to see last night's game as a good warm up for next week's clasico or if like me, you prefer to see last night's match as a positive step for Zidane for his warmup for next season (where things will really count for him). What I choose to take heart from is that the team is taking steps towards the right direction under his guidance. His principles of attacking, attractive football are there to see - but the clarity of this thinking and his willingness to immediately act on problems he identifies are there to see as well. Philosophy alone (that which purists in the Blaugrana camp obssess about) will not impress me - the ability to apply pragmatism when a situation calls for it is just as important to me. Above all, those who currently play for the team are playing on merit, not on reputation, pay grade, sentiment, color of passport or 'philosophy'. 
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These may be small steps in the right direction for the team. But many of these small steps put together can establish and rework the team's dressing room culture. It is an approach for the long haul - and it is an opportunity that Zidane knows he enjoys which no other Madrid manager in the immediate past has ever enjoyed (how many coaches do you know have a brief that states: this season is a goner, now take the next 6 months, work something out for us to achieve things NEXT season?). Looking long term has never been Madrid's strength, and whether by design or accident, the opportunity to do so is in Zidane's hands. And based on how he's been handling things these past few months, I can only say that I'm mostly getting a nice warm feeling inside. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Andalusian Blues (Malaga 1 - Real Madrid 1)

The Eraserheads: Andalusian Dog

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I thought I'd start with that with a semi-obscure song (to their casual fans) from the Eraserheads (a legendary rock band from the Philippines I worship), Andalusian Dog - given that trips to Andalusia have constantly been giving Real Madrid fits of trouble. Last night's trip to Malaga, which ended in a 1-1 draw was no different. It was a result that leaves us 9 points behind Barcelona - making it practically official that we are only just playing for pride in La Liga from this point forward.
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And here's the thing: we shouldn't even be just looking at the result. We should be looking at the performance too - and it was awful! Last night's match was a rare instance I could catch Real Madrid at a decent hour (11pm) - and their performance still had me dozing off during stretches. That first half seemed like it was taking forever! Make no mistake about it - last night's match was not 2 points lost for Real Madrid - it was 1 point won. We played awfully, scored an offside goal (granted that 'justice' was done with Ronaldo missing the penalty - perhaps he should have tried that Messi-Suarez trick?) and had Keylor Navas saving our skins yet again. 
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I get that it was a tough match on the road (a second consecutive one at that), but this is a team that claims to be title contenders. And title contending teams either play well but lose the odd road game, especially if it's the second of a back-to-back... or they win playing ugly with a massive dose of luck (e.g. an allowed offside goal against the run of play).
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Tactics & Personnel
The days before the game were brought unpleasant news of Karim Benzema being injured and unavailable for last night. I thus found myself wondering how Zidane would set the team up expecting both James and Isco to play with either Kovacic or Jese getting the nod in the starting XI. I will admit that I applauded Zidane's brave move to bench James (probably against Florentino's will) and start with Kovacic with Modric and Kroos at midfield. This was Zizou recognizing the fact that we were playing a serious team on the road and that we needed more solidity at midfield (Kovacic) and pace on the flanks (Jese). The game started with me wondering whether Jese would be played in his favored left wing position (where he could cut in and shoot), or whether Isco would be given this task. I always expected Ronaldo to move into the center to be the #9.
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Except this wasn't the case. Last night, it looked to me like Isco was deployed as a false 9, who looked to play CR7 and Jese into space - much like Diego Perrotti for Roma midweek. It was an experiment Ancelotti tried on numerous occasions which just didnt' work. Last night, Zidane tried it again and the outcome was similar. It disappointed me even more that after 45 mins. of the system not working, Zidane, perhaps encouraged by the (offside) goal we scored, persisted with the system. It didn't work. Malaga's equalizer came past the 60th minute and at the point where we were chasing the game, having a focal point to our attack would have been needed. We didn't have it. I was disappointed with how we managed our tactics to get back into the game.
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Performances
It's funny how small circumstances can completely change the narrative. By the 33rd minute: Cristiano Ronaldo had scored in consecutive away games against a good level team. That was the narrative, if you had chosen to ignore the fact that he was a yard offside.  By the 36th minute, he had won a penalty that would have had the storyline say: Ronaldo carries Madrid to victory in tough road game. But alas he misses the penalty, and with it the feel-good narrative about his road to recovery and Madrid's declaration of its championship credentials. 
