Thursday, April 17, 2014

First Taste (Real Madrid 2 – Barcelona 1)

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'Banzai Motherf#cker!' Is what I would have screamed if I was Gareth Bale in that Situation.
Right this very moment, every Madridista have EXACTLY the same taste in their mouths. That my friends is the sweet, deliriously wonderful, and absolutely addictive taste of victory. It is only our first taste of silverware this season. We have now dispensed of more than half of April and when we consider the fact that a treble is still achievable at this point, it’s difficult not to conclude that we've had a pretty darn good season thus far.
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I’ve called this bunch a pack of ‘spineless, gutless chokers’ – unable to beat the big team on the big occasion. Last night they proved those words of mine to be absolutely wrong. There are no bigger victories over big teams in big matches than ones over Barcelona in a Cup final with silverware at stake. It’s important to note that this praise isn’t just about winning too, it was also very much largely about how the team won.
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We won without our best player. Above all, we won after our team’s character was once again put into question: after our first half lead was cancelled out by one of our only 2 defensive lapses in the match (we normally have 2 every 20 minutes). The team reeled a bit following Bartra’s equalizer: but it held on, buckled down and fought back. And on the occasion where we did not have our best player, where we needed that ‘crack moment’, where we needed a hero to stand up and be counted, we found one (Bale) who sent us to glory.
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Battle of Wits
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The unsung hero behind Carlo's flexible tactical system last night was Di Maria. His quality, versatility and workrate make him a trump card in Carlo Ancelotti's deck.
Carlo Ancelotti won the tactical battle last night, hands down. Bereft of his best player (Ronaldo), Ancelotti duly turned his disadvantage into an advantage. For pretty much the whole season, we’ve spoken about Real Madrid as a team that plays the 4-3-3. Last night, the intent APPEARED to be a 4-3-3 as well: Bale and Di Maria played as wingers with Isco Alonso and Modric playing at the Center.  There was however one simple variation which took advantage of Ronaldo’s absence: when the other team has the ball, the team would play 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1)… and with Barca having 67% possession, it really did look like we were playing 4-4-2 for most of the game.
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Making use of Di Maria’s willingness to put in a defensive shift, Ancelotti had El Fideo drop deep (with Isco shuffling over to the left side) to form part a neat ‘line of 4’ parallel to our defensive line – leaving a striker (Benzema) and winger/forward (Bale) as attacking outlets. The pairing worked wonderfully with Bale almost able to roam freely behind Benzema just as he did when he was with Tottenham. Ancelotti would then deploy the 2 banks of 4 closely together, compressing Barca’s space and ability to ‘play between the lines.’ Shifting Di Maria to become part of the ‘midfield line’ also creates another positive knock-on effect: it brings Alonso and Modric to form a double pivot at the center: allowing them to position themselves in a manner where Messi is almost always constantly surrounded by 4 players: our 2 pivots and our 2 CBs.
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The ploy was so effective that people started commenting ‘Really sad that Ronaldo AND Messi were not in the final though’ (suggesting that Messi had ‘disappeared’ in the game). Also, in playing in this manner, Madrid could easily have been up 3 or even 4 goals by halftime.
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This is NOT the first time we saw this from Ancelotti. He deployed similar tactics in a Champions League tie also against Barca: a striker (Ibrahimovic) and a winger/forward (Lavezzi) up front, while a natural winger (Lucas Moura) would drop deep on the right with a ‘10’ (Pastore) shuffling over to the left side. Real Madrid’s quality across the board however is far superior to that PSG team (Di Maria instead of Moura, Isco instead of Pastore, Alonso + Modric instead of Veratti + Motta / Matuidi / Beckham). We’ve seen glimpses of this this season too but to less effect: as Bale (who would drop deep to form part of the midfield line) could not match Di Maria’s workrate. Thus the tactical question I’m asking myself at the moment is: When Ronaldo comes back, how can we repeat this trick against Bayern?
It’s also notable that the defense was impeccable last night. Carvajal was clearly given instructions not to be too gung-ho in bombing forward, whilst Pepe and Ramos stood off more and took less risks ‘raiding forward.’
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After the match, Marc Bartra, sounding like a sore loser, lamented that ‘Madrid only had 2 chances and scored’. He needs to watch the replay: it was Barca who only had 2 chances, both of which came off Madrid’s only 2 defensive errors last night: Pepe losing Bartra for their equalizer, and no one tracking Neymar which led to the shot at the post.
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Battle of the Number 2s
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Bale was last night's Real Madrid Superhero.
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With Ronaldo injured and left to irritate us with that ridiculous baseball cap, and Messi having been erased from the game thanks to the tactics of both coaches (including his own), it was a match that in many ways a duel between the respective teams’ #2s, both of whom also happen to be the world’s most expensive players: Neymar and Gareth Bale (a friend posted on facebook: what do you do when you have 100m? Real Madrid buy a Rocket, Barcelona buy a Dolphin).
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Neymar’s first clasico was marked by a goal and an assist. Bale’s was marked by a stint playing as a striker lost at sea while only half-fit. Since then however, Bale has steadily progressed to become one of Real Madrid’s most important players. The opposite is happening with Neymar, who along with Cesc Fabregas is fast becoming the epicentre of discussions to dissect the Barca’s tactical chaos. It is thus somewhat fitting, that on the final clasico of the season, it would be Gareth Bale who rises up and scores the title-winning goal, whilst Neymar’s unfortunate spell of luck (hitting the goalpost) becomes a mere footnote of the game.
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It's fascinating to note that just as most recent Clasico narratives have been impossible to detach from Ronaldo-Messi discussions, here we are, talking about a clasico with neither Ronaldo nor Messi unable to play the role of protagonists - finding ourselves talking about the 'next generation' narrative in Bale and Neymar. The fact that Florentino's first choice signing (prior to Bale) was Neymar, makes the discussion even more fascinating (an good piece on that subject matter can be found here).  
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Class
Cristiano consoló a Messi
No Sending Offs, No Dirty Play. Just football and classy behavior. A refreshing relief.
It’s also worth pointing out that the match featured a lot less of the irritating and unnecessary Argy-Bargy that we used to see in the clasico. Referee Matheu Lahoz deserves praise for not calling tippy tappy fouls which would have encouraged simulation antics as well, which are potential sources for sending-offs and other hostile, class-less behavior. I was particularly touched by Iker’s gesture to dedicate the victory to Jese (a photo of Ramos facetime-ing with Jese , who’s in Germany for his knee treatment would emerge later after the match).
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The sight of Ronaldo sportingly consoling the dazed Messi was also a refreshing break from the icy stares we normally see the 2 firing at each other.
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I have to say this: I really enjoyed this controversy-free clasico.
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Only a Warm-Up
This has been a huge win and the timing is also impeccable. Psychologically, it’s the sort of confidence-boosting win that we need in order to inject belief that we are capable of upsetting Bayern (I use the world upset as I think we are the underdogs) – even if we are forced to play without Ronaldo once again.
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Tactically, with Pep’s Bayern just as obsessed with possession, and proven to be just as vulnerable when attacked with pace on the counter (as shown by Dortmund), many of the ideas used last night are very much applicable against the Germans as well. It must be clear to all however that relative to the Bayern tie, last night’s match is only a warm-up. Unlike Barca, Bayern have the sort of players who can punish us when forced into crosses to their big men. And unlike Barca, Bayern are equipped with players who can dish out as much crap as we give them should a physical war of attrition take place. We will need to be at our absolute best when we face them.
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Thankfully, last night, we took the right step forward. We’ve obtained the sort of mental nourishment that is critical to succeed at our next challenge. Last night was merely a First Taste. Here’s to hoping that a Feast is up next.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Yphrum’s Law



