Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Merengue Bites - The Undecima Edition.

Rahul was too drunk celebrating . But Kaushik, Ryan and I still managed to have a 'celebratory discussion' about that beautiful night in Milan.
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The podcast can also be listened to / downloaded here:

Monday, May 30, 2016

Deserve (Real Madrid 1 - Atletico Madrid 1, Real Madrid win on Penalties)

Seriously: Does Any Club do Title Celebrations better than Real Madrid?
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I'm still in shock. Did we really just win our 11th European Cup? Yes we did... and judging from the images of the team's celebrations, I'd say that no one celebrates titles like Real Madrid too.
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The season started horribly. Firing Carlo Ancelotti was a mistake - I continue to believe that (and I say 'Congratulations' to Bayern Munich and their fans for hiring him). Hiring Rafa Benitez was an even bigger mistake. Despite having magnificent players in the team, as a Real Madrid fan, I cannot help but feel like we merely somehow 'stumbled' into the Champions League final: getting a series of lucky draws (beatable teams: Roma, Wolfsburg, Man City), and forgiven for our foibles (i.e. Wolfsburg). This Real Madrid team institutionally felt like Chelsea's Champions League-winning team under Roberto Di Mateo - born into crisis, grafting our way towards glory, rather than the all-conquering 2014 team (is there a better way to arrive in a Champions League final than beating Bayern Munich 5-0 on aggregate?).
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But isn't that perhaps where we can find the beauty in this side? In this title? That it is just as capable of earning its silverware in a blaze of Hollywood glory (2014) just as it is capable of crawling beyond the finish line after a bloody trench war which ends with hardly a player able to walk (2016)? We are the club that has the most European Cups because we know more than one way to win it. We can win it with pure glamour just as we can with pure graft.  
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The Tactical Tale
The comparison to Chelsea's Champions League-winning 2012 side is not just because of the way we won (by penalties after a 1-1 draw) but of how we played the final to win it: pure graft. One could perhaps say that the match might have unfolded in a completely different manner had events taken place differently as well.
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Going into the match, I had one thought whilst considering Atleti: watch out for Griezmann. Atleti play a rock solid game of back-and-forth with any team they face, waiting for a mistake - a misplaced pass, a defensive lapse in managing the offside trap, a slip, a miscontrolled ball. If any such events happened, it normally meant that Antoine Griezmann would have his way with your defense and score, or create a scoring chance. It was, I thought, going to be a game of chicken: a waiting game for the first team to blink and concede. Whoever would do so, will have to spend the rest of the match chasing the game. It was for this reason that I believed in my mind that Atleti were favorites - it was only in my heart who refused to let go of a Real Madrid win.
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Perhaps it was fate that immediately before the match, I stumbled into an article highlighting the one area where Real Madrid are clearly superior over Atleti - the air. It was as if fate was speaking to me then: as Casemiro (thanks to Bale's Free Kick) forced Oblak into a world-class save in the early exchanges. Later on, the ghost of Ramos would haunt Atleti again - their Champions League final boogie man come to life as he bundled in Bale's man-bun flick from Toni Kroos' delivery into the goal. A Griezmann counter-attack, my worst nightmare, would not come to pass, it was Atleti's worst nightmare come true instead - the onus was on them to attack. It would be our turn, via Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo to hit them on the counter.
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It is for this reason why perhaps, there are many who believe that Atleti deserved it more. After all, if you spend +/-65 minutes on the attack (the time between Ramos' goal and Carrasco's), you will look like the hungrier side. This is most especially so given that it was also at this point where we discovered that Cristiano Ronaldo was not fit to play - with only Bale giving us glimpses of an opportunity to hit them back on the counter. It was rear guard action for us for most of the match, forcing Atleti to play a game they aren't comfortable with: possession.
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Yannick Carrasco: the slick winger with the blonde bombshell Girlfriend waiting for him in the crowd with the kiss. This is certainly a far more interesting goal than Ramos barely touching the ball to score the opener.
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Maybe it's luck for them that it didn't take long after Carrasco's introduction that Carvajal, the man who had Neymar in his pocket in the last Clasico, had to be subbed off - and Danilo, the greatest waste of 35m euros, came on for him. And when you take the fresh legs of Carrasco, his skill, his drive, his incisiveness, and you apply it against the hapless Danilo (who is seriously making me believe that he is Cicinho v2.0), it's not hard to see Atleti looking the better side. For almost 30 minutes, Carrasco skinned Danilo over and over again, giving Atleti the incisiveness they needed to carve out the openings in the Madrid defense to give Atleti hope (and for neutrals, the entertainment) to turn the match into a contest. It was only poetic justice that Carrasco would score, and given how the penalty shootout would later unfold, that Juanfran assist the goal.