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A closer look must go to the 2 beneficiaries of Madrid's injury crisis as well: Jese and Mateo Kovacic. Both gave good accounts of themselves in their substitute appearances midweek and logically, both were expected to provide a positive spark to their team last night after being rewarded with an opportunity to start. Instead, it was disappointment everywhere for the 2. Kovacic failed to add the invention and verticality his runs with the ball normally had and lost the ball in many of his touches with it. Jese too lost the ball on many occasions and hardly beat anyone off the dribble and gave the game very little of the pace which he was introduced into the game for.
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Lucas Vasquez later came on (for Jese) and seemed to add a bit, but it was ultimately not enough. Zidane also did the logical thing of 'trying' James in Isco's role (who was graciously applauded by the Malaga fans). But is there perhaps a merit to trying Casemiro? It seems the counter-intuitive thing to do, but I find the idea of sending Casemiro in to sit as the sole holder at midfield, to allow Kroos and Modric up the pitch to have some merit. 
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The simple truth to it however is that the team as a whole were just not at the races today - particularly the defense. After an imperious performance in Rome, Ramos looked as shaky as ever last night at La Rosaleda, sloppy with the ball and somehow always a step behind the pace of the match. 
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Finding Purpose
It's embarrassing to admit: but La Liga has become like Ligue 1 with Barcelona romping through un-opposed. As Real Madrid fans, it's not wrong to expect our team to put up a stronger challenge to them than what we've shown so far. 

La Liga is the latest league to follow the Bundesliga and Ligue 1: in that the league leaders are essentially romping through the competition unopposed. In Germany and France though, the economic might of the leaders (Bayern and PSG) when compared to the rest of the competition, is an easy explanation for the situation. The same can be said about Atleti in Spain - who are punching above their weight thanks to the work of Simeone. The same however, cannot be said about Real Madrid.
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For a club that prides itself as the top dog in Deloitte's Football Money league, it's an embarrassment that we've practically surrendered the league title to Barca in Feburary. There is no excuse. We are not a club with budget constraints. Madrid is not an industrial wasteland or some rural backwater. It is a beautiful, modern cosmopolitan city with lovely weather, offering the world's best footballers and their families the absolute best quality of life. Our squad deficiencies are an outcome of poor planning, the lack of a sporting vision and a childish fickle-mindedness in the making of sporting decisions. 
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Unless the Monstars from Space Jam 'steal' the powers of Barca's players, particularly the MSN, La Liga is practically gone. 
This season is a writeoff. The Copa Del Rey is gone because we eliminated ourselves from it. Unless the Monstars from Space Jam 'steal' the powers of Barca's players, particularly the MSN, La Liga is practically gone too. Zidane now has a massive problem on his hands. Though we still have a chance at the Champions League, the only way you can win it is if the team reaches a level of hyper-focus, sharpness and motivation. And the only stage to facilitate this is the League campaign, where the players can compete on a weekly basis. But despite the 'We will fight to the death' statements, how are we to believe that the players will genuinely have the highest level of motivation whilst faced with the common sense knowledge that Barca are too far ahead already? This will be Zidane's challenge.
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But even before we can even begin to explore these questions about the players' levels of motivation and focus, we have to get down to an even more basic and simple question: How do you even get them to play better?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Levelling Up (AS Roma 0 - Real Madrid 2)

The match's key events as they happened. Info Graphic is thanks to Sporticos.com

Not long after this (early) morning's (3:45am) viewing of Real Madrid's 0-2 victory at the Stadio Olimpico over Roma, I began reading reports and commentaries of the match. To my shock and rage, I found one of the pieces written in a critical manner about the way Real Madrid played. I was absolutely outraged. This is the Champions League people! And no, we weren't playing some team from Luxembourg who fielded a bunch of semi-pros that had day jobs waiting for them the next day. This was Roma, now coached by Luciano Spaletti - the same man who orchestrated our elimination 2-4 on aggregate in 2008, the same man who introduced the term 'false 9' into my football vocabulary. 