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Everyone knows about Murphy’s Law (“Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong”), it’s happened to all of us in school and at work: computers that don’t work, printers that get jammed, cars that break down and open roads that get choked with traffic… everyone knows what I mean. Not many know of the opposite though: Yphrum’s Law (“Everything that can go right, will go right”). And as a sports fan, this weekend saw me enjoy quite a bit of Yphrum’s Law.
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Saturday Night Part 1: Bayern Munich 0 – Borussia Dortmund 3 (Mkhiktaryan, Reus, Hofmann)
Riding the wave of their impressive but not-good-enough win vs. Real Madrid midweek, Jurgen Klopp and his men face Bayern Munich in a dead rubber league match that only had pride and bragging rights at stake. Klopp chose not to start Lewandowski and went with the wasteful (vs. Real Madrid) Aubameyang as his striker. I was thinking to myself: Did he not trust Lewadowski to go for the kill against his future employers? As the game unfolded, Klopp’s plan became clearer: Lewandowski being on the bench wasn’t about trust issues, but pace issues. The plan was clear enough: to use the pace of Aubameyang and Reus, Mkhitaryan and Hofmann behind him to expose Bayern’s gigantic, powerful but slow CMs and CBs: namely Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez and the Brazilian Dante (who IMO should switch allegiances to Belgium to form an all-afro spine with Fellaini and Axel Witsel).
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All 3 men playing behind the Aubameyang (who used his pace to drift all over the frontline) scored. It was to me as great a template for Madrid to beat Bayern in the Champions League Semi-Finals as you will ever get. Madrid have Ronaldo, Bale, Di Maria and Isco who are all capable to pulling off what Aubameyang, Reus, Mkhitaryan and Hofmann did last Saturday night in Munich.
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Bayern Munich, having wrapped up the German league title last month might just be mentally in vacation mode already. If they are, there will be times when they can just flick the switch in their minds and snap back into ‘war mode’. But if they allow themselves to drift further and further away into vacation mode mode, it will become harder and harder to flick that mental switch back on. Hopefully, by the 22nd of April, when we meet them, more than a few of their players would already be unable to flick that switch back on.
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I hope Carlo Ancelotti was watching.
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Saturday Night Part 2: Granada 1 (Brahimi) – Barcelona 0
Before the 2nd leg of their quarterfinal match vs. Atleti, I didn’t believe that Barca would lose this one. After losing to Atleti though and with the loss of Pique, the thought of a mentally deflated and physically exhausted Barca travelling to Granada with ZERO centerbacks made me believe that they just might drop points. I was watching the penalty shootout between Arsenal and Wigan (FA Cup semifinals) when I noticed the scoreline on my phone: hmmmm…. Maybe I should forget about taking a nap before the Madrid match and just watch this one.
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Barca’s possession was once again mostly sterile. They had a Defensive Midfielder who hasn’t played a single decent game in their uniform for 2 years (Song), Defensive Midfielders (Busquets, Mascherano) playing as a Centerbacks and a washed up wannabe rapper-cum-thug in goal (Pinto), ‘protected’ by a bunch of undersized, physically and mentally exhausted midfielders. They were ripe for picking and Granada did just that.
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Saturday Night Part 3: Real Madrid 4 (Di Maria, Bale, Isco, Morata)
It was the sort of fixture you NEED after getting bitchslapped by Dortmund, drawing Bayern in the semi-finals and with days to go heading into a cup final vs. Barca: a relatively weak team at home. It just happened to be a massive bonus opportunity that wining would allow us to leapfrog Barca into second place – and the boys duly cashed in. We beat them convincingly and took our place at 2nd place over Barca.
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We did it without Ronaldo, Alonso and Ramos. Isco, Illaramendi and Casemiro got confidence-boosting games, whilst the still-not-fully-recovered Di Maria managed to get rested. Nacho’s performances are also now starting to get noticed and appreciated by Madridistas (including this one). Did I also mention that Morata has now scored in his 3rd consecutive appearance?
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All we need now is for Atleti to drop points TWICE. There will be matches before and after their matches vs. Chelsea in the Champions League where fatigue / injuries might catch up to them. With Barca now having only the league to play for, they will seek to win every remaining game left in the hopes that we will drop points. This will give them every incentive to beat Atleti at the Camp Nou on the final day.
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It’s late in the season but still too early to tell how the season can end for us as Champions. The weekend was a big step in the right direction though.
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Sunday Morning: Manny Pacquiao beats Timothy Bradley via Unanimous decision
Those who know of the antics of Manny's mom AND who saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier will get the joke :)
I’m part of probably a small minority who believes that Manny Pacquiao should have retired some time ago. That doesn’t mean I won’t cheer for my countryman though when he laces those boots and gloves up though – especially against the man who got away with highway robbery the last time they fought.
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Manny no longer has the dynamite in his fists. But Bradley finally got exposed as a second-class fighter next to the Pacman last Sunday. It was hard to understand how it is that Bradley is supposed to be 5 years younger than Pacquiao and on the upward trajectory of his career and that Manny was the opposite.
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For Manny, I just hopes he gets his fight vs. Mayweather and calls it a day. And if Mayweather is still too chicken to fight, then perhaps it’s time to hang those gloves up and stop putting his body and his health in harm’s way.  
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Sunday Night: Liverpool 3 (Sterling, Skrtel, Coutinho) – Manchester City 2 (Silva, Johnson O.G.)
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My wife did manage the courage to watch last night's Liverpool Man City match. I gave her a tactical breakdown of the match (4-4-2 Diamond vs. 4-2-3-1) using my son's building blocks (it worked out just nicely that the blocks came in Man City-Sky Blue and Liverpool-Red).
Prior to last night, Liverpool hadn’t been able to beat a top 3 team this season. If they were ever to win the league title, they had to do it at some point – and they did it big time against Manchester City last night. 4 more wins needed (including 1 vs. Chelsea at home) and glory is theirs.
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Rogers opted to play a midfield diamond that seemed to stifle City. Speed merchant Sterling playing at the tip of that diamond seemed to disturb City too.  But playing 4-2-3-1, Pellegrini duly figured out how to capitalize on the 2 inherent weaknesses of a diamond. The first was through the flanks: midfield diamonds are narrow, and there’s loads of space on the flanks to expose. The introduction of James Milner in the second half on the City right flank harmed Liverpool greatly. The second weakness is the ‘base’ of the diamond: Steven Gerrard. If left unprotected, he can be punished by a top-class ‘10’, and they don’t come much better than David Silva who scored City’s first and was instrumental for the equalizer.
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It took an error from City’s defensive rock, Vincent Kompany for Liverpool to grab the lead with Coutinho’s low driven shot. 4 games to go? Is it their destiny?
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Liverpool just might be the Premier League’s version of Atletico Madrid: they are unfancied, have less squad depth and operate on a considerably smaller budget compared to their title rivals. They do have however, the league’s best striker.
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Where they differ with Atleti of course is that they’re built to attack… and the other big difference: unlike Atleti, I would really love to see them win the league title.
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Will it Continue?
It’s easy to tell that I’ve had a pretty darn good weekend. After a midweek match that saw Murphy’s law come into full effect on the pitch at the Signal Igduna Park, perhaps the football Gods have decided to give me a break. I am duly showing them my appreciation for it by writing this. The first chance to taste Silverware beckons on Wednesday. None of us know if it will be Murphy’s or Yphrun’s Law taking effect for us.
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But there comes a point where it stops being about the luck that you get, but about the luck you make for yourself. Time for Real Madrid to make their own luck.


