Friday, May 15, 2015

Trying to Turn The Page (Real Madrid 1 - Juventus 1)

Kaushik, Ryan and I pondered the end of Real Madrid's season over last Friday's recording of the Merengue Bites Podcast. The podcast can also be listened to/downloaded from here:
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The 2014-2015 season for Real Madrid is over. So what if there are 2 more La Liga games to go? It's over for us. No Copa Del Rey, No La Liga, No Champions League. The season that could have yielded 6 titles only yielded 2: and neither of them were the big ones. 
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It was of course poetic justice of sorts that a goal in each leg from Alvaro Morata would end our season - the sort of nightmare Deja Vu that brought painful memories of Fernando Morientes into the minds of every Real Madrid fan old enough to remember that bitter night in 2004. 
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Still convulsing in heartache, I find myself in a state of reflection, going through an 'examination of the (football) conscience' - reflecting on the season that has been. I am trying to do this whilst clearing away the debris left in the wake of last night's disappointment vs. Juventus (a Big congratulations is in order for the Old Lady). I also find myself recalling the intense twitter debate I found myself in post-match (until I decided that getting 2 hours of sleep for a full day at work was more important than getting my points across). 
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I have to confess that after last weekend's 'loss' to Valencia, my conscience began telling me deep down inside that the season would end in disappointment. The probability of repeating as European Champions was very low (no one had done it before) and having to do it by beating a Barcelona who have found its groove was no simple matter. In a way it was like waiting for death to come, hoping against hope that it wouldn't. And when it did, it was still awful.
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With the benefit of an honest attempt to clear the red mist from my head, I have started to process the failures of this season for Real Madrid. And so far, the conclusion that I am coming to regarding last night's game is this: that last night's elimination at the hands of Juventus pretty much revealed everything that was wrong with the team. I suppose that's the sort of thing that can happen at this level of the competition: your weaknesses will be exposed and laid bare for all the world to see. It might be natural at first to be defensive about it - but like I said, now that the season is over, it's time to reflect, so here goes:
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Don't Mess with the Economic Model
Many level-headed critics have their fingers being pointed at Florentino Perez and the board, while some have the misguided notion of blaming Ancelotti re: the club's 'showbiz policy'. There is a lot of truth to the criticism of course: we signed a coach who wanted to play a 4-3-3 whilst acquiring 2 '10s' during Ancelotti's 2 summer transfer windows at the club (Isco, James): this is classic 'showbiz policy'. The key to making the policy work however was to get a coach who could make it work - and Ancelotti was the perfect man for the job.
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Here's where things get all muddled up though: those who insist in pushing the 'showbiz narrative' however also seem keen to add the departure Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria, 2 very good but non-showbiz types as part of the club's decision-making to further the 'showbiz narrative'. This is absolutely false. Di Maria's disagreements about pay were well-documented even before the last summer transfer window and Alonso insisted on leaving (at a very bad time!). Kroos was NEVER brought in to replace Alonso. I would argue in fact, that Ancelotti dreamt of lining up a Kroos-Alonso-Modric midfield 3 until Xabi's head was turned by Pep in Munich.
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The point I wish to make is that while I agree that over-doing the showbiz policy will bring us back to the dark days of the Galactico Era v1.0, I also believe that no one is making the effort to push us there either, Florentino Perez included. We must also embrace the fact that the 'showbiz economic model' is vital to Real Madrid in this age of the Premier League multi-billion pound TV deal and Bayern's economic overlord status in Germany (where they are nicknamed FC Hollywood). La Liga's TV deal has gone the right direction of being based on a collective deal for the entire league - but that brings a setback to Real Madrid's income, and the club must rely more than ever on its 'Showbiz Economic model' to bring financial juice to the club. Without it, Real Madrid's ability to draw from the cream of world football's crop will be greatly diminished and will see it gradually slide into mediocrity if we do not maximize all our income-generating avenues for the club.
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The key is to find balance. And if there's one thing that we should at least give Florentino credit for in this second presidency, it is that he is willing to spend money also for the role player (37m for Illara, 35m for Coentrao, 35m for Alonso) and not just the showbiz superstar (CR, Kaka, Bale, James).
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Thus, I urge Madridistas the world over to see this season as being the equivalent to spilling coffee onto the upholstery of our new car and then rear-ending in against someone else's. There is no need to put dynamite into it to blow it up.
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Squad Construction
The ridiculousness of the English Media (The Daily Telegraph) being spewed in the local papers here in Singapore.
If one was to summarize the season, it would go something like this: 
-Things were great, we won 22 straight games, but somewhere along the way, Modric and James got hurt. And then we lost our mojo
-But then, they recovered and we started playing well again.
-But Modric got hurt again, and so did Benzema and Bale and without them at their best, things fell apart.
-End of Season
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Modric's recovery (together with James) was the second wind the team needed to finish the season strong to put pressure on Barcelona and play at the highest level of world football: the final elimination rounds of the Champions League. But when he went down again, things just began falling apart. Ancelotti was left with too many attacking players, with too few competent alternatives to hold the middle down. Khedira's mind was on vacation, Lucas Silva too raw and Illaramendi has become Fernando Gago v2.0. 
