Tuesday, September 30, 2008

2008-09-27: Real Betis 1 - Real Madrid 2

Clutch City

Bernd Schuster is turning this team into a great team! I hope it's not pre-mature at this point to make these declarations, but I can certainly see the makings of a great team already:
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We are playing high-scoring, entertaining football at home: hat tricks and back heeled goals for our midfielders and 7-1 mauling of poor, newly-promoted sides. We played awesome against Sporting, though was still careful not to read too much on a victory over a minnow team which Barca had just trounced 6-1 days back. What give me encouragement though are the wins on the road against tough teams such as Racing and most, recently, Real Betis in their home grounds, where getting 3 points is far from easy. We've played solid football throughout those matches and have put away the naive game plan of wanting to play tiki-taka against teams in their soil, only to be smashed with counter attacks that would cost us the game.
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Moreover, we are showing the kind of winning mentality necessary to win titles: disregarding the momentum of the game or the opponents' superiority in numbers to make comebacks or score tie-breaking goals to win matches as we have shown yet again against Betis just days back and against Valencia in the Supercup. This is a team that is capable of winning 'character-matches'. This is a team with a winning character, and so far, I've been damn proud of them.
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Ruud Van Nistelrooy, now healthy again, has resumed doing what Ruud Van Nistelrooy always does: score goals... no matter what, no matter where, no matter when. Rafael Van Der Vaart hasn't really gotten into the scheme of things (or maybe that's just his style), but he's been a constant threat / menace to the opponents' goal with his shots from long distance and the perpetual threat and insecurity to the opposing defense that it brings. Robben has been thankfully injury-free and has become the wing presence we need to replace the void left by Robinho (in a way) while Higuain has finally found his scoring boots and has been playing really well thus far.
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At midfield, injuries have brought us terrible luck, but the same injury problem has allowed us to discover a something really great: that Ruben De La Red is awesome. I like him paired up with Diarra much better: as his physical presence and defensive capabilities allow him to control and even boss the midfield (in a way that Guti is not capable of), but at the same time, he has the ability to roam forward and serve as the offensive fulcrum in initiation the offense. And let's not forget his capabilities as a goal scorer as he has a mean shot from distance. De La ed to me, turns out to be the rare box-to-box midfielder who can give us the flexibility and dynamism we need to push forward and we had found missing in the first few games with Guti in the double Pivot alongside Diarra.
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I'm also really glad that Schuster's decision to go with a rotation policy has paid off: now we have guys like Javi Garcia and even Saviola who have received some real playing time in their actual favored positions in real games: at the same time, guys like Robben who is a perpetual candidate for the treatment room as well as guys like De La Red & Diarra (midfielders = something we're short of at the moment) are able to rest up and have some breathing space between the matches in this part of the season where we play up to 2 games every 3 days.
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Marca has just conducted a survey on who should be that 'attacking trident' (in a 4-3-3 formation) for the Zenit game where Schuster would need to bench one of either Robben, Raul, RVN or Higuain. I voted in favor of a starting threesome of Robben-RVN-Higuain. My apologies to Raul fans, but I do think that now is the time his place in the starting XI needs to start being non-guaranteed. Schuster was right that 'it is necessary to respect his history, but I think we must also equally respect the good work and and the resultant good form that has been reached by his teammates.
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Next Stop: St. Petersburg in Andre Arshavin's turf. I'm hoping for a win (though the conservative prediction would be a draw) to get us past halfway to advancing beyond this tough, tough group.

Monday, September 22, 2008

2008-09-21: Racing Santander 0 - Real Madrid 2

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.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Slackers