p.s. To Singtel Mio TV and Starhub TV: you both suck. I pay you both huge loads of money every month to watch football… and neither of you can show the Copa Del Rey final? You guys are pathetic.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spineless, Gutless Chokers (Borussia Dortmund 2 - Real Madrid 0)

My Twitter Feed last Tuesday Night
Spineless, Gutless Chokers.
No Character. No Resolve. No Poise, No Cojones.
These were some of the words I used to describe Real Madrid last Tuesday night as I watched in horror how Real Madrid almost sabotaged their own advancement to the Champions League Semi-Finals. In the end, Borussia Dortmund won 2-0. They fell 1 goal short of the 3-0 scoreline they needed to send the game into extra time or even penalties. When the referee blew his whistle, though I cannot deny that I heaved a sigh of relief, I also stood up and applauded my television. The applause of course was meant for Jurgen Klopp and his men. It was as gallant and fearless a performance as I had ever seen in the game of football. There is no logical explanation as to why there is no queue or bidding war going on to acquire the services of this frumpy-haired, bearded German coach with yellow teeth amongst Europe’s elite clubs. He led his band of mostly-no-name replacements to almost eliminate the most expensively assembled squad in the history of the world’s most popular sport from the Champions League.
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That we lost to Borussia Dortmund did not upset me. I was in fact somewhat prepared for the possibility of seeing the team suffer and even lose. What really turns my stomach the wrong way however was the manner in which we lost… or to put it in another way: it exposed the team for what it really might seem to be: a team that is mentally weak, with a soft center that will crumble when put to the pressure. And let’s make no mistake about it – we are now in THAT part of the season where we will ALWAYS be put to the pressure.
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I’ve always hated teams that were like that: all the talent in the world but without the stomach or the bottle to use their talent to win (which is why I loved to make fun of the collegiate basketball team from my wife’s university, you should see her face blacken when I do it). And on the opposite side of the spectrum, I’ve always had a soft spot for teams that lack talent but whose mental fortitude carried them through. This is how I’ve become a Liverpool fan myself after seeing ‘the miracle at Istanbul’ (2005 Champions League Final) – how can you explain that Djimi Traore has a Champions League winner’s medal? Perhaps this is how I managed to win my wife’s love back after all those cruel and nasty jokes about her university’s basketball team.
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Beyond the Errors
My memories of choking in big moments in sports events all trace back to my basketball-filled childhood and teenage years and I realize that many of those moments involve free throw-shooting incidents:
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-John Starks missing 2 key freethrows for the New York Knicks to pave the way for the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller to perform his heroics at the Madison Square Garden.
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-The Chicago Bulls’ Scottie Pippen whispering ‘The mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays’ to Karl Malone in the NBA finals. Malone would blow the free throws.
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-The Orlando Magic’s Nick Anderson missing FOUR consecutive free throws in game 1 of the NBA finals with his team leading by 3 in the 4th quarter vs. the Houston Rockets. The Rockets’ Kenny Smith would hit a 3 point shot and send the game into over time. Houston would go on to win it and later on sweep the Magic 4-0 in the series. Anderson would NEVER be the same player again after that moment.
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The penalty kick is football’s equivalent to basketball’s free throw. But just as hard as it is to score in football, the penalty is a considerably harder task compared to the free throw. That’s just fair enough given that a goal in football is worth far more than a point in basketball (heck, it’s worth more than 10, it’s probably worth 50). So when we won a penalty for what in my opinion was a dubious handball call (the player had his arm tucked to his body, but still had the misfortune of making contact with the ball) – it was as if the football Gods had decided to bless us with the opportunity to put the tie to bed and switch channels to the Chelsea-PSG game instead.
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But since when was Angel Di Maria our second-choice penalty taker (I would’ve had Alonso take it)? As Di Maria slipped as he struck the ball and Weinderfeller saved, one could only guss the football Gods felt insulted by our team’s response to their gift. The atmosphere of the crowd completely changed at that point. From the ‘we’re here to support our team no matter what because we love them’ vibe that started the match, the blown penalty turned the atmosphere of the Signal Igduna Park into ‘This is a sign! We can REALLY do this! It’s meant to be!’
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What followed wasn’t even a brain fart. It was a Brain Shit. Both goals were created by errors. Pepe’s misplaced backheader was the sort you’d see little boys make in the schoolyard. This ain’t the schoolyard though: on that pitch on that fateful Tuesday night, there was a shark prowling the waters named Marco Reus – and he made us pay dearly for it. The English commentator would comment during a replay of a goal: “If it’s a big game, Pepe or Ramos will surely commit a defensive error, and if you’re smart enough, all you need to do is wait for it and take advantage. Reus was clearly smart enough.” I hated that this English prick was probably saying it out of a stereotypical impression of a Real Madrid team…. But I hated it even more that what he said was true.
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The second goal was FAR WORSE. After the first leg, I wrote about the importance of having our 3 central midfielders needing to be constantly aware of each other’s position to ensure that there was always cover. When Asier Illaramendi lost the ball, there was an Aircraft Carrier-sized void between Illaramendi’s back and our CBs: the perfect landscape for a counterattack to be launched. And here’s the thing that REALLY made me want to chuck the remote control at the television: the goal wasn’t scored after Lewandowski’s strike, but it was a SECOND BALL (following the Polish striker’s shot bouncing off the post) that made it 2-0. What this means is that from Illara’s error, to the counter attack, to Lewandowski’s strike, to the ball hitting the post… None of Real Madrid’s players duly reacted quick enough or was adequately positioned to clear the ball. You will NEVER win a single title defending like that.
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The team would try to hold on for dear life following Reus’ second goal. A team that featured Ramos (27m), Pepe (30m), Alonso (35m), Modric (35m), Di Maria (36m), Benzema (30m) and Gareth Bale (100m) would cower to a bunch of ‘replacements’ (ever heard of Eric Durm? Milos Jojic? Oliver Kirch? I didn’t think so) is both shocking and embarrassing. I’ve never begged so badly for the halftime and fulltime whistle.