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After the sacking of Rudy Garcia, prior to this morning's match. Roma had been unbeaten in 6 of their last 7 matches (losing 1-0 to Juventus). Pjanic (I am still scarred by his goal for Lyon which eliminated us many years back). and Nainggolan would walk into the squad of any of the world's best clubs and while El Shaarawy and Mohammed Salah might have had a few career bumps recently (for Milan and Chelsea respectively), they are easily better than Amatino Mancini and Mirko Vucinic (scorers of Roma's winning goals in the respective legs of the 2008 tie that saw us eliminated). 
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Real Madrid are expected to win. I get that. But it's not fair to expect Real Madrid to swoop into the Stadio Olimpico and butcher the Romans 5-0.
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The Tactical Battle
It was 4-3-3 vs. 4-3-3 this morning at Rome.
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The game turned out as I expected actually. It was a cagey affair. Both sides played a 4-3-3 with Roma deploying ex-Sevilla winger Diego Perotti as a false 9. Spalletti's intent was clear: he was going to expose the space left behind by Carvajal and Marcelo to play El Sharaawy and Salah into space on the counter. And without the ball, he would keep it tight and organized.
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This approach (of using pace on the counter) is nothing new to anyone at Real Madrid. Our 2 seasons under Carlo Ancelotti plus the fact that Zidane's tactical approach has been very similar to that of Ancelotti's have meant that the team has learned to use possession and ball movement to unlock defenses. When faced with a team which played in a manner as organized as Roma this morning however, 'picking the lock' just takes a bit more time.
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Ancelotti and Zidane however are not dogmatic in their beliefs and do not obsess over philosophies. Thus, they do not consider it a violation of some form of football morals to use direct play to create scoring chances. They have no qualms about using a long ball (if the opportunity arises) to reach our 'athletes' (a word used in a semi-derogatory manner by Pep Guardiola to describe some of our players) up front, namely Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. This morning however, with James playing as part of the front 3 instead of the injured Gareth Bale, Real Madrid have had to use passing and movement even more so to pick the Roma defense open. 
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Bale's absence made Ronaldo's presence in the wide areas even more critical to the team's play, together with the presence of Carvajal on the right. It was thus an absolutely pleasant surprise to see Marcelo fit to play (and play such a critical role) this morning.
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Tale of the tape: Real Madrid dominated the match in terms of possession and shots.
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With their organization, Roma resisted us and executed their game plan well. The first half was a chess match between Isco-Kroos-Modric and Pjanic-Vanqueur-Nainggolan at midfield. Roma also managed to give Salah and El Sharaawy plenty of opportunities to break away, only to be met with the imperious Rafa Varane. Madrid enjoyed the domination of possession - and as with all teams who do so, what ultimately matters is how the possession is used. I am of the belief that barring the conccession of a goal on the counter, our control of the game, even during the cagey first half would eventually wear them out and give us an opening.
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This opportunity would come at the second half, ironically, of us giving them a taste of their own medicine. It was a transition of play, that allowed Marcelo to play our wide man (Cristiano Ronaldo) through to make it 0-1 Real Madrid.
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Cristiano Ronaldo
His walkout during the pre-match interview had been the much-talked about item prior to the match. A pundit remarked that he should rise above it and respond on the pitch instead. It was exactly what he did. Not only did Cristiano score, he also created plenty for Karim 'Mr. Champions League' Benzema too, which the Frenchman sadly was not able to capitalize on. 
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Since last season, I've written extensively on my aspiration to see Cristiano Ronaldo make a transition to become a full-fledged striker now that he is on the wrong side of 30 and has clearly lost a step in terms of his explosiveness, whilst still possessing his finishing ability, aerial power and physical strength. His resistance to this has been frustrating to me. Under Rafa Benitez, he has neither become a full fledged striker, nor has he retained his usual threat from the wing. 
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It seems though, that under Zidane, he is making a return to the left wing where he has been so effective since Mourinho's Madrid - following his usual M.O. of running at his defender, beating him, cutting in to his right, and firing a missile towards the goal. Throughout most of this season, I've noticed Ronaldo receiving the ball at a left-sided forward position, running towards goal, and using his left foot to shoot across his body at goal. The usual outcome of this is a goalkeeper save - because even though CR7 can shoot with equal power on his left foot, shots from his left boot can't quite swerve, dip and bobble with the same deftness as those from his right boot. I cannot count the number of times I've yelled at (the image of) Ronaldo (on my TV) this season to cut into his right foot to shoot, rather than use his left leg to take a square shot accross his body.