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I've spoken about my 'A-list' and 'B-list' theory in the podcasts: Ancelotti essentially has an 'A-list' and a 'B-list' of players. A-list players are those whom Carletto would select to play with no worries regardless if they were automatic starters (e.g. Varane, Isco). The plain and simple truth however is that Ancelotti only had 2 'A-list' Central Midfielders (Kroos and Modric), thus when one of them went down, Ancelotti was left with 2 perilous choices:
1.) To play a 'B-Lister' (Illaramendi, Silva, Khedira). The results were mostly ineffective,
2.) To play an 'A-lister' who didn't really fit the role perfectly (e.g. Ramos as a midfielder or play both Isco and James, both 10s with Kroos like last night). The results have been mixed. 
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Looking back, despite Angel Di Maria's departure on the horizon last summer, it was clearly offset by the acquisition of James (who played the role pretty well having amassed 15 goals and 15 assists across 3 competitions so far). This would have left us with 5 'A-list players'  (Kroos, Alonso, Modric, James and Isco) to rotate between 3 midfield slots. Of the 3 midfield slots, 2 of them needed to be occupied by either Kroos, Alonso or Modric. The loss of Alonso late in the transfer window however, was not compensated for. so we were left either scraping the B-list barrel, or forcing A-list round pegs in to square holes. And at this level, that's not good enough.
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Squad Management
There is an argument that some blame (or some say a significant amount of it) needs to be placed on Ancelotti's shoulders. Kroos, among many wearing white on the pitch last night, looked ragged midway through the second half in last night's hot conditions. Looking back, it's not hard to recall matches where the team was up 3-4 goals with 30 mins. to go where the 'B-listers' might have been given the chance to give the likes of Kroos a rest. It didn't happen enough and there is thus strong merit to the thought that Carletto might have 'overplayed' most of our 'A-listers.' And that such fatigue has eventually accumulated and caught up with us late in the season.
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The Search for Solutions: Cristiano Ronaldo's Evolution
I am of the belief that as he has hit his 30s, Cristiano Ronaldo is slowly transforming into a '9'
Most of the 'noise' following the first leg loss at Turin were focused on Bale. Much of that noise carried over following the verbal diarrhoea perpetuated by Bale's agent which preceded last night where the Welshman had a slew of chances but couldn't covert. Many have gone back however and started asking "What about Ronaldo? What did he do apart from scoring a penalty (with accompanying comparisons to Messi who often turns provider when unable to score)?"
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My answer to this is that Ronaldo has been evolving in front of us and many of us aren't seeing it or are in denial about it. Newsflash: Ronaldo isn't a winger anymore (not that he's ever been one in a traditional sense). As he has now hit his 30s, and has started to feel the stiff hamstring every now and then, Ronaldo has gradually lost his Usain Bolt-like explosiveness and is beginning to evolve into his destined role: a striker. I'm not saying that he's become a Zlatan / Lewandowski-type of player (not yet anyway), but we are seeing him play much closer to goal than he was when he first arrived at Real Madrid or when he was blasting down the left touchline whilst playing under Mourinho's Formula 1 Football. 
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Last night, someone on twitter made the excellent observation that Ronaldo is becoming like another goal monster from Madrid's past: Hugo Sanchez. Sanchez was not a player who will participate much in the build-up, but will stab your heart with a goal when given the chance. The transformation may not be complete yet, but the signs are there.
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I am also of the belief that the 'solution' to the Ronaldo and the 'Bale Problem' can be the same. If we accept that Ronaldo has become a striker (or at least a 'second striker' given that his evolution is not yet complete), then we must also accept that Bale has never fully acclimatized to playing on the right. At his best in Tottenham, the Welshman was either allowed to roam freely behind a striker or play on the left side (where he played in his now-famous 'taxi for Maicon' game). Unlike Ronaldo, Bale doesn't need to cut in, shift to his strong foot and shoot.
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We must all consider the possibility that this evolved Ronaldo who plays much closer to goal now, can vacate his old stomping ground on the left wing (or do so on more occasions) to allow Bale more opportunities to play there. Bale after all has the skills to reprise the role of Ronaldo circa-2010-2013 to combine with Marcelo (who is also comfortable roaming to the middle with the ball on attack) and Ronaldo himself (now a forward) to create the world's most lethal left-sided attack.
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Embracing Ronaldo's transformation into a striker might also save us the potential for a Morata / Chicharito dilemma: having a striker who doesn't play 80-90% of the time, but becomes uber-critical to the team when Benzema is unavailable. C-Ron and Benzema can both play with each other or split time playing as the team's striker, whilst allowing one of Bale or James (who can also contest for spots at midfield) spells of rest every now and then.
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The Search for Solutions: Extending the A-List 
Dani Carvajal looked like he was about to vomit his lungs out midway through the second half last night. With Danilo in the squad next season, I expect this not to happen if the 2 can share the load at Right Back.
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The heart of the problem however is the heart of the midfield. Ancelotti needs to have a good look at Lucas Silva in the offseason / pre-season as well as the returning Casemiro (who impressed at Porto while on loan this season) and decide if they are A-List or even B+ List material. If the answer is no, and money is no object in the transfer market (as is usually is the case with Real Madrid), then Ancelotti must be allowed to shop for his next A-List Midfielder. And since we lack power, strength and muscle in the midfield, there is a strong argument to participate in the Paul Pogba sweepstakes this summer.
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The Search for Solutions: Stop Playing Games Between the Saint and the Shit.