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Xabi Alonso and my Ex-Girlfriend
Before and during the early period of getting together with the woman who is now my ex-girlfriend, I remember quivering in excitement over certain very specific qualities about her. After a certain period of time however, those very qualities that I loved so much about her began to turn into the things that I really disliked about her. Later on, it would get to a point where even the things that caused so much conflict between us would end up being attributed to, related to, or are an implication of having those very qualities which made me fall so madly for her in the beginning.
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Exactly the same thing is now happening between me and Xabi Alonso right this very moment. He is the best long range passer in the game. His vision and intelligence is off the charts… making him the tactical epicentre of the team. All of these qualities come at the expense of his athleticism and we accept and love him for being just that.
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It is however no coincidence that our every failure this season (and many of our failures in the past few seasons) can be directly attributed to this. Last season Madrid was exposed by Jurgen Klopp (Stop Alonso, you stop Madrid). This season, Messi and Rakitic ran rings around him and Raul Garcia bullied him – and we lost. Last night Mykhitaryan imposed his speed and athleticism all over Alonso. He ran rings around him too. In trying to anticipate moves, Alonso also took more than a few unnecessary risks without assessing if there was adequate coverage behind him should he fail to nick the ball.
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Alonso is the team’s strength AND its weakness. He is normally directly responsible for whether we play badly (where I detest him) or brilliantly (where I fall in love with him). Ancelotti’s job is to watch game film of our losses to Atletico, Sevilla, Barcelona and Dortmund and ask himself: how can Alonso not become that ex-girlfriend (whose qualities that make you fall in love also become the ones that cause you pain)?
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A Look On the Bright Side
Frustration: It all gets a little too much for the Portuguese star as he gesticulates on the sidelines
Ronaldo patrolling the Real Madrid Touchline Last Night. If he can't play, he should be made to sit on the bench instead. If your best player is that fired up, then you ought to be.
The sigh of relief that followed the halftime whistle was preluded by the comforting sight of Cristiano Ronaldo frantically yelling, signalling and gesturing at his teammates – almost as if he was the coach himself. In fact, if I could recall correctly, he had to be told by the fourth official to sit himself down on the bench. I later on tweeted that Ancelotti should just lock Ronaldo up in the dressing room with the players to give the halftime team talk. Many have spoken of the need to learn to eat a bit of humble pie on their way to the semi-finals: that it would do them some good to be made to suffer in order to deflate any sense of over-confidence that might be building up in them. It may have done good for Ronaldo to be on the bench that night as well: for him to see what his teammates look like when they stop supporting each other both in attack and on defense. He might be back for Almeria this weekend, but I honestly would much rather see him in the clasico Copa Del Rey Final instead.
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It’s important to note that Ancelotti’s substitutions worked out well too for Real Madrid. Isco’s introduction in the second half worked well (where he played in the left wing and Di Maria was shifted to the midfield). Isco didn’t frantically try to speed his way into Dortmund’s box every time he received the ball as one might expect. Instead, Isco gave the game (especially Real Madrid’s) a much needed ‘pause’: he calmly dribbled his way to the corners, slowing the pace of the game down, diffusing the tension, and retaining possession to allow his teammates to regain their bearings in the match. By the latter part of the second half however, Dortmund turned up the pressure once again and Ancelotti sent young Casemiro in for Di Maria. The young Brazilian gave Madrid’s midfield an additional ‘bite’ and didn’t at all seem fazed by the occasion. I don’t consider him to be a superbly talented footballer just yet – but what he lacked in magic, he made up for with cojones… and did so in spades.
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The final bright spot of the match would have to go to Iker Casillas. Many of today’s goalkeepers are expected to command the penalty box, dominate in the air and come out decisively for crosses and high balls, or even to play the ball properly with their feet to start attacks. Diego Lopez does ALL of these better than Iker Casillas. But Iker Casillas might probably the greatest shot-stopper of all time. In a one-on-one situation, or even a two-on-one, or if the ball finds its way to an opponent’s #9 in the box, if I had to gamble with my life in that situation, I would choose Iker as my goalkeeper. Iker will go to the World Cup again this summer and will thus return to training camp later than Diego Lopez once again. Despite all the additional functions we want to see from a goalkeeper these days, I still say that the primary role of a keeper is to stop shots of the opponent. And though I’ve written MANY times that I UNDERSTAND why coaches prefer Lopez to Iker, let me say this now once and for all: if it was up to me, Iker should be our first choice goalkeeper.
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Across the Channels
Last Tuesday, in the other channel, our other ex-girlfriend Jose Mourinho masterminded an impressive comeback 2-0 win to send Chelsea to the semi-finals. He too lost his best player (Hazard) and duly responded with 2 of his substitutes scoring goals (Schurrle, Ba). It was an impressive display of character.
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While last night, Atleti beat Barcelona 1-0 to add another highlight to what has been an absolutely epic season for them. They too played without their best player (Diego Costa). And finally, in another part of Germany, winning character was met with winning character. Manchester United refused to die at the hands of Bayern and forced the Bavarians (who were without Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez) into a second half display of guts, character and poise to earn their place in the semi-finals.
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Every team that’s in the semi-finals now except for us has reached this point of the competition thanks to an impressive display of team character.
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We are currently the only spineless, gutless bunch of chokers with no cojones, no resolve, no poise of character left in the competition. If we are to have any hope whatsoever to even have the chance to raise La Decima this season, Ancelotti and his boys have exactly 2 more games left in this competition to prove that what I said about them last night isn’t true.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Crushing the Banana Skin (Real Sociedad 0 – Real Madrid 4)