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Last weekend, against Athletic Bilbao, he did just that to score his first goal. This morning, he did exactly the same thing. In both cases, the goalkeeper had no chance. As a fan, it awakened something within me: "Yeah!!!! That's the CR7 I know!" I screamed within. I get the feeling that his team mates feel the same way too. 
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It was an away game, against a serious opponent, with high stakes - and Cristiano Ronaldo came up big. I am truly enjoying this these familiar sensations of my beloved club's superstar player producing the goods when it truly counts. 
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Zidane's Managerial Chops
While it is true that Zidane has been greatly aided by an easy schedule to start his coaching career, there isn't much I can fault him with. His decision to re-implement Carlo Ancelotti's 4-3-3-on-attack-4-4-2-on-defense system has proven to be the right thing to do: It has brought out the the best in Modric and revived Kroos' poor start to the season. He has also revived the 'Jese Development Project', which was derailed by the poor kid's injury as well as Rafa Benitez.
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But Zidane didn't just pull the 'Ancelotti blueprint' out of a photocopying machine: he is also exhibiting an awareness of Ancelotti's mistakes. We've seen him sub Modric and Kroos out of matches with Madrid holding healthy leads to give the 2 key players a rest while giving the likes of Mateo Kovacic a chance to get their feet wet (he even gave the young Croatian a start last weekend where the #16 turned in a good performance).
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All this was in full display this morning. Zizou played the system to a first half stalemate in the first half, and kept the faith on his players' quality to come through. Not long after taking the lead, Zidane made the pragmatic (and in my opinion, correct) decision, to pull Isco out and introduce Kovacic in - providing fresher legs and his knack for pushing  the ball up vertically an added dimension to a more open game, less in need of Isco's lock-picking. Once again, the young Croatian played well alongside Kroos and his compatriot, Modric.  This was duly followed by the introduction of Jese - both as part of the 'Jese Development Project' and to add pace and directness to a game that saw Roma pushing forward in a bid to get something out of the game. The young Las Palmas native duly fulfilled his role, scoring a goal on a counter-attacking move thanks to his pace. And finally, with his 0-2 away lead, we were all shocked to see Ronaldo subbed off in place of Casemiro who was tasked to 'close the shop.'
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It was a great display of Zidane's management chops: a system that maximized his players' talent, patience after a goalless and cagey first half, the reconfiguration of his team to a more direct one following the lead, and finally pragmatically closing the shop to end the game.
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Zidane as a coach might not turn out to be some trophy-hogging genius like Pep Guardiola. But one thing's for sure, he's NOT a supermodel-figurehead-talking head-all-flash/no-substance coach. He knows what he's doing.  
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Time to Level Up
After starting our Zidane era mostly playing weak teams at home and away, at the beginning of the year, the time has come for the degree of difficulty to start rising. A tricky trip to Malaga awaits us this weekend, which is only a prelude to the Madrid derby afterwards. We've had plenty of time to settle in with Zidane. Now come the challenges of what's left of the season to test the team if it has found the road to recovery... or if this is just yet another of many false dawns. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Merengue Bites Podcast: 2015-2016: Episode 3.

New Manager. New Optimism / Enthusiasm. It was a full crew as Ryan, Kaushik, Rahul and myself decided there was enough of a feel-good vibe within the club for us to get together to talk Real Madrid once again.
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The Podcast can also be downloaded / streamed here:

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sifting Through the Rubble (Real Madrid 0 - Barcelona 4)

It was hard to openly admit it coming into the match, but I have to now confess heading into this game that I truly believed we would lose last night's clasico. That we would be humiliated in the manner that we were however, was a totally different matter.
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Prior to last Saturday's clasico, Barcelona have been flying. With the odds stacked against them, they have overcome a transfer ban that has forced them to work with a depleted squad, they have overcome various injuries and suspensions (Pique) and more importantly, they have managed to keep racking up the wins and did so in glorious fashion (not just 'getting the 3 points') without the greatest player in their club's history. Just as the Bernabeu showed its class by giving Andres Iniesta an ovation last night (on the 10 year anniversary of Ronaldinho being given the same honor), we as Madridistas must tip our hats to Barcelona for that they have achieved. From their management, to their coaching, down to the players: their accomplishments given the obstacles that have been laid their way should be applauded, praised and congratulated by Madridisimo.