Last week in Turin, Iker the shit turned up. Last night, it was Iker the saint. Every week and every game we play starts with anxiety as we wonder which Iker will turn up. A team that aspires to League and European Titles every season cannot afford to dick around playing such games. The girlfriend of Spain's next great goalkeeper recently described the English city they live in as 'uglier than the back of a fridge'. David De Gea also happens to be a Madrileno (nevermind that he used to play for Atleti, he wouldn't be the first to move to the fairer side of town anyway). I also am a believer that when deprived of a choice, Mourinho would have no problems starting with Petr Cech in goal just as he has trusted John Terry all season at CB. David De Gea and to a lesser extent, Thibaut Courtois are both within reach for Real Madrid. 30m? 40m? To secure our goal for the next 10 years? A fair price in my opinion. 
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The Search for Solutions: Keep Ancelotti
AS says that majority of the fans would like to see Ancelotti remain with Real Madrid. I am one of them.
If we stop being in denial about the fact that we employ a 'showbiz economic model' at the club, and that we only need to tune it down just a bit, then we must also acknowledge that the best man to coach this team is Carlo Ancelotti.
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Let's all also admit the fact that Real Madrid is not the sort of team where you can sustainably force star players to accept lesser roles (i.e. long spells on the bench) to fit a preconceived tactical system. This normally results in the club inefficiently spending copious amounts of energy fighting battles in the media to justify benchings and the exclusions of star players.
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We have now, thanks to Ancelotti a tactical model which can for the most part, flexibly accommodate a multitude of star 'glamour' players in the team. And while many credit Ancelotti for his uncanny ability to breed team chemistry, not many give him enough credit for his tactical nous. His ability to 'massage' players to accept roles which may partially be beyond their comfort zone is normally linked to his 'don't rock the boat' attitude in facing upper management. It's tempting to fit this into Ancelotti's 'Mr. Harmony' narrative and less about his tactical approach. A look at his CV however tells a different story: Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Angel Di Maria, and Toni Kroos have all been given unfamiliar roles where they have succeeded tremendously on an individual and team level, whilst giving Ancelotti's teams the much-needed added dimension to win titles.
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Let's not be Toddlers
Some time last year, my son (he turns 4 at the end of the month) received a gift of a coloring book with a set of colored pencils. He enjoyed the gift tremendously and got to coloring the pages with aplomb almost as soon as he opened the gift. At about the 4th page, perhaps he was too over-eager, with the heavy, clumsy hand of a toddler, he pressed the colored pencil against the page so hard as he was coloring it that he ended up tearing it. He stopped, put his pencil down and almost with a sudden fury in his face, ripped the page from the coloring book. I was shocked. He then looked at me, exploded in tears and asked me to buy him another brand new coloring book exactly like the one he whose 4th page he had just ruined. He was inconsolable, livid and he wanted a do-over.
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There was of course, no need for a do over. There was another page waiting to be colored.
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Maybe it was Florentino's transfer policy that tore up this season's page of the Real Madrid coloring book. Maybe it was Ancelotti's poor (or non-existent) rotation policy. Maybe it was just darned luck with the injuries. At the end of they day however, there is no need to set the coloring book on fire. Because even if we've spoiled this season's page, there are still plenty of great things that can happen with what we have if we can learn our lessons and make the right adjustments.
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Let's not be toddlers to petulantly demand for a do over. It's the time to cry, to process heartbreak, to reflect on mistakes made and contemplate the lessons which need to be learned. And when we're ready, we can turn the page and try again.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

ABCs and 123s (Juventus 2 - Real Madrid 1)

What a shit performance. At age 35 (turning 36 this year), I am finding it harder and harder to get up at 2:45 or 3:45 am Singapore time (depending on European Daylight Savings time) to watch Champions League matches. And when you get up in the middle of the night, on 2-3 hours sleep to watch a match like that, and then get another 2 hour shut-eye session before heading to work - your day is pretty much fucked up before it even began. 
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I am not by the way, referring to the result. I am referring to the performance. Champions League (or and form of Cup Competition) semi-finals are supposed to be cagey affairs. The remaining teams are normally there on pure merit and the matches are normally decided by fine margins. A yellow card, a sending off, a tiny defensive error, a minor tactical oversight or such minute things are supposed to decide such things. They are not supposed to be decided by basic, fundamental errors like how Ancelotti and his boys allowed things to transpire last night. 
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If we lost last night because of such fine margins, I'd be half-awake at this moment ruing such minor details and half-cursing our luck. But here I am today, half-awake with the entirety of my conscious self livid over our boys' shortcomings on the ABCs and the 123s of top level Cup football. 
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Tactics 
Juventus as they lined up in their last 2 Champions League Matches. A 3-5-2 vs. Monaco and a 4-4-2 Diamond vs. us last night
The tactical question re: Juventus coming into this game had always been 'will they play 3 or 4 at the back?' With 3 at the back, Juve play a 3-5-2. With 4 at the back, they play a midfield diamond. Both systems deploy their numbers through the center of the pitch, presumably to 'protect' Andrea Pirlo. And for a team like Real Madrid, with forwards like Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo and fullbacks like Carvajal and Marcelo, we had the opportunity to take advantage of their weakness - the flanks.
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Last night, Juve lined up with 4 at the back and a midfield diamond. We on the other hand, lined up in a narrow 4-4-2 (or a Brazilian style 4-2-2-2). It was a sound approach: with Isco and James drifting to the middle, we could match their numbers at the center. When on attack mode however, with CR and Bale up front, when paired with Isco + Marcelo (on the left) and James + Carvajal (on the right), We had superiority on the flanks or force their CMs (Marchisio and Sturaro) to be drawn out from their comfort zones in the middle. 
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The goal that Ronaldo scored, created by an overalapping fullback (Carvajal), combining with a wide midfielder (James) to reach our striker (CR), was the sort of goal Carlo Ancelotti envisioned us scoring in this tactical battle.