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Post-clasico, we all knew it: there were 2 banana skin games left in the La Liga calendar. The first was at the Sanchez Pizjuan against Sevilla. The second was last Satuday at the Anoeta. We failed in Seville. We succeeded in San Sebastian. Following the loss vs. Sevilla, there were those who ranted that Carlo Ancelotti couldn’t beat ‘big teams’ or ‘big games’. And given that many of those sentiments came out following the Sevilla game, one would surmise that these critics have included Sevilla as a ‘big team’ or that the match was a ‘big game’. I am thus looking for those very same critics now following this win vs. Real Sociedad – the ones who would refer to last Saturday’s game as a ‘big game’ if we had lost it and a ‘usual game’ now that we’ve won it 4-0. Let’s all admit that there’s a double standard right there and that it’s really unfair.
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Real Sociedad may not be the Champions League qualifying team that they were last season (with Montanier at the helm), but they are still the team that beat 3-1 at home. So let’s put aside the double standard and make no mistake about it. This was a big game and a genuine Banana Skin game for us… and Ancelotti and his boys didn’t only side step the banana skin, they crushed it.
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Risks and Rotations
Ancelotti did it while taking some pretty big risks too. Without Cristiano Ronaldo, one would have thought that the most logical thing to do was to play the best players from the remainder of the squad. That means a full first choice XI with his best attempt to compensate for the Ronaldo-sized void in the team. He didn’t do that though and instead chose to play without Di Maria and Coentrao.
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Was this because he felt that the title is no longer a priority and that it was time to go all-in instead for the Champions League? Was this him screaming into the night towards the football gods, daring them to strike his team down from La Liga contention? Or was this a merely a calculated risk (he still had Di Maria and Coentrao on the bench after all) which he could have undone if things didn’t go well?
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Either way, it was a gamble that he took and it paid off. Coentrao was rested. So was Di Maria (he played a few minutes) while Ronaldo managed to take the game in from the comfort of his living room presumably with his knee in an ice bucket. On top off that: we got another solid performance from  Illaramendi, the chance to see Isco shine with his tap-dancing routine and Alvaro Morata to score another peach of a goal for the second consecutive game. At this stage of the season: you now need to be able to reach in as deep into the squad as possible and get a performance out of those guys and Carletto’s rotations last Saturday night was a big help towards that.
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Switching Flanks
It was a talking point in this week’s Merengue Bites podcast: the tide seemed to turn in our favour when Bale and Isco (who was playing in Ronaldo’s left wing spot in the front 3) decided to switch places.
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Real Sociedad were chasing our boys all over the pitch in the first half, giving them barely a second to react once the ball was received. Their objective was to force our boys into losing possession… or to ‘reset’ the play by returning the ball to our CBs and even to Diego Lopez. The plan was greatly helped by the fact that less adventurous Nacho was playing as a Left Back and Isco (who as a natural ‘10’, drifts inside) was playing as the left winger in Ronaldo’s stead. This resulted in a lopsided Real Madrid: we had width on the right (Carvajal + Bale) and none on the left (Isco + Nacho). With Bale and Isco switching flanks, the team became more balanced: with Bale providing width on the left and Carvajal providing it on the right.
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Having width on both flanks essentially spreads the width of the pitch of the team even further: forcing Real Sociedad to cover far more ground… and further facilitated the fatigue factor for them having to cover so much ground. They physically hit the wall in the second half and conceded 3 goals to a fired-up and more fluid Real Madrid.
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This is a ‘trick’ Ancelotti needs to employ more frequently. Except for the 2 English teams, every remaining team left in the Champions League are capable pressers of the ball. If they’re going to try to run after us when we have the ball, then we might as well force them to do so all over the pitch. A wider pitch also means more space for our 3 midfielders to operate. And so what if Ronaldo and Bale will be less able to cut in to shoot with their stronger foot? We’ve all seen Ronaldo score buckets of goals from the right… and wasn’t Bale’s Champions League claim to fame (during his Spurs days) that hat trick vs. Inter playing on the left (that had Spurs fans singing ‘Taxi for Maicon’)?  
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I am not calling for the 2 to permanently swap wings, but for them to do so more frequently. It’s a good trick to physically and mentally exhaust the opponent.
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Appetizers
It didn’t occur to me until my quick fixture list look just now. The weekend after next is the Copa Del Rey Final. Real Madrid would do well to get past Dortmund tomorrow and Almeria next weekend without any physical (injuries) or mental (low morale from a loss, etc.) issues heading into our first chance for silverware: The Copa Del Rey Final vs. Barcelona.
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Barca will surely be physically and mentally exhausted next weekend (where they travel to 15th-placed Almeria) regardless of the outcome of their Champions League clash vs. Atleti. There will be a week’s rest before we cross swords with them once again in the Copa Del Rey Final. And it’s time to hope that the absences of Victor Valdes and Pique will be felt very badly by Barcelona.
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As for Atleti, they ‘travel’ to relegation-fodder Getafe midweek and host Elche on the weekend of the final. There is no reason for them to drop points even in the absence of Diego Costa.
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I suppose there’s no point in looking too far now. Now is the time to ‘live in the moment’. Every match from here on in is a big match, regardless of how big or small is the team that we are facing next. That means that every team that we face from this point onwards is should be treated as a ‘Banana Skin’ game… and the time has now come for us to either kick them aside or crush them all.   