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Last Saturday's debacle however was not only the product of Barcelona playing some blindingly impressive football. It was also a product of a catastrophic failure of Real Madrid on multiple levels - from the management (President), the coaching and the players. There is a very understandable outburst of anger aimed particularly at Florentino Perez and Rafa Benitez at the moment as seen in the panoladas that started at a disturbingly early part of the match (who could blame the Bernabeu, the team was getting skinned alive from kickoff?). The 2 surely must take responsibility for last night. EVERYONE in the club however must collectively take responsibility and look at themselves in the mirror.
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Is this the Death Spiral of Florentino's 2nd Presidency?
The Infamous Panolada happened at the Bernabeu last Saturday. Is this the omen for the Death Spiral of Florentino's 2nd Presidency?
Florentino famously won trophies during the early years of his first presidency, doing so while amassing superstar talent which reinforced the club's reputation as the world's most glamorous football club. He also infamously fired a classy, level-headed and much-loved manager (both by fans and players) - Vicente Del Bosque, before the club went into a death spiral that led to Perez's own resignation.
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At the end of last season, Perez's 2nd presidency has essentially been marked by winning every trophy already: the Copa Del Rey, the La Liga Title (both won by Mourinho) and the elusive La Decima. Having completed, this 'cycle' of trophies, he then fired the man many consider the 'The Italian Del Bosque'. If we were to refer to the pattern of Perez's first presidency, this might be the beginning of the death spiral for his second presidency.
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Does Florentino Perez live in a bubble or not? The arguments in favor of Uncle Flo living in a bubble lies in his failure to see that the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti, a coach loved both by the players and fans. was just plainly, a stupid idea. The idea of him NOT living in a bubble is this: if the fans and players don't blame Ancelotti for last season's failures, then surely the eyes of blame would all be focused on him. Cynical a view as it may be, during bad times, having a wildly popular, respected and loved coach like Ancelotti would NOT be good for the president. It exposes what's wrong with the system (the fact that Florentino Perez and Jose Angel Sanchez, a construction magnate and a financial guru respectively, are the club's de facto Sporting Directors).
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In fairness to Florentino, this summer's transfer activity was not one spent obsessing mindlessly over a 'galactico'. His failed summer courtship of David De Gea was a clear attempt to address a problem position we had (anyone who tells me he knew Keylor was going to be at Iker Casillas's level circa 2000-2010 is lying). The re-acquisition of Casemiro from Porto has been an inspired decision whilst choosing to listen to Rafa's recommendation on Lucas Vasquez was wise as well. There are those who are crying foul over Danilo. The signing of the Brazilian to me was not to upgrade our Right Back position, but to prevent Barcelona from upgrading theirs.
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In my opinion, Florentino deserved the jeers, white handkerchiefs and calls for resignation. Those in my opinion however ought to be the end of his 'punishment' - I do not believe he deserves to fall on his sword for this. The public firestorm over last Saturday's embarrassment ought to be a sobering enough reminder to him, that the fans will not fall for his coach scapegoating tricks. That we know he's part of the problem.
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Rafa Benitez - from a Buffoon to a Coward
It's been 10 years since 'The Miracle of Istanbul'. Was that Rafa's peak and are we now riding his decline?
"I'd hire a Pole!" was the reply by a dear Madridista friend to my question to him of "who would you replace Rafa with?" in my response to his "Rafa out!"stance. That many Madridistas feel that a wooden stick would do a better job of coaching this team than Rafa Benitez is indicative of what a massive failure last Saturday was for him.
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Before last night, many Madrid fans perceived Rafa Benitez as a sub-Real Madrid standard manager who clumsily bundled his way into the Real Madrid job. It's been 10 years since 'The Miracle of Istanbul', whilst 'The Debacle of Napoli' is still fresh in all our minds. These days, we associate Rafa Benitez more as a buffoon who eats the plastic wrap of his sandwich more than as some form of tactical mastermind.