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Atleti's equalizer, scored moments after Madrid had a magnificent chance to make it 2-0, was a nightmare come true to me. "Are we about to see the a reversal of the 2014 final???" I asked myself. The patterns were eerily similar: an early goal from a setpiece scored by a CB (Godin in 2014, Ramos in 2016), followed by a spell of countless waves of attacks from the team behind, then a late goal (Ramos in 2014, Carrasco in 2016) - ceding the momentum to the team that had just scored. For 5 minutes, Real Madrid were reeling like a boxer stunned by a punch, ready to be stricken down by a knockout blow.
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But who knew that unlike Real Madrid circa 2014, Atleti didn't have anything left in the tank after their equalizer. They were spent. I would argue in fact, that if there was a team that looked likelier to score after the equalizer, it was Real Madrid, injured Ronaldo, cramped up Bale and all.
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Real Madrid scored the early goal and held them off for an hour with our one legged superstar pretending to be fit. And by the time they scored their much needed equalizer, they had nothing left. Tactically speaking, it sounds like we ripped a page right out of Jose Mourinho's playbook. I'm reminded of that ill-fated Semi-final vs. Heynckes' Bayern Munich which we lost on penalties. It was the same approach with a different outcome (we scored an early goal, chose to defend the lead, conceded in the second half but lost on penalties). Yes, yes, yes, it wasn't a glamorous tactical approach. It was a risky one too. But considering the fact that we played with only a mockup of Cristiano Ronaldo for 120 minutes, credit must be given for successfully pulling the ploy off.
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"There is no such thing as justice in football. Whoever wins deserves to win. There are no excuses" - Diego Simeone
I disagree with the notion that Real Madrid didn't deserve to win. No less than Diego Simeone has the same opinion too - knowing full well that if Atleti were going to win last Saturday, they probably would have won in the manner we did. Did we win by defensive tactics? Absolutely. Would we have applied different tactics had we not scored to early. For sure. At the end of the day, we won because we adopted our tactics to the circumstances of the game and executed them just well enough to get across the line.
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We DESERVED to win.
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Tactical Tidbits
If there was criticism to be levelled towards Zidane for his tactics - and we are nitpicking here, I'd probably be critical towards his substitution of Kroos for Isco. I get the intent. CR and Bale's legs were gone, Kroos' long passing wouldn't have been as effective as Isco's fresh legs and disco moves pushing the ball forward. But losing Kroos' dead ball delivery might have allowed us to avoid penalties (Modric had some horrible corners late in the game). The choice to bring on Lucas Vazquez's fresh legs and work rate was an inspired choice though.
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If what I read is true that Simeone won the penalty coin toss but chose to allow Madrid to kick first then I'd say that he committed a tactical error: given that 60% of penalty shootout winners kick first. Oblak's decision to 'wait' for a kick to be taken centrally also deserves criticism - especially with Simeone's assistant (Burgos) being a goalkeeper himself. Many clubs keep records of their opponents' penalty taking tendencies, which are supposedly relayed to their goalkeepers for moments like this. Oblak's decision to 'wait' for the centrally taken penalty is a sign that homework wasn't carried out.
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On the opposite end, Zidane's 'order' of penalty takers was bizarre in my view. It is a well-known statistical fact that the most decisive penalties are the first and the fourth ones - especially to put young Lucas Vazquez first to take the penalties. Zidane's choices proved right though as young Lucas showed nerves of steel and ice in his veins to put his penalty away. His instinctive primal scream to celebrate, slapping his jersey, emphasizing the badge on his shirt might have dictated the mood of the proceedings as well - as 'penalty observers' noted how Madrid's players celebrated their successful penalties with joyous rage while Atleti's players' demeanors were far more subdued and nervous. In the end, 'Angry Ramos' taking and successfully scoring the 'decisive' fourth worked out - and the decision to leave our best taker, Cristiano Ronaldo to deliver the 'death blow' proved to be the right choice as well.
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It's clear I've spent way too much time over-analyzing / over-thinking the match. What can I say, that's what you do when you realize that the club you love and support has just won it's 11th European Cup.
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A Few Words for my Idol

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Zinedine Zidane: The man who is the reason why I am a Real Madrid fan today. 
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Those who have read enough of my writings and have heard enough of the podcasts I've participated in know that the reason I am a Real Madrid fan today is because of a man named Zinedine Zidane. I watched and marvelled at his accomplishments as a player and continue to struggle to think of a player who can make my heart stop in the manner he did as a player. Today, my heart swells with pride at seeing this man - who made me fall in love with this club - lift this trophy that my club is madly in love with. Today it is my love for this club that keeps the teenager in me alive.
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Today we celebrate the 11th. What a beautiful Day.

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.