Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Now Here Comes the Hard Part

That's 2 straight clean sheets now! Boy am I happy as hell about it.
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Last night, we looked good at the back: no bold rampaging runs from the right back position coz we had Torres out there with Ramos in the middle: it was fine by me, because it kept us solid and minimized our vulnerability at the back. Heinze adjusted himself positionally forward, mostly only for the purpose of allowing us to align ourselves for attack, not so much as to really join in the attack. His comedy clearance almost cost us the clean sheet though (perhaps even the match). In the middle, I thought Ramos and Pepe were great. They anticipated attacks and cut them up before they could materialize, they also cleared almost all aerial threats, and tracked back to win balls against the surging BATE attackers.
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I thought that Gago did well too! He anticipated things well, keeping great position the entire match: shielding his defenders but also keeping the game fluid with his slick passing for the entire game. Guti and Sneijder were good too: not spectacular but solid in moving the ball around, probing, and took generally good care of the ball when we had it. I'm curious however as to why Sneijder tended to be more conservative with his free kicks & corners: he opted many more times for a timid pass to a nearby teammate instead of a pot shot at goal or a swinging delivery. Heck, he even let Guti take a few ones!
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On attack, Raul did what Raul does... Especially in Europe. Drenthe was good too: full of energy, speed and was generally in control when in attack mode. Someone should teach him how to shoot though. Saviola however was useless. I now think that Schuster should give Bueno a start or at the very least, some REAL playing time. I think that he should now be given a go-ahead over El Conejo.
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One thing that Schuster ought to look at however is how to attack without just using the left flank with Drenthe on it. The young Dutchman won't always play that way and teams with better quality will figure us out easily with such a predictable attacking strategy. Perhaps things will change with a healthy Robben or even with Higuain back (he is capable of drifting wide).
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For now though, I'm delighted with the win, and the qualification to the elimination rounds. Now it's on to the hard part: getting to the quarters... Hmm... If only we REALLY knew how to do that.

Monday, November 17, 2008

With Schuster in the Shit-ster

We are well and truly there: neck-deep in a C-R-I-S-I-S!
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Elimination from the Copa Del Rey courtesy of a 3rd Division side… and then, a loss to a team which Barca destroyed with 6 goals in one half. Absolute embarrassment. Absolute shame!
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And let me just say that it’s not just about us losing: it’s about how we lost. Valladolid weren’t exactly great. They didn’t play at home in the way that Sevilla plays at the Sanchez Pizjuan against use these last few years (where we Madridistas go ‘fucking hell, these guys are playing som great fricking football!’ in resignation to the beating we’d get). These guys were slow, error-prone (read: Borja) and weren’t exactly imaginative or compact in a way that it’s difficult to pry their defense open. We just played without heart or sense of urgency or desire to win. No Balls football.
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It was clear that Bernd Shitster was being cautious in putting Javi Garcia into the starting XI, sacrificing Wesley Sneijder. Gago’s been ok, but I really don’t think he can handle the middle on his own in this era of football. We like to hark back to how awesome Redondo was with his passing and positioning and how Gago can become just like that. But in today’s physical, very tactical football world, the single slick-passing and smart-positioning midfielder might no longer be enough. This I think explains why Gago needs to be beside Mascherano when playing for Argentina and would be good at the center with Diarra at Madrid. Sadly, with the Malian’s injury, we have no other alternatives except for Javi Garcia (I happen to believe De La Red can do this too: but he’s not well either). So while Schuster has been getting flak for this move, I won’t fault him for it because I take it as a clear move to address our frailty at the back.
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Where I find myself scratching my head is over Schuster’s insistence on the 4-3-3: a formation that puts 2 players of the front 3 on the flanks. Of the 3 players we had up front, we had Raul, who got a few headers in that were saved and a great chance off a Valladolid error which he completely botched. Raul being in the middle is ok too: after all, I believe that his loss of pace makes him more of a ‘9’ now than a second striker. The problem of Schuster’s 4-3-3 last weekend however was in the other front 2. While I theorized that Rafa Van Der Vaart might make a good fit for the front 3 given his penchant for taking potshots at goal, this theory of mine was put to bed by his terrible performance against Real Union where Schuster seemed to have listened to me and given it a try. Then, we had Gonzalo Higuain, who led the line as the center forward vs. Malaga and scored 4 goals, playing in the wings, being flushed to the touchline by the Valladolid fullbacks.
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So here’s what I’m thinking now: if we played the Valladolid game knowing that the only REAL source of width for us would be the fullbacks (Marcelo who was amateur-ish again, and Ramos who played a decent game), should we not have tried a 4-3-1-2 instead? We’d have a pair of defensive midfielders in Gago and Javi Garcia shielding Canna + Heinze as well as playing bodyguard to Guti in the middle, while we can have Van Der Vaart in his favored mediapunta position: which then puts the 2 front men, Raul & Higuain (3 and 4 goals each respectively in their previous starts) playing more to the middle where both of them can be REALLY dangerous. I do not pretend to be some tactical expert, this is merely amateur tactical speculation from me.
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----------------- Casillas --------------------------
Ramos – Cannavaro – Heinze – Marcelo (or Torres)
---------- Gago – Javi Garcia – Guti ---------------
---------- Van Der Vaart (or Sneijder) -------------
--------------- Raul - Higuain ---------------------

