Thursday, October 30, 2008

Same Old Story

Casillas Goes: 'Not Again!'
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Here we go again: another gutsy win, against another ‘eternal rival’. Another close one. I went to bed (or in the case of this weekend, the couch at my brother’s house in Manila) feeling good with our hard fought 3-2 win. I felt a sense of comfort: after all, Villarreal only managed a draw after their thrilling encounter with Atletico Madrid while Malaga actually nicked a win against Sevilla. It was a perfect time to grab a win to ‘restore some order’ at the top of the La Liga Standings: now the top 4 teams are Valencia, Barca, Real Madrid & Villarreal… some would say ‘as things should be.’
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Welcome Back Sneijder! .
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Poise & Discipline
I woke up on Monday late morning though with a very troubled mind: why did we have to put ourselves through such a tortuous process just to win 3 points? The most convenient response would be to look at the atrocious refereeing during the game and what had happened during the Madrid derby and the few games back. It’s easy to look at the times we’ve hit the woodwork and say ‘we could have won 5-2!’ I say: That’s not the point. Why can’t we have won 2-0? Why not 3-0?
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Referees will always make bad decisions and we will always come close to scoring goals which don’t end up on the score sheet thanks to the woodwork, or some moments to brilliance from the opposing goalkeeper or defense. We can’t keep living on ‘yeah, sure it was 2-1 or 3-2, but that scoreline doesn’t reflect what happened, we could have scored 5!’ We should be better than that, and I truly believe that we can be better than that. I’d take a good, solid 2-0 over ‘We could have scored 5’. I think Madrid and we Madridistas would do well with that mentality.
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What we need to have is Poise and Discipline. We need to start every game calm but hungry for blood, on our guard and ready to take the game to the opponents instead of being in awe of the occasion completely ready to get caught with our pants down and our cocks standing! (lesson from the Juventus game!). We need to understand that at 1-0, we should not shut ourselves off, that instead, we should cautiously look to hit them for a 2nd, and use our goal advantage to keep the opponents where they need to be so that we can nail them on the counter once the onus is on them to attack (and not hand the game to them to have a go at us like what happened against Atletico!). We need to understand that if we have an early 2-0 lead at home, we should control the game with poise and carefulness and a compact shape: to allow us the chance to pick out smart chances to make it 3-0, 4-0… and not play like we’re thinking that it’s ok to sleepwalk for the rest of the game since 2-0 is good enough (lesson from this Bilbao match!).
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No cheap tricks, no getting winded up (read: Marcelo), no lapses of concentrations (read: Heinze… again). It’s true that the referees were awful, but let’s please look to ourselves too. As ugly as his football may have been, now, I miss Capello’s refusal to discuss referees and the great sporting example it set back then.
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The 3 of Winter ‘07
Prior to what went on to be a disastrous match for us against Juventus, they showed the team lineups on the screen and I found myself paying attention to 3 particular names: Higuain, Gago and Marcelo – our 3 signings in the winter of 2007: Mijatovic’s babies. Many big clubs had a look at them, some talked of signing them, on hindsight, I don’t really think that the competition (from other European Clubs) to land them was really that fierce, but we did land them. They were all no more than 19 years old. And here they are now, all starting against Europe’s Grand Old Lady. I felt proud in some sense: having seen them before when they first played for Madrid, at first showing us glimpses of their ability… up to what we have today.

Higuain
Pipita Higuain scored 2 goals against Bilbao last Sunday, could’ve been 4 too! He had great movement, used his pace well, played the offside trap very cleverly and drifted from the wings to the middle very effectively. Most of all, he has found his shooting boots. It’s true that people aren’t talking about him just yet in the same breath as Kun Aguero and Lionel Messi, as among the current crop of Argentina’s future greats, but I really believe this will happen very, very soon.
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Gago
What I’ve always liked about Gago’s game was his slick passing. He always makes an effort to execute that one-touch move. He’s always poised and seems used to being surrounded by opposing players. Hi tackling isn’t great yet (which is why Mascherano is still very much needed in the Argentina setup), but his ability to thread long raking and at times, vertical passes up the field to the final third of the pitch to feed his attacking midfielder or his strikers is a sight to behold in a football match. His tackling remains awful, but I reckon he's not interested in hacking someone's legs off... he's just more interested in getting to the ball before you do, and in that sense, I think his sense of positioning (something that takes time when you're in another league) is dramatically improving.
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Marcelo

The Brazilian, among the 3 had the lowest profile of the 3 when he came in. In fact, I still remember the talk of him even spending time with Castilla. Capello immediately declared him to be very young as if to say ‘y’all shouldn’t expect me to play him!’ His appearances last year showed that he was still largely a ‘project’, a work in progress, as he was known for his aggressive runs down the left flank but was the clear weak link in the defense: and everyone knew it. Somehow this year though, either by coincidence / circumstance / Heinze’s long list of blunders / luck or perhaps just him developing as a player, he has seemed more solid. He even showed us his mean streak against Athletic, I do sense quite a bit of progress from him though. Not quite ‘the next Roberto Carlos’, but… a solid acquisition right there.
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In any case, it was great to see the 3 ‘prospects’ last Sunday, putting in the kind of performances that would win us big games. I’m hoping to see more of the same in the coming weeks… hopefully… more clean sheets though.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Getting the Midfield Right


I am writing this down now as we find ourselves trailing Juventus 2-0. I am obviously frustrated like mad. We shouldn’t be losing like this! The halftime commentary talked about how we have seemed hesitant to really have a go at Juve and our history of consistent losses to them…. That somehow indicates that we are afraid. Are they? I’m not really sure that RM headed into this game with a kind of fear. I am more willing to chalk up our awful start (where we conceded a goal from a stunning strike from Del Piero) to just being lax… but for the remainder of the first half, I don’t see our performance as one of being lazy or afraid, I honestly believe that it was simply a matter of a flawed tactical system.
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Thoughts on the Derby
I thought we were great vs. Athletico Madrid: the 1-2 scoreline was flattering to them. We had many unrightfully disallowed goals and what I felt to be an unfair sending off of RVN. What I thought was the brilliant thing which we did in that game however was our midfield: the combination of De La Red, Gago and Sneijder was great. They held the midfield well positionally, which resulted in a great shape for us. Sneijder played as if he was never injured: he was active and was spraying some nice passes around. Gago was making these great raking passes forward and De La Red held his position really well and got forward and did well to distribute the ball forward.
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(GAME UPDATE: WE’RE PLAYING MUCH BETTER WITH ROBBEN ON AND RUUD HAS JUST GOTTEN OUR FIRST GOAL!)
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Van Der Vaart is not a Central Midfielder!
One thing we did in this game vs. Juventus was to start with a midfield trio of VDV, Sneijder and Gago. What makes us think that this is an ideal lineup for such a match…. Against an Italian side!?!? Van Der Vaart is NOT a Central Midfielder. I know that we’ve racked up wins with him in the middle 3, but he’s not really a true midfielder: he’s not known for his passing / playmaking or positional ability. He’s an attacking midfielder by nature: which is why we’ve seen him threaten the goal with shots from distance but at the midfield, aside from Sneijder’s active moves and Gago’s raking vertical passes, we have had no shape and have been bullied… and our front 3 have been left starving for service). Why couldn’t have we just repeated the midfield lineup we used in the derby?
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(GAME UPDATE: DRENTHE HAS JUST COME ON FOR VDV TO PROVIDE US WITH EVEN MORE WIDTH)
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I really believe that it’s this deficiency we stated out with for our midfield that is the reason why we had spent the first half completely dominated by the Juventus Spine of Chiellini, Sissoko and Amauri. No solidity at midfield meant that Sissoko who had played a brilliant first half, has completely killed off our midfield and Chiellini has had an easier time containing a starved RVN-Raul-Higuain front 3. Amauri also had an easy time, dropping deep into midfield and lead the line forward to punish us.
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Heinze…Again!
The announcers have absolutely crucified Pepe for giving up the ball that led to the 2nd goal. But can we all please have a look at the replay and see who was defending Amauri and how he defended the guy? It was Heinze….again. A late, half-interested lunge towards the ball from him was completely ineffective in stopping the Juve forward. I know I should lay off him a bit since it’s his cross to RVN that’s given us a fighting chance in this game… but heck.
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Ramos has been awful in the 2nd half.
What’s up with Sergio Ramos??? An awful game versus Athletico and he has been absolutely dreadful this 2nd half. Slow to reach balls, constantly losing the ball, fouls galore… getting caught out. I’m just scratching my head. Where is the world’s best right back?
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Width and Making changes sooner
Schuster has been constantly criticized for making his changes perhaps too late all the time. In this game, it has been Robben’s presence that has transformed the game. But why did he wait for so long before sending Robben in? It was very clear very early on that the best way to overcome Italians’ strength in choking up the middle of the park and holding the line at the center of defense was to open up the field with wide players. Granted, that Schuster tried to replicate that same situation on the other flank by bringing in Drenthe (perhaps also as a reward to him for winning that penalty during the derby), but he was completely useless. More and more I am beginning to feel that perhaps Drenthe wasn’t really such a good buy. Goal.com actually once did a feature n which type of player RM needs the most at this time. For some reason, the readers replied that what RM needs the most at this point in time is another striker. I voted that we need a winger. Those words echo very strongly in my head now
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(GAME UPDATE: GAME OVER… WE HAD JUST LOST 2-1)
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I know, I know… we’ll get ‘em back at the Bernabeu. Juve played well, I have to give them that. But I really have to say that we should’ve done better by not being so lax at the stat of the 2 halves but at the same time, I also think that we could’ve done better too… if only we got our midfield right from the beginning.
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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Would We Rather Have It This Way?

So here we are... first draw of the season and dropping down even further in the table to be tied with Barca on points and further away from Villareal and Valencia who have been putting on great performances thus far. I know it's early on in the season but these types of situation are making me really antsy: we are adrift by quite a few places from top spot in what is shaping up to be a competitive La Liga season: Villareal is great as ever, Valencia have found themselves again and Sevilla seems to have recovered from the loss of Juande Ramos and their summer player departures. Then let's not forget Athletico Madrid who are being carried by the super-scoring strikeforce of Aguero and Forlan... plus of course Barca, who, after a sputtering start under Pep Guardiola are playing great football and winning convincingly again. If we don't figure our issues out... we'll be in trouble.
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I actually thought we weren't so bad. Even in the first half where we conceded the 2 goals. We were able to move forward and create some chances which were fluffed (typical Higuain miss- making all of us go 'uh-oh'). But we moved forward quite well.
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We were even better in the 2nd half as we laid siege to their goal in the second half but were left with only a point. Would we really rather have it this way? I ask this question more than a week after our game against Zenit where we lived a situation with the tables turned against us: 2nd half with the opponent laying siege on our goal. 3 points with all that suffering? or 1 point despite the effort?
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I totally get where the guys who had made comments in my previous post are coming from: we all want to see Madrid destroy teams utterly, with our guys who are not only the best players on the planet, but also the sexiest, most popular and even most stylish. We don't' have those players now though: CRon is still with ManU, Kaka is still with AC Milan, Messi will be Barca for life (likely) and Aguero is not in the white half of Madrid... so what gives (we can discuss our transfer failings some other time)? Instead, we have a darn good team with great unity and fighting spirit: something I would happily take and accept. I'm happy to accept our team that fights and suffers for 3 points. Hopefully, we can get bet back to those winning ways at the Calderon on the 19th.
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Raul
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Raul is starting an odd trend: he seems to play well at the Bernabeu but is quite shitty when on the road. Somehow I think this works out for Schuster since the pressure to play El Kapitan comes mostly from the partisan Madrid crowd who wants to see the local hero on the pitch. If the local hero is on the pitch when the brown expects him to... and he scores goals then all is fine and dandy then! On the road, however, Schuster may choose a more effective but less luxurious or sentiment-driven lineup with Higuain and Robben supporting Van Gol with their pace on the counter attack. I know and fully admit that I have been one of those who have called for Raul's benching in favor of Higuain... but as a Madridista, I will always be happy to the the Captain score and bail us out (term of the year: Bail Out).
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Heinze
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Heinze is really irritating the crap out of me. since the start of the season, I've been pondering the idea of buying myself a Real Madrid '08-'09 Jersey. I haven't done it yet because I can't figure out whose number I'd like to have on the back of it. So I came up with a list: which was a pointless exercise since the list was too long (LOL) . But the name that was easily not on the list was Heinze's. It's strange: I used to love the guy... 'the gringo' I loved his graft, his no nonsense attitude, his toughness and his unapologetic blue-collar nature. But after a year in La Liga, he's picked up all the bad habits of the Spanish League already! (e.g. flailing his arms, twisting and turning on the ground and seemingly wincing in pain at the slightest contact from an opponent). What's more is that he has really been the weak point in our defense. The bad tackle to conceded the penalty vs. Espanyol was his and the 2nd goal conceded was his fault too. He was also culpable for one of the Zenit goals (attempting a stupid diving header when a clearance with his foot would've easily sufficed!). Maybe Schuster was onto something when he kept giving Marcelo a run out...
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Robben / Winger Problem
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Robben got hurt vs. Espanyol which now has all Madridistas wondering in fear how we'll ever be able to create enough space in the midfield without our winger who could spread the field open. The answer is most definitely not Drenthe. In his 2nd season at RM already, I have really yet to see more than just tiny glimpses of real quality from him. Higuain is perhaps our best option in that regard... or we can opt to put in a more defensive midfield (who can drop back) and use our fullbacks (Marcelo & Ramos) to provide width. Another idea that came to mind (as the suggestion of Guillem Balague's went) was to include VDV as part of the front three in Schuster's new favored 4-3-3 instead of as part of the midfield: given that VDV isn't really the match-pace controlling type of midfielder (e.g. Diarra, De la Red, Gago) and is really more of a scorer rather than a ball distributor in the mold of Sneijder or a playmaker like Guti. Latest medical update however revealed that Robben might be ok for the Madrid derby... but the thought must still be taken into consideration in lieu of Robben being 'the glass man.'
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Sneijder & the Midfield Options
It was GREAT to see Sneijder back... wearing his new #10 jersey (his #10 is the front-running consideration for me for my '08-'09 RM Jersey)! he only played a few minutes and is still clearly not yet match fit: I am just totally hoping that the coming international games can break him into shape just in time for the Madrid derby. The same can be hoped for Gago for when he returns to the Argentina squad for their WC Qualifiers.
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My skepticism however lies with what looks like Guti winning his place back his place for the Madrid derby: what is he's not match fit - which is a real possibility. I'm totally not happy with AS talking so much about De La Red's errors in the Espanyol game that was dissected like no one's business. Somehow, I feel like De La Red might be the better choice for the match since it wold be a great chance to grab Athletico's supposedly weak midfield by the balls to prevent them from linking up with Aguero up front.
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Our new found glut in midfield somehow really puts the option described by Balague as a real possibility: to move VDV as among the front 3.
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Lastly, I'm really happy to see the piece on AS the other day on Diarra where they had openly expressed that he has been RM's best player this season so far. I'm really happy for the team and for him: He has been imperious thus far and it's great to see the 'water carriers' being given the credit they really deserve!

2008-10-05: Real Madrid 2 - Espanyol 2

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Win is a Win

So there are many who look back at our win over Zenit in St. Petersburg in a negative light. We took the lead on a classic RVN 'fox-in-the-box' goal.... and shortly after that we proceeded to defend. We spent the entire second half on the backfoot, defending from one wave after another of Zenit's attacks. We miraculously left the game with all three points and Zenit with no points in 2 games. By the time the game was over, I felt relievsed but admittedly, like most Madridistas, a feeling of disappointment from how we pulled off the win.
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After much pondering however, I actually have to say I'm happy with the win.
-It was Real Madrid's first away win in the Champions League in almost 2 years
-It was against Zenit St. Petersburg - who count Bayern Munich, and Manchester United among their European scalps.
-It was the first time I've seen the team spend 45 mins. with 11 men behind the ball to pull off a very un-Real Madrid-like win: something that tells me that we as a team, have stepped out beyond our usual notion of having to beat everyone by merely attacking them. Most of the time, for opponents like Zenit however, such a mentality / philosophy has always resulted in us heading back home with our tails between our legs.
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So, let me say this now after looking at the situation retrospectively: a win is a win, and perhaps we Madridistas should not think of our team as the team to beat. Perhaps we and the rest of the world should stop looking at this particular game as a matter of Zenit possibly nicking a win against us and counting us among their scalps: it is us who should think of counting them as among ours.... after all, this was exactly the type of game that we were incapable of winning: and here we are with 6 points from 2 games in the Champions League... with only half of our midfield line intact. I'd say this was a darn good result considering the circumstances.
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We're playing Espanyol at the Bernabeu in a few hours... I'm now totally hoping for a good performance with a convincing scoreline to put some comfort back into the hearts of all Madridistas... we especially need a good win after Barca's thrashing of Athletico...

2008-09-30: Zenit St. Petersburg 1 - Real Madrid 2