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The truth is that before last Saturday, I actually thought that Rafa was doing a relatively decent job. The team was winning despite a long list of injuries to key players (Modric, Bale, James, Benzema, Marcelo, Kovacic, Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Pepe, even Keylor Navas), whilst previously unheralded players were getting their chances and turning in some good performances (Kovacic, Casemiro, Vasquez, Nacho). The defense has looked pretty good too (perhaps partly helped by Keylor being absolutely brilliant). I also do not see his constant swopping of formations to be a bad thing either: having tried the 4-2-3-1, the 4-3-3 and even the 4-4-2. A new coach trying different systems to find the best fit for his ever-changing list of available players to me shows pro-activeness and open-mindedness.
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What I cannot stand however is cowardice. If Rafa believes in defensive football (or to use his term 'balance'), then he should own it. He should play the team he wants and in the way that he wants, not what he thinks others want. The team he should have fielded last Saturday should have been the team which he felt would give us the best possible chance of winning, NOT the team that he feels will get him the least amount of flak afterwards.
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Gareth Bale (injured), James (injured / flew in from South American Internationals), Benzema (injured / involved in a sextape+extortion scandal) had all hardly played leading up to last Saturday. Even if they were physically 100%, they were all not match fit for sure (which is why I am not going to criticize his decision to go with Danilo over Carvajal). That James, Bale and Benzema created chances or almost scored is a different matter. Instead, the likes of Casemiro, who was fit and on form was excluded.
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Why? Because Florentino pressured him to play the super star team? Because the fans would crucify him for being defensive by playing Casemiro? Because the team's 'senior players' supposedly confronted him and pressured him into 'attacking Barcelona'??? Rafa was a coward because he opted for what turned out to be this false notion of 'attacking' Barca even if he didn't believe in it deep down inside. He broke under the will and pressure of the whispers of those around him to field a team that was ideal personnel-wise or prepared tactics-wise to face Barcelona instead of the team which he knew in his heart of hearts would have done something more meaningful out there.
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Real Madrid were tactically a broken team. They gave Barcelona an ocean of space to operate and and do as they wished.
Real Madrid played as a broken team, with a sea of space for Barca's players to enjoy their passing and find their angles for Suarez and Neymar to rip our hearts out... and no one enjoyed this more than Andres Iniesta. On this false notion of intending to 'attack' Barcelona, the team hoped for a gun-slinging match like during the latter-Mourinho / early-Ancelotti era. Last Saturday was no cowboy-style gun-slinging duel: Madrid played like shadows chasing shadows.
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The ultimate and sad irony of it all is that the root Rafa's cowardice was his decision to pretend to be brave and 'attack' Barca with his superstar team - pretending to be someone he's not, and making decisions to avoid criticism in the coming days' post-match analysis, rather than making decisions to win. There is no cowardice in facing yourself and living up to who you are and owning your own actions. That is true bravery. And it is in that where Rafa failed us all last Saturday.
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The Players - From the Walking Wounded to the Sulking Sissies
We will never know if Sergio Ramos (who probably took another pain-killing injection on his shoulder to play) or Marcelo (who had to be subbed off the game) will pay a dear price for sacrificing / forcing themselves to play last Saturday. To be honest, it might not matter for the league campaign: with a 6 point advantage, Messi regaining fitness and the transfer ban being lifted on January, there is little to suggest that Barca will not run away to yet another league title. All I can do is applaud their bravery / stupidity for putting their injured bodies on the line for the cause.
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My beef with the players however have to be trained upon the 2 most expensive players in the history of the sport: Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
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This season, Rafa Benitez fulfilled Gareth Bale's wish of playing behind  the striker, as some sort of super mobile, super explosive '10', not in the Ozil mould (to feed balls for CR7 and Benzema to score), but to terrorize La Liga's slower and physically weaker defensive midfielders with his pace and power. We saw him play this role quite effectively at the beginning of the season (before he was injured). Against the slow-footed Sergi Busquets, Bale was supposed to have the same effect. As the man supposedly the target of any outlet balls from midfield or defense, his job was to drop deep (if necessary) and use his pace and explosiveness to overpower and blow by Barca's midfield line. Last Saturday however, he did NOT do this. He instead, together with Ronaldo, Benzema and James, waited for the ball to arrive to their side of the pitch, leaving the midfield and defense to suffer at the hands of Barca's midfield and front 3 who were enjoying a massive, ocean-sized space to operate and pass their way through our defense.
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Ronaldo's Wrong Road
By taking the 'right road', Ronaldo can put himself in a position to win the Ballon D'Or once again. If he takes the wrong road, he will find himself down the same road as Shevchenko, Torres, Owen and Kaka.