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The system though, had its key weakness. as we saw in Luxemburgo Real Madrid in the first galactico era, and in Brazil's ill-fated 2006 World Cup campaign. Playing natural 10s as wide midfielders usually meant that attacking width only came from the fullbacks: leaving acres of space behind them vulnerable to be counter-attacked by opposing wide players. 
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 Kaushik, Rahul and I all agreed in last weekend's podcast that Morata's large frame concealed the fact that he's got good pace and could hurt us with it. You can also listen / download the podcast here:

Without natural wide players though, Juventus SEEMED at a disadvantage and unable to capitalize on our weakness. But with pacy forwards like Morata (as pointed out in last weekend's podcast) and the hyper-active Carlos Tevez, Juventus had 2 players up front who enjoyed attacking the space left behind by our attacking full-backs. Juventus' opening goal was a result of Carlos Tevez finding himself open in a sea of green open space behind Marcelo, away from Kroos, and even further away from Varane. It was Morata who stabbed us in the heart, but it was El Apache who found the opening in our 'armor.' (if you can call it that).
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Personnel 
While Ancelotti's tactics for the match were sound, his personnel selection proved to be greatly flawed. The selection of Sergio Ramos against a defensive Atletico Madrid side who are lethal on set pieces was a brilliant move. It was clear that night however, that Ramos was uncomfortable in the role but was important for Atleti's aerial game and to stymie Mario Mandzukic. Against Juventus' 4-man midfield looking to press him in possession, Ramos was totally exposed and useless. His passes were mostly backpasses and any ones that weren't resulted in the loss of possession. About 3 of them turned out to be wayward crossfield balls seemingly aimed at members of the crowd.
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When playing with 2 pivots, both men need to win balls and distribute them forward. Last night, Real Madrid's pivots could only perform one function each. As Ramos continuously lost possession, the space behind Kroos became the base from where Carlos Tevez terrorized Casillas and his defenders.
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You could say that injuries have made Carlo Ancelotti's team selection one that was conducted 'by default.' Modric is hurt and Illara can't cut it. Well now Carlo, let's call it what it is: Against Juventus, Ramos can't cut it either. He will have to re-examine Illaramendi, Lucas Silva, a lightweight midfield with Kroos, Isco and James, or some other kooky idea against Juventus especially for the return leg where we must also now likely prepare for a match against the world's best young central midfielder: the mow-hawked Paul Pogba.
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Iker, Iker, Iker,
Before the match, I read a piece asking wondering which Iker Casillas would turn up: San Iker? or Iker 'What the fuck are you doing!?!' Casillas - (the Iker Casillas who was described as someone 'who flapped at crosses, and spoons shots into the path of opposing attackers tap the rebound in'). Every match, this question looms dreadfully over the thoughts of every Real Madrid fan. Last night, Iker 'What the fuck are you doing!?!' Casillas turned up.
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He started the match with an error that nearly led to a goal, then almost got caught off his line (by Morata) and then finally he spooned Carlos Tevez's long distance attempt right into the waiting boot of Morata.
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Let me finally say this unequivocally: this summer, we should buy a goalkeeper. I don't care if we spend 50, 60, 70m, not for a goalkeeper to 'compete' with Iker, but one who will clearly, and with no doubts replace him as the team's #1. At this level, the absolute highest level, Iker's time is up.
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Dani, Dani, Dani
The biggest boo-boo of the match sadly has to go Dani Carvajal. Just like what happened with Marcelo, the space he left behind when bombing forward became a comfortable operating zone for his fellow Real Madrid Castilla classmate Alvaro Morata (which as I pointed out, is a natural consequence of the formation we play). His big boo-boo however was obviously the penalty conceded to give Junvetus the match and the advantage of the tie.
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Let's be clear about this though: the counterattack we conceded to Juventus was the fault of the entire team. How could we be in a situation where we didn't have a single CB or Defensive Midfielder around to protect us from a counter attack? The penalty conceded though, was all Carvajal - and it was a mental meltdown of epic proportions.
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As Marcelo's deflected shot capriciously bounced into Tevez's path to create the counter-attacking opportunity, Real Madrid were forced into stopping a 2 vs. 2 counter-attacking opportunity. Tevez was being harried by Carvajal to drift to Madrid's right flank as Morata was bursting through the middle tailed by Marcelo. The play unfolded in everyone's mind before it could even happen: if Tevez could somehow cross or thread the ball to a Morata who could brush Marcelo off, it would be Morata vs. Casillas and possibly a goal. Marcelo was keenly aware of this and thus decided to tactically foul and bring down Morata at the cost of a yellow card - leaving Carvajal 1-v-1 against Tevez who was being forced to his left. By the time Tevez arrived in the penalty box, Casillas was already in position, covering the near post with Tevez having no angle to shoot as he was far too much to the left side. Carvajal only needed to hold this position for long enough for Pepe, Varane and Ramos to catch up. His inexperience however got the best of him - sticking his feet out in an attempt to poke the ball off Tevez's feet. He missed. Penalty. Goal. Ouch.
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The tie turned from one where we had a clear advantage (we were going for a 2-1, to give us a series lead and 2 away goals), to one where we are now: lagging behind.

Was it a red card offense? Perhaps. I've seen them given, and Juventus had a legitimate claim to ask for one. I personally felt lucky the red card didn't come out: Carvajal after all was the last man. A few post-match pundits though did point out to the fact that when the (missed) tackle happened, Tevez was already ferried out off a direct goalscoring position and thus the foul did not merit a red card. Either way, we were lucky there was no red card.