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Keys (Real Madrid 3 – Borussia Dortmund 0)

Borussia Dortmund sorely missed Robert Lewandowski last night. The big man will be waiting for us at the Signal Igduna Park next week.

The TV screamed as soon as I switched it on. I switched it on at exactly 2:48am – 3 minutes late, and I had already missed a goal. The goal, scored by Gareth Bale and assisted by Dani Carvajal was scored 3 minutes into the game. Real Madrid would win 3-0 last night, the exact scoreline we needed but failed to achieve last season in the semi-final return leg (following a horrifyingly unforgettable 4-1 drubbing at the Signal Igduna Park). 3-0 tonight means that should we meet the Big Lewandowski next week, and even if we choose to / allow him to murder us like he did lasts season to the tune of a 4-1 massacre – we still go through to the semi-finals to meet Bayern/ManU, Atleti/Barca or PSG/Chelsea.
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It is in my opinion however, that we should not congratulate ourselves too much for the achievement. Let’s all admit it: this is not the Borussia Dortmund team that butchered us last season. 7 out of the 11 starters that destroyed us last season in the semi-finals were not on the pitch last night: the suspended Lewandowski, the injured Bender, Gundogan, Schmelzer, Subotic, Blaszczykowski (apparently pronounced as Bla-chu-kof-sky, I think) and the now-Bayern player Gotze. The Borussia Team that turned up last night brought a sizable yellow-and-black army of fans (who put to shame the Bernabeu’s many empty seats), they had the same mad scientist coach, a few familiar faces (Hummels, Kehl, Weindenfeller) – but they were far from the same team.
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Having said that, as we find ourselves in the middle of ‘crunch time’ for the season (4 matches to win the CL, 1 match to win CDR and 7 matches to possibly win La Liga), it’s important to pinpoint the key positives and the key negatives from the team’s play. If we do enough of the positives, then we just might be in for a treble, whilst too much of the negatives and we’ll be in for a trophy-less season.
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Positive Key #1: Siege Mode
We saw it against Schalke in the Veltins Arena. We saw it patches at the Bernabeu in the Clasico some weeks ago. We saw it again last night. Real Madrid have a tendency to start matches as if they were wolves who haven’t been fed in weeks and thus end up treating their opponents like hapless prey. The wingers (usually Bale) get up on the throats of opposing fullbacks, force errors and end up scoring early goals or get early scoring chances.
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The cumulative effect of this in the team is infectious. It results in the team collectively going on ‘Siege Mode’: pushing the entire ‘zone of play’ right into the opponent’s third of the pitch. The opponents then suffocate to death, conceding goals. It’s the footballing equivalent of using a full court press (in basketball) to start the game, and rattle your opponent.
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It’s physically impossible to play like this for 90 minutes (perhaps Atletico can do it?). Last night, the ‘siege’ lasted about 15-20 minutes: scoring a goal, winning corners, free kicks and forcing Weindenfeller into a few great saves. For those who frequently play video games, this ‘siege mode’ is almost the footballing equivalent of a one time power up in a game. Physically, Madrid probably has 1-2 of these ‘power up’ modes in a game. When used properly and efficiently as we’ve seen vs. Schalke, it can give Madrid a 2-3 goal blast within a 15-20 minute period. I hope Ancelotti realizes this and duly learns to us this ‘power up’ when things really count.
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Positive Key #2: Figuring Out how to Support Alonso in the 4-3-3
The key to making our 4-3-3 work is to support Alonso. If we have the ball, the players around him should offer a means for him to 'exit' the ball. On defense, he needs to improve his synchronization with the other CMs.

It wasn’t long ago when Nomz asked us the question for the Merengue Bites podcast: if you were the opposing coach, how would you play us (Real Madrid) to win? My answer was: deploy a 4-2-3-1 and use an athletic, high-energy ‘10’ to press Alonso on defense and take advantage of his lack of mobility / athleticism in attack. Against the highly-functional Atletico Madrid, this was Raul Garcia’s job, whilst against Barca, to used a 4-3-3, it was Messi, dropping into the ‘10’ position while playing as a ‘False 9’ who did this.
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This sort of thing to me is something that a bright tactical mind like Jurgen Klopp would not miss out on. I was certain that Myhktaryan, with the likes of Reus and Grosskreutz would be given exactly that brief and will duly trouble our aging and possibly fatigued Basque midfield lynchpin.
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Solutions to this are however available within the 4-3-3 system we employ. What is necessary is for Alonso to be offered adequate support both going forward and on defense. On attack, the 2 central midfielders need to always position themselves relative to where Alonso is on the pitch: making themselves available to receive passes when our ‘14’ is pestered by opponents. This forces the opposing midfield to choose between 2 poisons: 1.) Press Alonso and allow Isco / Di Maria to shuttle the ball forward to the attackers (Isco tap-danced his way through Dortmund’s midfield all night last night), or, 2.) deploy their players to shadow our CMs’ off-the-ball movement and open up long range passing channels for Alonso ping forward to Ronaldo, Bale and our fullbacks.
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When Madrid played fluidly last night, it was because of the availability of these supporting players around him. And when Madrid’s offense seemed to stutter, a look at the team shape reveals the lack of available passing channels for the players.
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Things are a bit trickier defensively. Alonso has a habit of reading situations and duly making surging runs forward to intercept, poke or lunge at opponents to win the ball back. When he does this without ‘coordination’ with his teammates, the team becomes vulnerable when the attempted interception or tackle does not come off. Ancelotti will need to resolve this with his midfield: does he ban Alonso from taking such risks? Or go for the more challenging approach of trying to establish synchronicity between his midfielders such that one or both of them will do the opposite of what Alonso does (i.e. if he surges forward, then they run back to cover him or if he sits back, then they burst forward to win the ball back).
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Negative Key #1: Allowing the Defensive Line to Sag.
Despite winning 3-0. More of the game was spent in our third of the pitch than Dortmund's. This is NOT Good.

Many dislike Guillem Balague but I respect him. I found his post-clasico comments enlightening too:

“Real started really well, putting pressure high and making life very difficult for the Barcelona defenders, but with every appearance of Messi, Madrid moved five or so metres back and ended up defending far too deep. That meant that when players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale recovered the ball they had a lot of metres to run.”

What happened to Madrid after our early ‘Siege’ reminded me of these words. Did Real Madrid tire? Or did we go into Mourinho mode? (“now that we have a lead, let’s play them on the counter”-thinking).  If there was one thing I learned from our eliminations at the hands of Bayern and Borussia, it is this: there is a VERY thin line between ceding possession to play on the counter and surrendering the initiative altogether. In the second half, we did just that and almost lost our clean sheet because of it.
Up 2-0, Real Madrid then began to allow their defensive and midfield line to sag deeper and deeper. At first it looked like we were daring them to attack us with the threat of our team’s counter-attacking. But it didn’t take long before their spells of possession emboldened them to attack with more confidence and verge, putting the Madrid defense on edge for a good number of stretches. In the second half, Aubameyang missed a golden opportunity to shoot at Casillas’ goal. He missed. Lewandowski would have made us pay dearly for that.
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Ancelotti made these boys comfortable on possession both while chasing a lead and protecting it. We must stay true to this. Having Alonso’s passing together with gazelles like Ronaldo and Bale will ALWAYS make us dangerous on the counter, yet the team must always be careful about surrendering the initiative to the other side.
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Negative Key #2: Bad Defending
Isco called our defense a ‘10/10’. The Bernabeu chanted Pepe’s name. Many would say that it was a stalwart performance by our defenders. I disagree. Spanish football fans have never forgiven Howard Webb for allowing Nigel De Jong to put his studs on Alonso’s chest in the WC final 4 years ago. It was thus a surprise to me that no one made a fuss about Englishman Mark Clattenburg refereeing the match. We were lucky he did. Undiano Mallenco (of El Clasico fame) would have given Borussia Dortmund 2, maybe 3 penalties last night.
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Pepe, Ramos and Coentrao were all guilty of late shoulder barges/body checks in very dangerous areas of the pitch, including 2 in the penalty box. All were non-calls to Clattenburg, but quite possibly legit ones to other referees.
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Perhaps it’s time we all admit it. Real Madrid have an attack that can win the Champions League, but not a defense that will do so. Reading the game, positional intelligence, good decision-making and avoiding last-gasp shot blocks are all virtues that our team needs to further cultivate.
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It is because of this that it is paramount for Madrid NEVER to surrender the initiative of a match – most especially to the sort of opponents that tread these parts of the Champions League.
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The Outlook
Manchester United ‘stole’ a draw vs. Bayern. Are they angling to become a Cinderella team? Or did they just delay an inevitable slaying they were going to receive at the hands of Pep’s team? I was shocked to see Chelsea lose 3-1 and Mourinho practically tell the world ‘my strikers are all shit’ in the aftermath. People say it was his fault that he decided to start the game without a #9. He did try it eventually (with the score at 2-1) and duly lost 3-1. If he loses this one, it won’t be because of this – but it will be because he decided at the beginning of the season that Samuel Etoo, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba were good enough to lead the line for an EPL and CL campaign.
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And what about Real Madrid? Barca have lost Pique. Atleti have lost Costa. Will it affect them in La Liga? There’s no point in asking if we can’t get our business sorted out at the Anoeta this weekend.