What is wrong with this team? Our wins against Numancia (4-3) and BATE Borisov have masked how awful we have been these few weeks.
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Circumstances have prevented me from watching the Numancia game last weekend (horrible internet connection which totally made streaming impossible): though the reviews and the highlights I’ve seen showed the painfully obvious: we have no idea on how to defend set pieces. Perhaps Robben’s claim/admission to the press that the first goal conceded to Numancia was his fault is something of a good sign: that we have guys in the dressing room who are willing to raise their hand to say ‘that was my bad.’ It was however ‘Bad’. To be able to score 4 goals against Numancia was a good sign though: with Van Nistelrooy showing us that he’s still a goal scoring machine despite an almost season-long spell on the treatment table last year, Van Der Vaart is showing us that he can provide the needed firepower from midfield in the wake of our supposed need for another striker and best of all, Higuain is showing us that he’s found his shooting boots.
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I did get better luck with the internet streaming last Wednesday with the BATE Borisov game (though I missed chunks of the 1st half). There were a few things that were noticeable however: Firstly, what was with those huge patches of empty seats at the Bernabeu? And I’m not talking about the fans leaving early coz of Madrid’s lazy display, there were large patches of empty seats at the start of the game!
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BATE were an awful team. They’re almost like a pub team if I may dare say. I don’t care if they’re Champs of Belarus and they once had Aliaksandr Hleb in their team: they were awful. I expected more: I expected 11 men behind the ball, lots of energy, high-intensity-pressing and danger in the counter attack. Instead, they left a lot of space, they stood around, they were slow and seemed to be too much in awe of their opponents. Madrid, in my view, as shown through the scoreline of 2-0 were worse. By the time they figured out in less than 10 minutes that their opponents were starstruck, they scored a goal and played lazy, lousy and passive football: justifying the decision of the fans who had tickets but decided not to turn up for the match. Madrid were lazy, slow, and incredibly wasteful with their goal scoring chances. We should have raped them and brutally pulverized them with a cricket-scoreline type of goal-fest. That’s what RM’s fans deserve. That’s what the team needed to do to shake off the rust from the offseason. Most of all, that’s the logical thing to do when you’re in a group that includes Italian giants Juventus and giant-killers Zenit: where goal difference may spell the difference between advancing or not.
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I feel bad that Gago got hurt against BATE: he had a great tournament at the Olympics and was showing sings of blossoming into the elegant, slick-passing holding midfielder that RM fans have dreamt of having ala Fernando Redondo. And just as I was beginning to wonder on whether or not he was going to get playing time after these few games where he didn’t get a single minute on the pitch, he actually got a call to start in this game…. Only to end up unlucky and get injured. We’ll be alright though, as we still have Diarra, who’s going through the Muslim fgasting-month of Ramadan (i.e. he’s not 100% fit) but thankfully we have De La Red too and Javi Garcia who can be important for us in that spot.
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There have been rumblings in the Madrid press that Gonzalo ‘Pipita’ Higuain should be given the starting spot in place of Raul in lieu of the former finding his form and the latter losing it. I know it’s a sensitive topic among Madridistas because of Raul’s importance to the club, which goes beyond the pitch. But as a person who is more influenced by logic as opposed to sentiment, I do feel that Higuain should be given this chance. The kid has done his part by developing his game and should be rewarded for it. Higuain in my view is also a much better tactical choice because of his flexibility as a player: having played in the wings previously (because of his pace and dribbling ability) as well as having been able to prove that he’s capable of dropping back to help the midfield (as he did against BATE, coming on for Guti). People who favor Raul being retained in the starting XI will surely point to Raul and RVN’s chemistry on the pitch (as they showed last season), I would like to point out however, that Higuain’s wily and pacy, style would complement RVN well too. We will see what happens in Santander this Sunday.
. What I’m REALLY hoping for this Sunday however, is a convincing Real Madrid victory.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