(4-3-1-2): My amateur-ish suggested proposal for what was our doomed match vs. Valladolid, using the same players Schuster had started with. Would we have done better with this?
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Today, as more and more failures continue to mount so does the talk about the need to sack Schuster. I however still continue to believe that a lot of the blame has to fall onto Mijatovic & Calderon: their stupid insistence on getting CR7, while draining all our negotiating resources: resulting in the loss of Robinho, and the embarrassing failure in their last-gasp bid to capture David Villa (the much needed striker help) or others who the team really needs. Now we have an unbalanced team ravaged by injuries and no helpful backups…. this is management’s fault.
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Schuster however, is not free from blame. Granted that the team is imbalanced and has an overloaded injury clinic. There is however no excuse to get eliminated from the Copa Del Rey to a 3rd Division side: not with the talent of our team. Aside from this, our countless lapses in defense (same lineup last year) are also coaching issues. His admission that he is clueless on the latter is indicative of his managerial inadequacies. Rumors are rife of talk that he is also not communicating to the players enough. Granted that management has done terribly with the signings and this would have an adverse effect on the group: but this team should not be THIS BAD despite the injuries and ‘unbalanced-ness.’
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Despite all this however, I still agree with the sentiment that Schuster should be allowed to keep his job till the end of the season. I think that the only reason he should be fired is if we find ourselves teetering on the brink of failure to qualify for the CL next year. In the mean time, while all pray for a turnaround, I think it would be prudent not only for management to get the necessary help in the transfer market (a very difficult task at this point), but also to draw up a shortlist of managers who might replace Schuster by the end of the season… just in case.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ruud Van Nistelrooy: A Tribute



As we play our first game knowing full well that Ruud isn't going to be with us for the rest of the season... here's a little tribute: what we will be missing for the rest of the season.

I hope to see him again in the white shirt next season. Get well soon Ruud!

