Sunday, February 22, 2009

As the Red Army approaches the White Castle...

So the time has finally come... Liverpool's Red Army approach from the horizon. It seemed so far away a few months ago. Juande had just just taken over and the team was in absolute shambles. We were in the middle of an 'institutional crisis' (c/o of Ramon Calderon). We were leaking goals like a 3rd Division squad and getting eliminated from the Copa Del Rey by a 3rd Division Squad (c/o Bernd Schuster), and were adrift by a double digit margin in points from Barca.
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But here we are now... 9 Consecutive victories and a 100% record in the year 2009. And as the critics began to encircle Juande to attack him for our supposedly 'boring' football, here we are having scored 10 goals in 2 matches in utterly commanding performances.
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The fear that gripped most of us early on (I can still remember the 'oh, please don't let it be an English team' prayers before the Champions League draw), seems to have dissipated completely. Rafa's Red Army march to our gates with a limping Captain (Gerrard) and a not-entirely-fit, Fernando Torres. Both will pose massive problems for us nonetheless - but they seemed much more menacing 27 points ago. With Juande, we have regained our defensive order and solidity, our tactical balance, our workrate and now, even our goal scoring capability. What would've been the fear that I would have felt for this coming Wednesday's match has now turned to optimism.
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Especially in the wake of the events that transpired last night...
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Mangling the Verdiblancos 6-1
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I looked to last night's match with much caution given how Real Betis managed to nick a point over Barca. They are now a much more solid team with Ricardo Oliveira and somehow Chaparro seems to have been able to steady their ship already. I expected a 1-0, or 2-0 or a 2-1 as goal.com had predicted. Things turned out very differently though.

Thumbs up to the Coaching Job that Juande Ramos has done so far
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Juande Ramos turned to pretty much the same lineup he used for Sporting despite the availability of the bulk of his midfielders (Sneijder, Robben and even Guti back from injury while Van Der Vaart back from suspension):
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--------------------Casillas---------------------
Sergio Ramos --- Pepe --- Cannavaro --- Heinze
Higuain --- Lassana Diarra --- Gago --- Marcelo
------------- Raul --- Huntelaar --------------
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Higuain though sitting on the right side of his 4-4-2 formation pretty much drifted to wherever he pleased allowing Sergio Ramos to surge from the Right Back position again. Once again: the result was awesome. Juande seems to have taken the team to the next step: from a point of getting results and being solid defensively to the next stage of becoming offensively potent. The Madrid Mean Machine is starting to hum. Comments on the game of the respective players:
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Casillas - Made an awful mistake of passing the ball DIRECTLY to Ricardo Oliveira. Compensated for it by making himself big enough to hinder the Brazilian from scoring a 2nd goal. Apart from another well-handled one-on-one situation in the second half, he pretty much had a boring day at the office.
Sergio Ramos: Starting to play well Both on Defense and on Attack
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Sergio Ramos - For the past 2 games, he has started to play like the Sergio Ramos we all know and love: rampaging down the right side, putting in crosses, lethal goal scoring ability in the air and fearless with his combative tackling and ball winning ability (these past 2 games, we saw him do it without any bad-tempered antics too!). He played as a center back in the 2nd half and was incredibly effective too. Iker is due for a few boring days in the office.
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Pepe - It's no longer an exaggeration to call him the modern-day Fernando Hierro. He did well with the aerial balls, anticipated, outran and erased pretty much everything that came his way. 30 million Euros is a lot of money for a Centerback, but he's making us all forget how much money he cost. Hi quickness and ability in the air will be integral to keep Fernando Torres in check this Wednesday and in the return leg at Anfield.
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Cannavaro - I didn't see him do anything spectacular in the 1 half he spent on the pitch... coz most of the action was on the OTHER side of the pitch.
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Heinze - He's not the most fantastic Left Back out there. No good in attack but not necessarily ouststanding in defense either. My feeling has always been that even if the fantasies of Florentino winning the next elections come true (which will result in the supposed arrival of CR7 and Kaka), we will still have this exact same weak point at Left Back. Don't get me wrong, he's a decent left back to have. He's solid, combative and carries a big 'intimidation factor' coz attackers know that he's not one to lose sleep over breaking your legs. That said, we all saw him grimacing throughout the entire second half with what appeared to be a niggle. Here's to hoping it's not serious.
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Lass - Was great yet again. I'm really excited over this partnership that he's forming with Gago at the center of the field for Rela Madrid. His work rate is astounding. Love the engine, Love the heart. I also love hearing what appears to be a real appreciation from the Bernabeu towards him. Good to see the Bernabeu learn to love a 'water carrier'... a really important one at that.
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Gago - How his partnership with Lass (plus Guti/Sneijder) will fare against Liverpool's triumvirate of Gerrard-Mascherano & Alonso might well decide this Champions League tie. objectively, I still find the Liverpool trio to be stronger. But as every game wears on, I am beginning to believe that this midfield battle will be even tighter... and winnable for us.
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Higuain - I love this guy. He runs his ass off, he never gives up. It used to take 10 scoring chances for him to score. Now he can score on a half chance and even create his own chances and do it for others too. I'm happy to see him start the goalscoring party after creating so much vs. Sporting. I was concerned he'd get too many minutes from Juande so I was glad to see him get a breather at halftime.
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Marcelo - He wasn't as good as he was vs. Sporting. In fact, I felt that he might've been a bit overconfident last night - electing to shoot many times when passing would have been a better decision to make. It's good to see the Bernabeu give their nod of approval for him though: service his confidence a lot. And this massive dose of confidence is doing his game a lot of good. He's also becoming a great alternative for the wings for weekends prior to Champions League ties where Robben will need to be rested.
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Raul - It's true that Raul gets too many goals from cheap tap-ins. His 2 goals last night were absolutely exquisite though. I would've liked to see him drop deep to link the midfield and attack more like he did vs. Sporting. Loved the 'Petroleum Jelly' 2nd goal! (Vaselina) Fricking love it!
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Huntelaar - I am coming to the conclusion that the difference between Real Madrid playing well or not (aside from keeping clean sheets and winning games) is the Hunter. With his back to the goal and ability to hold the ball up: he draws too many defenders to allow the likes of Raul, Higuain and Robben to get in on the action. This is where I'm a bit afraid that his absence will hut us vs. Liverpool (I still think that Lass was the correct choice though). He's great in the air... I wish he had some ability to dribble the ball though... even Ruud could do it.

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IF the best version of Guti shows up against Liverpool: We CAN Destroy them.
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Guti - He looked great in his first game back from injury. Those defense splitting passes in the 2nd half were like guided missles which could've led to a few goals. He looked much better than Sneijder to me. If he plays like that vs. Liverpool, I'd say a 2-0 win wouldn't be outrageous.
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Sneijder - What's happened to Sneijder??? He's not the supermidfielder of early last season. He took a few good potshots at goal which weren't too bad. I didn't find that he did anything really of note though.
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Robben - Robben-depencencia? I don't think so. Hi timing last night was off though.... the score could've been 8-1 or 9-1 had his ball control from receiving those fabulous Guti passes not let him down. If he plays like he can though, none of the Liverpool fullbacks would be able to handle him... unless maybe Rafa chooses to use Carragher as a Rightback.
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To top it all off -Barca dropped 3 points last night too. Their lead is now down to 7: a manageable gap for us to make up, especially with the next El Clasico taking place at the Bernabeu. It's still too early to talk about El Gran Remontada... we had a really poor start to the second half of the season too last season and still managed to win comfortably. But who knows...

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