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A Look on the Bright Side
Despite a host of rudimentary errors, our prospects to win the tie remain pretty good. A 1-0 at home wins us the tie, a 2-1 brings the match into extra time. That's a pretty good outlook for a team that completely fucked things up for themselves in the first leg.
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We are by no means in an ideal situation with the absences of Benzema and Modric. We were however a team that was in touching distance of the Champions League final despite all these absences. And if we only managed to get our basics, our ABCs and 123s down to pat, we might have had one foot in Berlin already.
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So next week, there is no reason not to believe that these rudimentary basics will be sorted out. And hopefully, this time next week, we will have then moved on from ABCs and 123s to arithmetic and spelling.
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W-I-N. 2-1, 1-0. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

88th Minute, Finally Getting a Win on the 8th Try

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It seems like a scene composed for an epic oil painting.
Orgasm. Catharsis. Nirvana.
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These were the words that I used to describe the sensations I felt at seeing Chicharito score last Wednesday's 88th minute goal and at hearing the referee blow the full time whistle that confirmed our entry to the Champions League Semi-finals, and sealed our first victory against Atletico Madrid in 7 matches.
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I once found myself describing the current La Liga landscape to my Premier League-supporting colleagues at work: For Real Madrid and Barcelona, the goal was to win the treble EVERY season. For Sevilla, Valencia (pre-Peter Lim), Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal: Europa League Minimum, hopefully a Copa Del Rey Final appearance but to at least have a shot at grabbing that last Champions League Spot. And for Atleti, or rather, the Diego Simeone Atleti: to challenge the big 2 for the league title (Champions League qualification as a minomum) and to win Copa Del Rey. But perhaps more importantly for Simeone's Atleti - to win the derbies against us... and if they can't win or even draw - to at the absolute very least, kick the shit out of us while trying.
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And in that regard, Diego Simeone's Atleti have been massively successful. After 6 winless games against them, a cloud seemed to have gathered above Real Madrid: it was as if the supernatural power that prevented them from beating us for more than 10 years not too long ago had changed sides and was now taking its grip over Real Madrid. 
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Last week, we didn't manage to beat them again. And though it was more ammunition for them to believe that the 'curse' had shifted fully onto us, our boys walked off the Calderon's turf believing that the curse had been broken. With Modric and James back in our midfield, not only were we unafraid of the physical brutality and the irritating gamesmanship they were capable of perpetrating, we actually beat them back into their own half, forcing them into a tiny little corner with only Jan Oblak there to save their skins. Our boys walked off the Calderon pitch with their heads held high, nodding in unison: 'we'll get you in the Bernabeu'. Until Benzema, Bale and Modric got hurt. And then the quivering began again (at least among fans like myself). 
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Carlo's Clever Move
Carlo Ancelotti however, was completely unshaken. 'Why worry about those who can't play? We should instead think about those who can." he said (I paraphrase). "I have the best squad in the world" he confidently said. It seemed like a statement meant to induce confidence at a time of uncertainty and worry over the loss of so many key players. Today, I now know that it was uttered in absolute self-confidence. 
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Carlo it turned out, had a clever little idea in his mind. While Madridisimo shook in fear, recalling Borussia Dortmund and Schalke at the thought of Illaramendi and Khedira taking up Modric's midfield place, Carlo pondered a series of facts: outside of Isco, he did not fully trust any of our midfielders completely beyond the first choice XI. He did however have an oversupply of world-class talent at CB. So he boldly decided to revisit his old idea of playing one of his CBs as a CM (he was vilified for it when he tried it in his first clasico). 
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His choice amongst the 3 was also as inspired as it was clever. Pepe could push the ball up on 'raids' forward (both offensively in runs with the ball that might remind some of the Brazilian Lucio and defensively in the manner Mourinho deployed him in the infamous 'trivote'), but we didn't need someone who could do so recklessly and risk defensive positioning. He needed someone who could hold his position, spray a few passes and bang bodies in the midfield. Occasionally, this player would also need to defend the right flank when Carvajal is caught upfield, and might even need to deliver a cross from the right flank should he find himself in that position while his team had the ball. Ramos, an ex-RB was the perfect choice. 
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This also had another knock-on effect: it gave us another tool to counter Atleti's favorite attacking weapon: the set piece. Having Ramos, Varane and Pepe all on the pitch meant there were more defenders on crosses and corners into our box. It also meant more targets for our attacking players to deliver crosses and corners to.  
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Make no mistake about it: Ramos is no Modric. His passes were mostly redundant sideways passes or back passes. He hardly penetrated the Atleti defense either. But thinking about it: how was that any different to what Illaramendi or Khedira could deliver for us in that role? Apart from set piece contributions, Ramos was also a bruiser - a meathead enforcer capable of trading blows and dirty tricks with Atleti's Dark Arts Masters - Arda Turan and his red card would tell you all about it. 
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JCC (James, Chicharito and Cristiano)
JCC doesn't have quite the same ring as BBC. The decision to push James to the front 3 whilst Isco took his midfield place was completely logical and is something that we've seen before. With Ronaldo's explosive pace seemingly gone however, large part of last Wednesday's game felt like it was in dire need of Gareth Bale. Without the Welshman however, our next best speed demon was Jese, and literally just minutes before we scored, I had tweeted my wish to see Ronaldo pushed on to become a full-fledged Center Forward and to have Jese replace Chicharito.