At age 30, Cristiano Ronaldo is at a crossroads in his career. He must choose between 2 roads. The first road is one that will lead to a glorious destiny: as the world's best '9'. He has all the physical tools to achieve this: strength, pace over a short stretch, mobility, the poacher's instinct, aerial power, the ability to shoot with both feet and above all, a greed for goals. To reach this point, Ronaldo must lock himself up in a room, and watch 12 hours of Karim Benzema playing: memorizing the Frenchman's intelligence at running, creating space, making himself available for passes to his teammates,  holding up the ball and various other skills that are expected of strikers. He must then edit out some of Benzema's reactions in the final third (which is to look to pass to Ronaldo) and replace them with his greed for goals. A 30-year old Cristiano Ronaldo who runs the channels, holds the ball up, creates space, etc. will score 60 goals/season for the next 2-3 seasons. Next, Ronaldo must also spend another 12 hours watching film of his former team mate, the recently-retired Raul. With even less pace, and even less strength and with almost zero aerial ability, Raul in his final 2-3 seasons at Madrid was still good for nearly 20 goals per season. Playing like that at age 33-37, Ronaldo would still be a guarantee for at least 30-40 goals a season at the highest level.
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The second road is a path that is now all too familiar to many of us: the sad fate of a player who has built his entire game on his pace and explosiveness but has lost it due to father time and/or injury. This was the sad road taken by the likes of Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres, Michael Owen and more recently, CR7's former Real Madrid teammate, Kaka. For the strikers in particular, they have (d)evolved into 'mere' finishers - wandering around the penalty box, waiting for a ball they can stick their boot into for a shot at goal. It doesn't take long for managers to realize that such players are only of use if they score. And without their goals, their teams are effectively only playing with 10 men.
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Having played as the striker for the last few weeks due to Benzema's absence, I am dismayed to see Cristiano Ronaldo opt for the latter road. His participation in the build up of play has been next to none, and has spent most games jogging about disinterestedly, waiting for the ball to reach his space, where he seems to only be interested to finish an attacking move with a shot at goal. Beyond the goals, he offered little else. Last Saturday, Cristiano Ronaldo did nothing but sulk and curse his luck as up to 3 great scoring chances came calling with no goal to show for. He offered little beyond that.
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It is with these thoughts that I made my wife nearly spit her coffee out over breakfast this morning when I sullenly confessed to her that I have come to believe that Cristiano Ronaldo has now been surpassed by Luis Suarez and Neymar as Messi's only contender/s to the title of 'Best player in the world'. Yes, there you have it - I said it. And it is with this thinking that I find myself believing, that unless CR7 'changes his ways' and turns toward the other road, that Real Madrid must accept any 'stupid money offer' that many come this summer. Perhaps the 'lesser' French League can mask his decline whilst keep his glamorous reputation intact playing in the City of Light (Paris). Perhaps a return to the club and the city (Manchester) that made him a man can nudge Ronaldo to the right road. Either way, something has to give.
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Something Does Have to Give
My assessment of Rafa at the beginning of the season stands: his tactical approach (4-2-3-1) gives a natural place to our playing personnel (James, Isco and Bale) while his rotation policy can help allow us avoid last season's mistakes (Ancelotti's refusal to rotate the squad resulted in the team succumbing to fatigue late in the season). His personality however is a massive question mark to motivate a team of superstars and mega-egos and get them onboard to his methods.
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What we are seeing at the moment seems to show that his personality is having a very negative impact towards the team - a team so good in terms of talent, that the tactical system employed to use them matters far less compared to the need to keep them motivated and focused. Without having to make the readers read between the lines, this is my way of saying that I do not believe that the team or its performance will suffer if Rafa Benitez is sacked. Because of the team's dysfunctional chemistry thanks to the coach, it is essentially now playing merely on talent rather than tactics, or organization. As my good friend believes: "A bloody pole can coach this team better than him."
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The massive hurdle however is the institutional damage that Real Madrid will suffer over the firing of a newly-hired coach just months into the season. As it stands, I am not optimistic that we can win La Liga. Having said that, a season with a trophy is not yet out of the cards - but even then, with all this going on, I'm not sure even a trophy can stop us all from concluding that this has been one butt-fuck ugly season.