He's Gone


Finally the saga is over. Robinho is really gone. After all the drama, all the bold statements to the press from the player and all the tapdancing from the club... and finally it has ended. Robinho has left for Manchester... Citeh!
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They nicked the deal for 40m Euros (+2m more for incentives) - a British transfer record. Perhaps the largest sum of money Real Madrid ever made from the sale of a player.
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The commentary following that has followed the wake of the transfer has been tremendous. The angles are infinite too. There have been those who have called Robinho a traitor - a pesetero (mercenary). Some seem to think that his loss is no big deal because he's not such a great talent anyway. Prior to the transfer deadline, ESPN's Phil Ball (I'm so happy that the season's back, which means I can read his commentary again) had this to say:
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"This should hardly matter to Real Madrid anyway, who secretly have little confidence in him, but who nevertheless have tried to extract the maximum amount from Abramovich's pocket before the deadline. Chelsea would be mad to pay any more than £10m for him, but logic has long since departed the European football scene. Arjen Robben is a far better player, and Madrid know it. Chelsea don't seem to, but that's their problem."
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The Guardian's Sid Lowe remarked colorfully:
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"He arrived as the New Pelé but departed as the New Denílson, a by-word for expensive failure and pointless tricks."
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There have been those who have lamented more deeply the loss of such a great talent along with his potential. While others have shifted their attention to Calderon and Mijatovic. Some call them stupid, some call them lucky, while others call them geniuses. I've made some remarks in other blogs and forums / discussion boards so I might as well convey my sentiments on the matter.
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The Good
1.) 42m Euros. That's a lot of money, which actually makes this summer the first time in a long time that Real Madrid actually made a profit. From things really looking like we were going to only get 32-25m for him, we get another 7m. That's a great amount of money - something that can justify a pursuit for a top player even in the winter.
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2.) Getting rid of a player who had a big potential to upset the great team chemistry that now exists in the dressing room. He has a contract. So did CRon, it was made clear to him that he needed to be professional by honoring that contract. CRon confessed that he wanted to go but went back to Man U after understanding that the game's up. That's being professional. That's having class. Declaring to the press before 2 important games that you want to go: that's being an ass. And I'm sure that it upset more than a few of his now-former team mates.
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3.) Getting rid of a player who is clearly motivated by money (or who listens too much to his agent who surely thinks only of money). I get it and I accept it: it wasn't right that Robinho deserved to get paid more than guys like Royston Drenthe, if he's unhappy about that then fine. What bugs me however is him going to the press and saying 'I want to be the best player in the world, but here in Madrid I can't do that.' So what? In Man City you can do that? I don't think so. What you can do and Man City however is get paid 6m Euros annually net. Pesetero? I think he is.... or his agent has turned him into one. Real Madrid deserve players who know the meaning of that seal on their uniform, not ones who look at the numbers next to the currency symbol in their bank accounts.
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4.) Proving that no one player is bigger than the club, especially not Real Madrid. It must be clear to all that players can't pull stunts like the one Robinho just pulled: to sulk to get sent to the team of his choice. No, no, no.... he's SUPPOSED to be a professional. He needs to learn that, he can't just bitch and moan then get away with what he wants.
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5.) Selling to a team who is not considered (at the moment, at least) a top European rival. The new Arab owners laid out a cheeky set of goals for Man City: Break into the top 4 this year, win the Premiereship next year, and win the Champions League after that. Yes they have money, but breaking into the top 4 this year I think is quite impossible, not with this lineup. I'll happily watch them beat the crap out of a Championship team to win the Carling Cup though....
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6.) Teaching Chelsea a lesson for their 'disrespect.' People like to talk about RM's pursuit of CRon in talking about this. I think this is different. When RM were chasing CRon, it was the sports dailies (of course influenced by the club) who kept the hype Machine going. They said extensively that CRon wanted to join us, etc. What RM has NEVER done however, is assume that a player they're trying to sign is already theirs.
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The Bad
I think that it's pretty obvious that his departure leaves us in a bind: We lost a a great, talented player. And now, we will have to rely on Arjen Robben, the glass-man, on the wings: him and (in my opinion, the not-yet-ready) Royston Drenthe. We have lost a lot of our depth and quality as a team. This may haunt us.
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Parting Shots
Real Madrid have just released the latest kit numbers for the upcoming season and I have to say that I'm delighted to see Wesley Sneijder get the coveted #10 jersey. He would've been my vote for that.

Monday, September 1, 2008

2008-08-31: Deportivo La Coruna 2 - Real Madrid 1

Sliced Open by the R(i)azor

So now the Curse Continues... 18 years running now without a win against Deportivo in their stadium, and last night we had ourselves, not the ref, not an intimidating stadium, but ourselves for the sorry loss.
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Our midfield wasn't as bad as many of the commentary websites have said. We weren't choked out, we can control of the game for very long spells. No one bullied us in the midfield except for Jonathan (?) the Canadian dude with the funny afro. On their end, Guardado played an awesome game. But heck, we had a few things going for us... but I think we had a few more questions:
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Why is Guti so obsessed with keeping himself aligned to Diarra? By keeping himself as a 'pivot' in the middle, he is just relegated to making sideways passes to the surging fullbacks and backpasses to the defense. Every so often, he can direct a pass forward but that was it. If he were to unhinge himself forward, I really think he'd be able to direct play more effectively and provide those incisive passes for Ruud and Raul to latch onto.
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Why did Robben keep insisting on drifting inwards diagonally? When on the right side, he's shown us before that he can surge along the right touchline and round his man to cross for his forwards. But not once did he do this the entire game. Instead, he kept insisting on drifting inwards diagonally, trying to take a shot or making a soft pass.
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Why did Schuster wait for so long before trying to make substitutions? My halftime pick for subs would have been to bring De La Red in to replace Raul so that Higuain could play as a striker and Guti could be placed in an advanced role. Schuster waited till there was practically only 10 minutes left before he made his subs. Among the subs were Royston Drenthe whom I felt was quite useless. I also felt that maybe they should have let De le Red take those last 2 free kicks near the Depor goal.
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Beyond the questions, I think everyone has said it: Our set piece defense was absolutely awful. I actually thought that Pepe played a great game in open play. But he just absolutely ruined himself by being culpable for both conceded goals.
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In some way, having something of an expectation of losing this match because of the supposed curse of the stadium cushions the blow of the loss. But I can't help but feel like we wasted such a great opportunity on a night where Barca fell to newly-promoted Numancia. By the way, I also just wanna say that the scheduling of these matches has just been terrible! Just when I finally get a taste of La Liga action, I have to wait another 2 weeks thanks to an International break. Whatta bummer!