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But alas, Carlo's faith in that front 3 combination would pay off with the move that won us the tie: a 1-2 combination between CR and James - Ronaldo drawing 4-5 defenders, plus the goalkeeper's full attention, then a pass to Chicharito who scored his trademark late-game tap-in. 
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Ancelotti's Triumph
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Carlo Ancelotti was the undisputed winner in the battle between the 2 Madrid coaches last Wednesday
It was an absolute triiumph for Carlo Ancelotti. On defense, Varane headed away 32,871,239 Atletico Madrid deliveries to the box, At midfield, the Ramos gamble gave us solidity, and extra man on set pieces and a talismanic figure who not only kept Atleti's bullies away, he managed to get one of them (Turan) sent away too! Simeone waited for Carletto's boys to lose patience, lose their nerves and make a mistake to pounce on. They didn't. The boys embraced the virtue of patience Carlo preached. And as they did, Simeone found himself playing a waiting game for extra time and penalties, sinking deeper and deeper into defensive mode. By the time Chicharito scored, Simeone had 10 men, 3 used substitutes and a spent Mario Mandzukic as his only offensive weapon. 
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Our wily Italian coach, had backed their supposedly fearsome Argentine coach into a cul-de-sac he couldn't get himself out of. 
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There are only 2 hours to go for the Champions League Semi-final draw as I write this. There are no more draws that can be deemed easier than the other. We are in true European giant territory now - the place for everyone to be at their absolute best.
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We should not forget however that our hunt for La Liga resumes on Sunday as Barca play the Catalan Derby at Cornelia El Prat while we travel away to Vigo to face Luis Enrique's old charges, Celta. There will still be no Modric and no Bale. And just like last Wednesday, no room for error.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Arise Real Madrid, Arise! (Real Madrid 9 - Granada 1)


Kaushik and I talked with glee about Real Madrid's 9-1 win vs. Granada. You may also listen to/download the podcast here:

As a Real Madrid fan living in Singapore, I’ve had all sorts of meals watching my team play during ungodly hours: mostly ‘midnight snacks ’ for 2/3am kickoffs and unusually early breakfasts for 4-6am kickoffs and if I was lucky, dessert for 9-11 pm kickoffs. I have had, on occasion enjoyed a Real Madrid game over dinner (8-9pm kickoffs). I have however, never had caught a Real Madrid game BEFORE dinner. Last night was my first – watching the game between split-seconds of spoon feeding a toddler. It was a lunch time kickoff for Real Madrid, and I imagine the schedule of the match was a tricky one for their meal schedules too. So they decided to have Granada for Lunch.
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9-1. It was exactly the scoreline and the performance that our team needed following last matchday’s clasico loss. Nevermind that Granada were shit. Apart from fitness and fresh legs, what the team REALLY needed was a boost in confidence. And if a 9-1 win can’t give you a psychological shot-in-the-arm, then absolutely nothing will.
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Midfield – James is Back
They are now all asking who sits on the bench now that James is back. While this may be bad for one of the 2, this is NOT bad for the team - and we should all think on those terms at this point of the season
We received the news that James started training with the team following the Clasico. The sceptic in me thought of it as a PR stunt meant to revive the downtrodden morale of the Real Madrid faithful, but if it was serious, then it was great news. With a fully-fit squad, we can have at least 2-3 weapons off the bench when things soured for us. I had thus earmarked the 2 Champions League Derby games for us to see a fully-fit James Rodriguez: expecting to see a 30-minute cameo, followed by a 1 hour performance, before we finally see him play a full 90 minutes, hoping that he could hit peak form in time for the 2 derbies. I was thus expecting to see Lucas Silva play instead of the suspended Isco last night. It was instead a pleasant surprise to see James start.
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‘Simplicity’ was a word constantly used by my fellow Merengue Bites Podcaster Ryan to describe James’ play. It is however not a word we would normally associate with a player whose natural position is as a ‘10’. Players such as James normally have their team built around them and are relied upon to ‘elaborate’ the game in the final third to create scoring chances for their teammates.
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The ‘simplicity’ required to play a central midfield role in a 4-3-3 however, is a very difficult level to achieve. Deciding when to make a one-touch pass, to stop the ball and pass it again, to pass it backwards (to the holding player / a CB) to ‘recycle’ the ball, to run with it, to loop it over swarming defenders or to attempt to thread the ball ala Guti is a very tricky balance that very few Central Midfielders can do. Modric comes to mind, but beyond that, there are very few. And for a natural ‘10’, James seems to be quite a natural for the role as well.
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With him and Modric on either side of Kroos, a very natural fluid rhythm settles in to the team, making the play very fluid and keeping the momentum going. It brings our minds back to the 22-consecutive-match-winning team of the 2014-2015 Real Madrid. And I will admit that I haven’t realized how important he is to the team all this while. Maybe it’s because I’ve been blind to his 11 goals and 12 assists so far this season (across La Liga, CL, and CDR): that’s 23 goals he’s been directly involved in!
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The BBC starts broadcasting again!
Cristiano's BAAAACK!
Real Madrid fans have had genuine reason to be alarmed by the very dramatic dip in form across the board that has happened to our front 3. Benzema started 2015 with promise but tailed off as the year went on. Ronaldo was reportedly nursing some sort of knee ache (a fact that made us hold our breaths for a while when we saw him slam his knee onto the goalpost), which also went along with his post-Irina heartache. Gareth Bale on the other hand couldn’t make an obvious pass when an open teammate was clearly within reach, nor could he score on legitimate chances which last year’s Gareth Bale would have handily put away.
