Monday, September 22, 2008

Improvements

I generally liked how we played last night in out 0-2 win against Racing Santander. We played with character, toughness and discipline. We walked away with a professional win.
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I wondered for a while when Schuster would be fielding Ruben De la Red for the longest time: having fielded the canterano as a sub for the quite a few games already but giving Gago a chance ahead of him to start. I didn’t think De La Red’s chance to start would come last night though as I had expected a midfield of Diarra-Guti and Van Der Vaart with Higuain playing either as a winger or as a 3rd forward in a 4-3-3. Schuster instead surprised us with a central midfield of De La Red and Diarra holding the middle to allow Guti to roam forward. Schuster however reigned in his tendency to gamble with the attacking Marcelo in favor of his ‘best defense in the world’ combination of Ramos-Cannavaro-Pepe and Heinze protecting Casillas. Then, the much talked about move of Higuain came to be, not at the expense of Raul though.
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The defense held up well: keeping Racing at bay and giving us our first La Liga cleansheet. We seemed a bit shaky on defense though as we tired to defend those last gasp dead ball situations when Racing were making their last stand. Pepe hasn’t played like the menacing centerback who sucked out all potential threats before they could even materialize, Cannavaro made some insane errors that almost cost us a goal or two too… and while I’d rate Sergio Ramos’ performance as good, I thought that Heinze was awful: he gave me a few moments to be nervous about but most of all I didn’t like seeing his moments of cynical play. Along with his blatant elbow against BATE (which would’ve cost us a penalty and possibly even a straight red for him had the ref seen it), his other antics in the game were really bordering on thuggery and I found it quite embarrassing.
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On midfield, I think that Schuster might’ve found himself a darn good combination for his double pivot: Diarra + De La Red. I thought De La Red had a great game. He tested the keeper with a nifty shot from distance and even scored the go-ahead goal to give us the lead. What I did think he did very well was pair up with Diarra to control the middle. He linked play well, was a good physical presence, played good defense and covered lots of ground. This performance of his, dare I say puts him ahead of Gago in the pecking order for RM’s central (defensive) midfielders. Guti however, got injured and now all of a sudden, we are looking very thin in an area where we supposedly have a glut of talent: Sneijder, Gago and now Guti all on the treatment table with Diarra going through the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan (i.e. he’s not 100%), we will only have De La Red, the not-yet-fully-integrated Van Der Vaart and Javi Garcia (whom I do not rate as of yet) playing in the middle.
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Up front, Gonzalo Higuain has made an emphatic claim for a spot in the starting XI with his man-of-the-match performance. He was everywhere: surging forward with runs and passing to initiate play, on the wings where he created loads of danger (including his spectacular run on the right side which led to his assist for De La Red’s goal). Of course, Ruud is still Ruud: what a Golazo he scored! Raul however looks lost.
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I love Raul, I really do and have loads of respect for El Kapitan but I really do think that it is perhaps now time for him to cede his automatic berth in the starting XI. He is no longer effective as the link man between midfield and the forwards because of the severe loss of his pace, his lack of passing/playmaking ability as well as his lack of dribbling skills (despite his clear full hearted effort-exertion and sheer graft). His performances thus far tell me that his effectiveness last season was due to him playing the role of the ‘9’ with RVN’s injury. This season, with RVN back and banging in the goals with his usual consistency, Raul has become redundant. I expect to see him play against Sporting this Wednesday as we will be playing in the Bernabeu and perhaps a ‘weaker’ team can provide the avenue for him to find his scoring form and confidence. But I do hope that Schuster gives it a try to rest him vs. Betis and use a lineup that can allow more possibilities in attack.

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