Monday, March 31, 2014

Meregue Bites Episode 10: Real Madrid 5 - Rayo Vallecano 0


Rahul and I spoke about last Saturday's 5-0 win vs. Rayo Vallecano. We also looked forward to our upcoming Champions League match vs. Borussia Dortmund.
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The file can also be downloaded here:

Who Are We? (Real Madrid 3 - Barcelona 4)


The latest podcast can also be downloaded here:
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The Big Picture
Prior to the Match, I recalled Ancelotti’s 2 matches vs. Atleti and Barca where he ‘risked by playing safe’ and mentioned that I was hoping that he would play our first choice XI and go for a gunslinging duel with Barca. Real Madrid after all, could afford to lose this one. He did just that and prior to Sergio Ramos’ sending off, the match seemed to be exactly what the neutral fan asked for: 2 big clubs, neither ‘playing safe’, both going for each others’ throats. It also was as I expected: we would conceded goals from their frontal assault, but they likewise would to ours – with home advantage, form and physicality on our side allowing us to edge it out. It didn’t happen though, because…
The Referee
The kneejerk reaction is to blame Undiano Mallenco. His decision to send off Sergio Ramos completely ruined the spectacle of the match. It was a wrong decision too. Sergio Ramos’ hand barely brushed Neymar’s back. At its very worst, Sergio Ramos was either 1.) trying to scratch Neymar’s back or 2.) trying to tickle Neymar into losing the ball. Neymar exhibited his diving expertise by simulating the sort of momentum that would result in a defender trying to bundle you over by not just diving, but going on a tailspin movement. Those of us who have the benefit of instant replay can attack him for his bad call (just like Barca fans can do so for calling a Penalty on Alves for tripping Ronaldo outside the box) – but let’s all admit it: this is the sort of call referees commonly make mistakes with. The second penalty was more contentious. In my opinion, things were the other way around: at first look, it seemed to be no contact and replays show that there was indeed some contact. The contact however, was very marginal and thus it was a soft penalty to give. At the end of the day however, in my opinion, both calls were bad ones.
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The Play
Up until the sending off, Real Madrid’s play last night was a cathartic experience. Since accumulating the likes of CR7, Kaka, Ozil, Alonso, Benzema, Bale, Isco, etc., the world has been collectively waiting for a Real Madrid side to engage Barcelona in a pitched battle. No defensive schemes, no mind games, no rough-housing. Just 2 sides playing good old attacking football. Real Madrid gave the world what it was looking for. As I type this, apart from praising Messi and Barcelona, the world is also collectively positively reeling from the intensity of the play from the 2 sides last night. Real Madrid didn’t shirk or hide: Ancelotti and his boys went into an open field on a clear March night with their pistols, machine guns and machetes on hand and duly engaged Barca in a gunslinging duel. It was sheer footballing exhilaration and orgasm. It was to me, the footballing equivalent of having a Victoria’s Secret model in your bedroom, with every little moment of pre-coital flirting and cavorting oozing perfection… that is until your drunken uncle (Undiano Mallenco) turns up, knocks on your door asking if there’s any milk in the fridge. Jose Mourinho, at the time aware of Madrid’s lack of prepared-ness for such an encounter, avoided such a pitched battle. In his first clasico, also unsure of the team’s prepared-ness, Ancelotti did likewise (Ramos as DM). But finally after 31 unbeaten games, Ancelotti gave the world (and madridisimo) what it was craving for. Ancelotti deserves praise for that. He was however by no means perfect.
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The same goes for a number of Real Madrid players. Prior to the match, I had expressed my concern about Alonso’s lack of mobility being exploited by a Leo Messi dropping deep and running circles around him. Barca’s first 2 goals were all a result of that. If Madrid are to get far in the Champions League or are to beat Barca in the Copa Del Rey final, Ancelotti will need to have a close look at this weakness and address it. Carvajal was trapped in 2 minds for the first goal: does he help close Messi down? Or cover his man streaking down the flanks? Before his mind could decide, Messi’s pass would release Iniesta with acres of space for the opener. Minutes later, Carvajal would once again join the fray in closing Messi / Neymar through the center only to be tricked by Messi’s endless running who would receive a return pass from Neymar to score Barca’s 2nd.
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Alonso, Modric, Ronaldo and Bale didn’t cover themselves in glory either. Alonso and Modric failed to show the calm and ‘equilibrio’ that Ancelotti had been preaching (like a broken record) for the last several months. Bale seems to have forgotten many of the lessons he’s gradually learned over the past few games: making dynamic runs, robbing the ball in advance positions, and swinging the play from one flank to the other when there was too much pressure on him. Ronaldo forced himself into the game too much (as opposed to responding to the situations within the game): too many forced shots, too little tracking of Alves, too little influence for a Balon D’ Or winner.
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The 2 players who were deserving of praise would be Angel Di Maria and Benzema. Di Maria almost won the game my himself. He ran himself silly (to the point of almost passing out from the looks of it) for his first assist… only for him to repeat the trick again minutes later. I often feared that when the day came as to when our midfield would be exposed for being lightweight, that it’d would be el Fideo who would be questioned. It wasn’t him last night though. Benzema on the other hand can be viewed positively or negatively. He could have had 5 goals by half time. He scored 2, missed 2 and had 1 cleared on the line by Pique. He made Macherano and embarrassment to CBs the world over. The question remains however, if Macherano was going to be such a sorry excuse for a defender, then perhaps embarrassing him wasn’t enough – Benzema should have mercilessly annihilated him. The match would’ve been in bed by halftime if he had done so. There are arguments to both praise and criticize our French #9. I will however, stay on the fence on this one.
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The Mourinho Days Are Over
Losing was hearbreaking. Losing because of bad refereeing was infuriating. But seeing the team being bad losers was utterly disappointing. I have no problems with the team crying foul over bad refereeing. But when the team’s leaders (Ramos, Ronaldo) make conspiracy theory rants to the press, that to me, crosses a line. Someone should tell them that Jose Mourinho doesn’t work for Real Madrid anymore. We don’t do things that way over here anymore. If the team has taken a significant psychological blow from the loss, ranting petulantly only makes it obvious and provokes the vultures to circle over us even more, giving them confidence… giving them that ‘a-ha!’ realization about us. In 3 days, we travel to the Sanchez Pizjuan to take on the CL-aspiring Sevilla. Are we going let the Andalucians become vultures? Or shall we turn them into fried chicken?
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Now is not the time to bitch and moan. Now is not the time to rant petulantly over spilled milk. We had a great chance to end Barca’s title hopes and TOGETHER with the referee, WE blew it. Our title chance is however NOT yet blown. Now is the time to look at ourselves and ask 'Who Are We?',  'Where did we get it wrong?' and move forward. 3 titles are still at stake and questions about the team character are now being asked.
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Now is the time to answer them the right way and show them who we really are.