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Last night however, the BBC was back in full broadcast mode. The opener came from Gareth Bale, who pulled off a manoeuvre that had flashes of Raul and Emilio Butragueno’s goals running through my mind – nearly the last sort of players I’d ever find myself reminding me of Gareth Bale (who is more about pace and power rather than touch and finesse). Bale was in full service mode too: assisting goals and associating well with those around him.
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And while we all marvel that the technical brilliance of Karim Benzema yet again (who has ‘quietly’ amassed 21 goals and 10 assists in La Liga, CL and CDR – and we have 2 months to go in the season), everyone’s attention last night was on Cristiano Ronaldo.  Cristiano was finally back to his ‘usual’ self last night: unstoppable, irresistible and irrepressible. It was a classic case of Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s ‘Ketchup Theory’. Cristiano Ronaldo simply needed to un-choke the bottle. Last night, he completely shattered it. The key thing for me however was that many of the goals that Ronaldo scored last night were goals that the early-2015 CR7 would NOT have scored. His 5-goal burst is sure to give him that burst of confidence that he has sorely been missing these past few weeks / months, which will serve him in good stead as we head onto the business end of the season.
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30/30
Prior to the match, AS published a 30/30 campaign – a rallying call to repeat the accomplishment of Fabio Capello’s epic team that pipped Barca to the La Liga title for the first time in 5 years (?). It was an epic title run that I shall forever remember for little anecdotes like Ruud Van Nistelrooy holding up Gonzalo Higuain’s jersey to the Bernabeu crowd after an epic 4-3 win vs. Espanyol and Espanyol’s own Raul Tamudo torpedoing Barca’s title hopes with a late goal at Montujic. It was an improbable run of consecutive wins when all seemed lost until the title was won and Real Madrid fans the world over caused the Club’s official site to crash.
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As Barca struggle to 1-0 wins off improbable goals scored by their Center Backs towards this business end of the season, while our best players are regaining form and fitness, the time to get the momentum to build up has come. Real Madrid will not need to leave their city in the next 5 matches (until they visit Celta). It’s the perfect time to gain momentum (like last night), vanquish ghosts from the past (Atleti) and complete the resurrection that might just have begun this past Easter. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Recovery (Real Madrid 2 - Levante 0)



Kaushik, Ryan and I talked about last Sunday's win vs. Levante, rejoice over Modric and Ramos' return and ponder the Bernabeu's right to boo. The podcast can also be listened to / downloaded here:
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Ah, a win at last. I never thought I'd find myself saying that while referring to this Real Madrid, but here I am. We've lost to Athletic Bilbao and then a really embarrassing one to Schalke - a week before a Clasico. That's the absolute WORST way to 'prepare' for the game which may decide the fate of our league campaign. We needed a win really badly, not just because the night started with Barcelona ahead of us by 4 points on the table, but also because we needed that vital sense of self-belief that we are capable of winning at the Camp Nou.
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Physical Recovery
Sergio Ramos started and played the full 90 minutes. Luka Modric started and played more than 70. Toni Kroos on the other hand, did not play. All three went through some form of a recovery process. Whether it's to get themselves into up-to-par conditions in terms of match fitness after missing so many games (Ramos, Modric), or getting a rest (Kroos), Real Madrid are getting the much-needed physical recovery that's critical for the homestretch of the season. If there was ever a reason to have optimism in the face of the 2015's bad results, those reasons have always rested on the return of our key players who had gone down through injuries (Modric, Ramos, James) as well being able to find the opportunity to allow the team's 'over-played' members to recuperate from having too much mileage on their legs (Kroos). 
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Coming away with a win while resting Kroos in particular was very important. Kroos is not the most physically gifted player of the team, his game instead is an extremely cerebral and technical one. Rahul summed this up with a very astute observation (in a comment he made in last weekend's podcast): that the German seems to have a 'sixth sense' of knowing that a tackle is coming and where it's coming from. As fatigue sets in however, his ability to do this diminishes, and so does his other critical mental / cognitive faculties in reading the game, facilitating play, opening spaces for team mates and dictating the tempo of the game.
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Tactical Recovery
Last night, there was a noticeable drop in Real Madrid's level in terms of dictating the tempo of the game from the 'Kroos position', which was played by Lucas Silva. That drop however (also possibly due to the quality, or lack thereof of our opponents) wasn't too significant - and thus Real Madrid did not suffer too much in Kroos' absence. Because while Lucas did not have Kroos' considerable 'court vision', Lucas is not a 'ball stopper.' The momentum of the team's buildup play basically doesn't come to a halt when the ball is played to him, as he is capable of pinging it about even if it won't necessarily pierce the heart of the opponents' defense. It must also be noted that Lucas Silva also has an impressive passing range and offers an added layer of physicality to the center of the Madrid midfield. Finding an understudy to Kroos who isn't a ball stopper (like Illaramendi) is a big step forward for the club: it enables us to rest the German ahead of big matches without paying too steep tactical price.
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The best part of the night however for me as a Real Madrid fan, was seeing a short scrawny Croatian midfielder wearing #19 play. Madridisimo has greatly missed Luka Modric and it's easy to tell that the team plays at a much higher level with him on the pitch. Even in that disastrous performance midweek last week against Schalke, Real Madrid looked far better and far more balanced with Modric around. The really funny thing about Modric however is the team not only becomes considerably far better when pushing the ball forward to attack when he's around. Defensively, we are a far better side too with him - and this is a big surprise when we realize that the players who have recently been asked to fill the void he has left in his absence are players whom we all perceive to be more defensive than him (Khedira, Illaramendi and to a lesser extent, Lucas Silva).