2008-11-11: Real Madrid 4 - Real Union 3

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Head on the Chopping Block

Seems like the Madrid press have completely turned on Bernd Schuster… they are all calling for his head. I suppose that he’s really had it coming, especially from these guys: with his constant gloomy moods, sarcastic answers and generally hostile posture towards them. Now that his team has completely fallen from grace towards absolute humiliation: the knives are out and they’re all waiting for his blood to be spilled, for the guillotine to come down on his head. Real Madrid’s dismal performances have become the perfect reason for them to ask for his head.
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Replacement names have been mentioned already: Miguel Angel Portugal, Michel from the inside to serve on an interim basis. Names of outsiders have also been mentioned: Juande Ramos and Roberto Mancini.
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The Madrid press is indicating that Calderon (to his credit in my opinion), has tried to temper the situation with Schuster, sharing a meal with him to discuss the matter, telling the German than he still has a job. I’ve never encountered a situation of a coach being replaced in the middle of a season where the team achieved success on that same season. To sack Schuster now might constitute dooming the entire season (or perhaps even the next few seasons) for the team: bringing us back to the circus days (or final couple of years) of the Florentino Perez era.
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Calls for Schuster’s head seem to be coming amidst reports that the team was not adequately prepared for the match against Real Union: that he didn’t display the kind of respect that the competition merited. It didn’t help that he once again bungled (something that is now a routine) the post-match conference and seemed indifferent throughout the entire match. Reports also suggest that he didn’t even speak to the players after the Real Union disaster match. Nevertheless, from what I read, unnamed RM players still feel that he must continue on this season.
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Schuster has a tough task ahead of him: he needs a good, convincing result against Valladolid this Saturday. We thrashed them 7-1 at the Bernabeu last season, but were beaten by a rocket of a goal in their stadium. Besides, this is not the same team as last season’s. To get a convincing result, Schuster must start with trying to get himself a clean sheet from this Saturday’s match. That will be a problem since Cannavaro and Metzelder are not looking fit for the match at the moment. Pepe is still probably not 100% and his likely partner will be this season’s Mr. Disaster, Gabriel Heinze. Scoring 3-4 goals would be good too... perhaps Schuster should give Alberto Bueno another call up too after his golazo against Real Union – after all, we are lacking in striking options.
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Schuster will also need to ensure Champions League qualification. If he fails this: he will be in for the sack almost for sure. It will be a complicated proposition for sure. Though BATE Borisov were absolutely shit against us in the Bernabeu, I am totally willing to believe that they will give us a heck of a hard time once we play in their ground. Zenit St. Petersburg will also be a pain in the ass for us: a game which happens on ‘Black December’: where we square off against La Liga superpowers Sevilla, Valencia and Dream-Team-Reincarnates Barca. If he manages to survive the year 2008 with Real Madrid still having momentum and within striking distance for the La Liga title (I won’t even expect La Liga leadership) along with a ticket to the last 16 of the Champions League, then the gauntlet will be thrown to the Board.
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For their part, the Real Madrid board will have a very difficult task of trying to compensate for their failures during the offseason. Real Madrid would do well to address the need for another striker (someone who won’t mind time on the bench once RVN is back but will score goals when he’s on the pitch) and a winger (an endangered species these days). Perhaps they would do well to reinforce the defense too. Names for the January window have begun to surface and I trust that there will be more to come, among them:
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Andre Arshavin: yet ANOTHER 'mediapunta'

Andre Arshavin (Zenit St. Petersburg): some have called him a genius, some however have called him the Russian Guti (1 brilliant game, 7 awful ones next). I for one see him as yet another ‘mediapunta’ who will compete for spots with Guti, Sneijder and VDV… he’s not the winger or goal scorer we need. He’s Cup-tied too for the Champions League
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Julio Cruz: A clear stop gap measure given his age (34). A reliable player though and a seemingly mature presence in the dressing room. I’m not too hot about it though. (Has Inter played him in the Champions League? If so, then perhaps he’s not a good idea either)
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Huntelaar: Is he good enough for La Liga? Can we still go after Benzema if we get him?
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Klaas Jan-Huntelaar (Ajax): RVN’s heir in the Dutch National team and a proven goal scorer… in the Dutch League. There have been those who have doubted if he can become successful in a top league like La Liga, but his age and track record seem to make him a good choice. He’s not cup-tied too. I think though, that it might become a question of price (sell or part-exchange with Saviola?). The other question I’d like to ask also however is: if we land him, does that mean we won’t go after Benzema in the summer? I certainly hope not.
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Or maybe we should just promote Alberto Bueno to the first team full time? If he can manage a few more goals as he showed us last Tuesday, then why not, right?
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Once we pass a January wherein the management makes the right decisions in the transfer market, then Schuster’s next task will be to take us beyond the last 16 in the Champions League. To do so would bring an incredible amount of credibility to him. I don’t know how things will unfold for us in La Liga given how Barca seem to be destroying every team they face. If they continue playing that way, then we might not win La Liga this year. We don’t look like we can win the Champions League either. But if we do manage to come in a respectable 2nd in La Liga and with at least a semi-final spot in the CL, then maybe, just maybe Schuster will be able to survive.
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But let’s not forget, he’ll have to learn to smile and maybe tell a few dirty jokes during post-match conferences first.
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Until then, here’s to hoping the circus decides NOT to drop by Madrid any time soon.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It’s the Defense, Stupid

Maybe we’re all missing the point. We’ve been talking too much about getting new strikers, new wingers, etc. I am guilty of this too: speaking to a friend about the mouth-watering prospect of seeing a Madrid lineup for next season that would feature a Benzema-Higuain partnership upfront while being serviced by CRon, Sneijder and VDV while protected by Diarra at the midfield. I thought of our ‘defensive upgrade’ of having Ezquel Garay in our ranks as an unmentioned afterthought.
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And perhaps that’s the problem: that the defense for us has become an after thought. As I went down to buy my coffee today, I recalled our most recent matches, the results and how we got them:
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4-3 win against Real Union resulting in our elimination from the Copa Del Rey with a 6-6 aggregate score with us losing on goal difference: We conceded 6 goals against a 3rd division side. 3 at home: that is inexcusable and pathetic. While there was talk about bringing in potentially Mario Gomez or Andre Arshavin to beef up our attack in the days prior to last night’s match, Raul (whom we all pronounced as ‘dead’... again) scored a hat trick to bring his goal tally to 8 in total this season, 2nd to Higuain. We also saw flashed of brilliance from Alberto Bueno, a canterano from our very own Real Madrid Castilla.
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4-3 win against Malaga. We celebrated 4-goal hero Higuain’s performance, but seemed to forget how cheaply we conceded those 3 goals at home to a newly promoted side whose main strategy was supposedly long ball tactics (read: dull, and low-scoring).
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0-2 loss against Juventus. We were toothless indeed in attack with no ideas. But we gave away 2 cheap goals: with Cannavaro choosing to stand away from his old buddy Del Piero knowing full well, that the Juve Captain is fully capable of lashing out a shot from that distance to kill us: which was exactly what happened. For the 2nd goal, fellow RM-blogger Lateral Izquerdo summarized it brilliantly in his blog: “In the second half, the worst defensive wall in the history of the game was constructed after conceding a foul just outside the area… Hours after the match, nobody has been able to work out how a wall that defends neither post and blocks the goalkeeper's view can be a plausible defensive tactic.”
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1-1 draw against Almeria. We were ahead for most of the game until we lost our nerves and conceded a late goal. 2 points lost: the difference between us and Barca in the league table.
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3-2 loss to Real Union. Ditto
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3-2 win against Athletic Bilbao. We celebrated like mad at our ‘claw’ with little attention to how bad we are on defense.
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2-1 loss to Juventus. Ditto
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I get the picture now: We have played 16 matches in total this season. We have had only 2 clean sheets while conceding 27 goals. That’s 1.69 goals conceded per game: which means that on the average, we need to score 3 goals (we have scored 39 so far, averaging 2.44 goals per game) a game to win: something that might be achievable against smaller teams every now and then, but is surely a tall order even for a team with Real Madrid’s firepower. The numbers don’t add up to stats that can lead us all to believe that we are playing the sort of football that will bring us to the top of La Liga, much less the Champions League (ditto once again for the Copa del Rey, where I really hoped we could perform well in this season given the supposed depth of this squad).
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Last season, Iker won the Zamora trophy and we boasted of having rock solid defensive performances like the one we saw in our victory at the Camp Nou on our way to emphatically win La Liga. I’m no longer interested in discussing referees because they will always make decisions that are either in favor or against us. Talk of an anti-Madrid conspiracy is childish: we should instead look at ourselves and work on these defensive frailties.
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Our defense is clearly in bad shape: Ramos seems lost out there on the field. His form has taken a dip, aside from what is probably a sensitive relationship between him and his team mates after his outburst to the press. Cannavaro has been rapidly declining since his arrival and is no where near the defender that he was when he captained Italy to the World Cup (or perhaps, the offensive-minded philosophy of Madrid just doesn’t suit him). Pepe, aside from being injury prone since his arrival has been error-prone too: a stark contrast from the dominant, fast, aggressive defender that he was last year. Heinze has been culpable for what I recall is probably 80% of the goals conceded by the team. Torres is injured. Marcelo still doesn’t know how to defend or cross accurately). Metzelder is too slow and lumbering. Salgado should do himself and the club a favor by retiring at the end of this season. I await Garay’s arrival next season with optimism. In the meantime, I can only scratch my head at how poor our defense has been so far and what can be done about it.
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Perhaps we should make a move for some defenders this winter break? Experiment further with Javi Garcia at center back? Is there someone from RM Castilla or the C Team we can promote to defense for the first team as Barca did with Carles Puyol?
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The rumor mill is has cranked out just this morning that Schuster will be sacked if we lose to Valladolid this weekend with Miguel Angel Portugal or Michel waiting to take his position: are we headed to the 1 coach-every-5-games era once again? Schuster seems to be protecting the players, but is doing himself no favors by making more and more enemies in the press and perhaps even in the offices of the Bernabeu. I myself, have cast my doubts on him as well but is this really the right time for this course of action?
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This mess is starting to smell really, really bad. And as a Madridista, I am now really, really scared.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hapless! Helpless! Inept!


This is the first time I’ve ever felt so humiliated, so embarrassed as a Madrid fan this way since the fading days of the Florentino Perez years. Back then, I was still a new-ish football and Real Madrid fan, still half wondering what was going on, still unaware in many ways at how ‘big’ our collapse really was at the time.
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But last night (or rather, at 3:30-5:30am Singapore time), I was sitting in my living room couch, still struggling with the food poisoning bout I had suffered over the weekend, feeling…absolute indignation. As I pounded on the couch for every bad pass, poor show of defense, impotent attempt to attack and I cringed and winced in pain to see how Juve had totally dismantled us in the game, my thoughts drifted endlessly:
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Shut the Fuck Up Ramon Calderon!
This Jackass Ramon Calderon has the cheek to rip Alex Ferguson as ‘jealous of our 9 European Cups’. He also took a few pot shots at his old boss Florentino Perez. The next day, we get raped on our own pitch by the Grand Old Lady of Europe whom we jokingly remarked ‘had a broken hip.’ Bloody Fuck.

He seems to eat through his ass and shit through his mouth
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I’ve told many of my Man U-supporting friends that if they actually list down the Man-U lineup, I actually love most of their players and thus cannot explain why I dislike (note: NOT hate) Man U. The closest explanation I can come up with was Alex Ferguson whom I really respect but just don’t like. But on this regard: let me make a shout out to Calderon: Alex Ferguson has won 2 Champions Leagues, you Senor Calderon, in your 3 years in charge have not won a single one. Those 9 trophies in our cabinet, are not of your leadership so shut your pie hole until you win a couple of your own. I’d back it up if Don Alfredo made such a reply (though the classy fellow that he is, wouldn’t make such a remark), but from you… please stop embarrassing us!



I don't like Ferguson, but even then, I applaud him for his 2 Champions League Titles, which he won himself as a manager, how many have YOU really won Senor Calderon?
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And while we’re on the same subject, Florentino won it too you jackass. And he did it by bringing the world’s greatest winger at the time (Figo… who happened to be Portuguese) and one of the greatest footballers on the planet (an attacking midfielder named Zidane) to the club. You on the other hand, promised to bring in the guy who was the world’s best attacking midfielder (a certain Kaka) at the time and got your ass rejected in public… repeatedly, embarrassing all of us Madridistas. Then you spend the entire summer flirting with the world’s best winger today (also Portuguese!) and fail yet again. So before you talk shit about other people, I suggest you have a good look at yourself! Maybe you’re the senile one!
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I hate to say this, I really do, but last night, we missed Robinho. Fuck! There! I said it! We needed width (Glassman’s injury timing was just damn perfect again!), we needed creativity, we needed someone to open up the Juve defense: and we had… Royston Drenthe! We also needed goals by the way (last I checked, Robinho scored a hat trick for Man City not long ago).
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Royston D & Our Summer of Fuckups


Welcome to the Champions League Roy!
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Don’t get me wrong, by the end of our 0-2 humiliation at the hands of Juve, he was our best player. My reaction was of disbelief and ‘not again!!!!’ to realize that Drenthe had made the starting XI in place of Robben. At that time, I felt that perhaps Higuain should’ve gotten the nod in the starting XI, or even VDV. Drenthe started nervous, bungling up great chances to build up play or create danger. But somehow his selection seemed clear: spread the field or play wide enough to stretch the Juve defense open. He grew into the game soon enough. As his confidence grew and nerviness dissipated, he began making crosses, using his trickery and ran like crazy (Guillem Balague once wrote that he is a force of nature, that he can run all day)… perhaps, his performance was the only bright light for us in last night’s disaster: that he showed a longer flash than usual as a potential service-able player for RM.
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Here’s the thing though: Drenthe is 21 (I think), and was just tossed into the deep end just like that in a CL fixture against Juventus for one reason: without Robben, there’s no other natural wide player in our roster. We can talk tactics until Mars turns blue (more on that later): but the fact is that our summer fuck up in the market (coz of one jackass’ mindless pursuit for ONE player that turned into nothing) is the reason for this: pawning Robinho to lure Cristiano that ultimately led to the loss of both players (is that fuckin’ stupid or what?!?!).
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Coaching / Man Management / Tactics
Yes indeed El Kapitan is the top scorer of the Champions League, so is Ruud (closing in on Raul). But Higuain has been playing out of his mind. He should have been given the nod, Robben or no Robben. He probably would’ve played even better knowing that a certain Diego Maradona was in the stadium to likely consider him for the National team (one of his stated ambitions). This was a match where Real Madrid needed a man up front who had pace, has the ability to cross balls in and provide width aside from scoring goals: qualities that define ‘Pipita’. Instead, Schuster opted for Raul, who to his credit, ran tirelessly and made a nuisance of himself at times to the Juve defence. Raul however, is a player who has lost his pace entirely, and naturally prefers to drop deep to help his midfield in what was a very cluttered center of the pitch. Has sentimentality given way to plain old tactical soundness?



Schuster's Telling Himself: "Hmmm...Nevermind if we're down 0-5, and we really need to win this one, I'll make my magic substitutions during injury time and we'll win!"
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Then, here’s something everyone’s been talking about for a VEEEEERY long time now: why the hell does Schuster take so long to make on-filed adjustments? Jose Mourinho at times doesn’t even wait till half time to make them. Schuster waits AT LEAST till the 65th to do them…. All the frickin’ time! He waited until the game was almost over before he introduced Saviola and Van Der Vaart in: what the hell did he expect them to do on the pitch? Warm up for an after-match training session? I’ll probably be saying this for the first time (though I’ve thought it plenty of times): maybe Schuster just isn’t good enough for Real Madrid? In every single time he’s had to face a team with real class and managed by a manager of real caliber in a big match situation where the onus is on RM, he has faltered. Now, now, now…. I’m not asking for his head… I’m just really beginning to doubt his capabilities as a tactician.
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Now here’s to hoping Mars turns Blue.

2008-11-02: Almeria 1 - Real Madrid 1