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The key to Modric's success in his position is his very deep understanding of it, and the fact that he is comfortable in both the advanced areas and deeper positions of the pitch. This gives him the ability to know when to push up with / without the ball and when to sit back. This is in contrast to Khedira and Illara who are both more comfortable sitting deep and so when asked to perform the 'Modric role', either get lost at sea mindlessly wandering forward while leaving gaps behind without necessarily contributing significantly on attack (Khedira), so sitting so deep that his front 3 become isolated and become ineffective (Illaramendi). The troubling thing for the 2 however is that they also seem to be ineffective in ball recovery once its lost. This thus brings us to the ultimate curiosity re: Modric - that Modric is also better at performing the defensive requirements of his role as compared to his naturlly 'more defensive' substitutes (Khedira and Illara).
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Mental Recovery
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So only after he scores 2 goals does the Spanish Media start talking about Bale's extra hours in training to regain his form.
What was perhaps most encouraging for me last Sunday however was how Real Madrid did NOT start the game asleep. Within seconds from kickoff, the match's 'zone of play' almost immediately shifted to the final third of the pitch around Levante's goal, with possession, ball recovery and movement into space creating danger and scoring chances for Real Madrid.
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It must be said however, that if there was one Madridista whose game was characterized as a form of mental recovery, then it would have to be Gareth Bale. His first goal was an astute finish with his weaker right foot, an instinctive finish of great class. His second goal in my opinion was really more of a fluke. To me at least, the replays clearly show Bale attempting to GET OUT of the way from the ball's path upon Ronaldo's vicious strike. It deflected off his shin as he attempted to backpedal away from the path of the ball, and into the net. And just like for the first goal, Ronaldo's strike looked to be on target, but this time with a cannon-ball-like speed towards goal.
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For Gareth Bale however, I would also like to look at his performance not merely because he was able to get on the scoresheet and break the unpleasant streak of 8-9 games without a goal. Gareth Bale's performance on the night reminded me of the sort of performance we see from Chelsea's Eden Hazard: he's not the destroyer of worlds in the way that CR and Messi are, but he was most definitely the man who gave you the feeling that if his team was going to get on the scoresheet, that he was somehow going to be involved. This is the sort of performance we need to encourage from the Welshman: that if the goals and assists aren't necessarily coming, the constant effort and willingness to be an absolute pest on attack ought to be the minimum we should expect from him. With the benefit of hindsight, I would think that I'd still be praising his performance even if he did not score the goal.
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Recovering Ronaldo
In startling contrast to Bale however is our very own superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Much has been said about his performance and also his reactions during the game - some of which have shockingly earned him boos, whistles and white handkerchiefs. And let me just say that I'm deeply disappointed by the behavior of these spoiled fans. Many of them seem to have forgotten that if it weren't for Cristiano, we would be out of the Champions League by now.
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Ronaldo had a bad game, let's all admit that. Even he knows that, which in my opinion, explains his reactions on the night. Cristiano is lacking that final edge of sharpness: that final inch of precision in his game that would turn a touch into a goal and a flick into a perfectly-laid assist. Playing time and confidence and encouragement are the only antidotes to Ronaldo's current doldrums. This is not a player who spent the night before the match in a nightclub chugging booze. This is a player who spends every second of his existence to the perfection of his craft as a footballer. And on the days where things don't come off, fans like ourselves ought to rally behind him to offer him support, and lay down our brickbats.
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The most disappointing criticism of all in my opinion come from those who knock on Ronaldo by claiming that he isn't happy for Bale's success (at scoring 2 goals, both created by him). This is horseshit. Watch the replays again and one will realize that Ronaldo is pounding the floor NOT because Bale had slammed in the rebound of his acrobatic shot cleared off the line, and thus scored, but because he is upset with himself as to why his body was not able to contort itself to the perfect state in needed to be in to execute that magnificent attempt at a bicycle kick. Ronaldo is NOT unhappy over his teammates' success. He is unhappy because he is trying so hard to find his groove and is frustrated that he still can't manage to snap into it.
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Recovering The League
The Classic eleven Madrid
I'd feel pretty good about the chances of this Starting XI against Barca at the Camp Nou this weekend.
With the exception of James (who is replaced by the wonderful Isco), Real Madrid have completed the recovery of its team as it heads to the season's homestretch. Modric has the look of a man ready to play 90 minutes against Barcelona, and so does Ramos, following injuries to the 2. Kroos on the other hand got himself a much-needed rest while Bale got his much-needed goals.
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To tilt things further to our advantage: Barca have a midweek Champions League tie against Manchester City. Barcelona hold a 1 goal lead but have 2 away goals as they face a Manchester City side whose pride have been wounded by a weekend loss to Burnley. This is no dead rubber match. City have pride, survival and silverware at stake and can scare or damage Barca just as much as Schalke did with us.
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We on the other hand have a full week to recover. Let's us all hope that by the end of Sunday, the League has been recovered too.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Merengue Bites: Episode 26 - The BBC go 'Off the Air' Against Athletic Bilbao

It was a crappy Sunday evening. We lost to Athletic at the San Mames the night before, and Barca had just butchered Rayo Vallecano 6-1 to take a 1 point lead in the La Liga title Race... Rahul, Ryan and I tried to make sense of it all.
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You can also listen to the podcast here: