Monday, November 30, 2009

Post-El Clasico Thoughts

We COULD'VE won at the Camp Nou... But What Happened??? Puyol Got in the Way.
It's hard not to look back to what happened last night and think that we deserved better. Perhaps I ought to just chalk it up to Barca's home advantage as well as the fact that they are pretty much a finished product as a team, whereas we are still clearly a work in progress. Either way, the result isn't fatal and we put on a performance that is worthy of a pat on the back to the team and the coaching staff.
Though it is true that Barcelona had most of the possession and we did indeed play on the counter for the most part, what did the critics expect? For us to do what no one has done in the last 2 years (outpossess Barca)? What we did indeed do was prevent them from doing what they've done so well these past 1+ seasons: pass the hell out of your defense to carve open an open path to your goal.
And let me say this: if it weren't for Carles Puyol having the game of his life (he was man-of-the-match for me) and Victor Valdes having an Iker Casillas moment... we'd be talking about the crisis that Madrid has put Barca in by now after a 3-0 shellacking.
Pellegrini had the right players and the right tactics... perhaps he didn't have the right luck.
As I had anticipated, we pretty much played a counterattacking game: developing a strategy that allowed us to absorb the brunt of their midfield onslaught at critical portions of the pitch, which allowed us to funnel the ball towards our formidable attack line. Manuel Pellegrini compressed the midfield in an attempt to choke the life out of Xavi and Iniesta's passing routine at the midfield: using Lass Diarra's pit bull instincts (coupled with his underrated technical skills in ball control), Xabi Alonso's positional sense.
The linkage between defense and attack was also well coordinated: it allowed us to have 3 men on Lionel Messi as soon as he receives the ball, with Pepe's spider-like legs ready to take a stab to win the ball away from the little Argentine. Even the normally out-of-position Sergio Ramos was perpetually in the right place all game long on the right side, while the more 'defensively-conservative' Arbeloa was the suitable man for . Eventually, the compression of space caused by Xabi and Lass gave us the chance to win the ball at times. They're ability to control the ball and funnel a pass out every now and then to brilliant Cristiano and Kaka as well as the industrious Higuain gave us the many great chances which got many Madridistas (including this one) believing, that we actually had the chance to walk out of the Camp Nou with a 4 point gap vs. the 'triplete' champions. Let me point out too, that it wasn't just the attacking trio that was responsible for this: Xabi's poised-passing as well as the UNusual positional discipline from Sergio Ramos and the usual positional discipline from Arbeloa aided a lot in our limited, but very effective forays towards the Barca goal.
Ironically, I also suspect that it was Pellegrini's clever tactic to compress the midfield that lit the lightbulb in Pep Guardiola's head to find the solution to get on the scoresheet. With perpetually no outlet through the center of the park, reliant only on the looping through-lob pass... and Messi finding himself surrounded by 3 players every time he received the ball, the only way it seemed was through the flanks. Several times, Alves and Henry (who was played as the Main Striker to start the match) tried to put in a cross... only to find nobody home in the middle. So, like any smart manager, Pep Guardiola introduced his 6'4 goal-scoring giant into the match. The Swedish striker entered the game 5 mins. into the 2nd half and scored within 5 minutes... on the FIRST cross sent into the box from the wing.
I would be happy to tell off anyone who would criticize Pellegrini for pulling Cristiano Ronaldo out at the hour mark. No one match, especially at so early in the season, despite the heavy bragging rights at stake is big enough to risk your best player (perhaps THE best player, period). What I would like to call out Pellegrini on is his decision to exclude Karim Benzema from the starting XI, insisting to play Marcelo at the left side of midfield. While he is a useful player to have, the availability of players of the calibre that we currently have should be the cue to let the Brazilian sit on the bench. While the little he-thinks-he's-a-leftback is a useful player, he is perpetually out of his depth in living up to his role as part of the back 4 as a defender, in this game, he was out-of-his-depth even in attack. He was the clear weak link on attack, and I can't help but ponder at this moment how it'd have been had we player Ronaldo on the wing and Benzema up front with Pipita.
Lass was a Beast... an absolute pain-in-the-ass to the Barca midfield
I read a piece on talking about how Real Madrid seems to have unlocked in this game, the puzzle to solve the Barcelona midfield mystery. Frankly speaking, I don't really agree with this for a very simple reason: no other team has Lassana Diarra and Xabi Alonso at the center of their midfield to press, tackle, harass and irritate Barca's untouchable midfield maestros to win balls and still have the poise and intelligence to funnel the ball to their attackers at critical positions.
I would be bold enough to say also that everyone played well in general... even the out-of-depth Marcelo wasn't too bad (i.e. the rant about him is more out of thinking of how things could've been better instead of an outright negative opinion of his performance). Lass was an absolute monster and his performance last night should completely shed off his occasional tag of being a big-game choker. Kaka and Cristiano both played well.
With Kaka however, a few points when into my head: firstly was Corey's mentioning of his tired-ness at the end of the Racing game where he co-incided with CR96 late on. I also remember having read a criticism levelled at him by no less than ex-teammate Rino Gattuso on how he's no longer the same player as before as the Italian even audaciously suggested: is this a critique of his fitness? The 2nd half of last night seemed to suggest the merits of such a statement.
So what's next after this? Despite the generally good performance that was not blessed with luck, let me still say that we still have yet to beat a top level side this season (losses to Sevilla, Milan and now Barca). Looking at the fixture list, Almeria will be paying us a visit next week at the Bernabeu... which will perhaps be a good chance to either test the fitness of Diarra V1.0 or play a midfield diamond with Xabi Alonso as the lone pivot (supported by Granero). After that, we face Marseille at the difficult Velodrome stadium in a not-too-critical Champions League fixture... further beyond that however, lies a visit to the Mestalla and David Villa's Valencia... a critical match for sure given that we're now 2 points behind the Champs. And with Cristiano Ronaldo getting back into the team, the next 3 games will perhaps the opportunity we need now to sew the team together.
Maybe we as a whole are the Big Game Midgets at the moment...? I hope to see that change at the Mestalla in a few weeks.

Gameblog: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid

Welcome to the new look Madridista Mac... credit to the new look should go to Kevin Walker of La Liga Weekly and the Own Goal Network... What a better way to start off the new look site with a game blog of the greatest football match on the world right? El Clasico Part 1 of the 2009-2010 season! Barcelona vs. Real Madrid!
Before the Match: The exexcutives Laporta and Perez are exchanging pleasantries on the stands while the players are greeting each other with friendly greetings, you couldn't imagine the hositlity tha'ts bein cranked between the 2 sides given the pleasantries in the tunnel.
Real line up with:
Kaka-Lass-X. Alonso-Marcelo
Barca start with Messi but Ibra is on the bench....
0:10 after kickoff and we lose the ball... shit.
1:16 - Messi causes Casillas to step off the box to clear.... whew.
2:30 - Barca look caln with the ball, not even Lass can harass them of the ball.... now he has to bring down Keita just to stop the Blaugrana tiki-taka machine
3:30 - Alves makes his 2nd bad cross...
4:00 - Kaka almost finds Pipita... he wasn't crowded out... if counters are going to look like this then we WILL have a chance in this game.
6:30 - Cristiano gets a run at the Barca defense and totally LEAVES Puyol... Marcelo fluffs the chance though... once again... I'm left optimistic over our counter attacking chances.
8:27 - Messi creates a chance for Henry who stakes a shot that Casillas calmly saves... better watch out for him... he LOVES scoring against us.
9:55 -We're nowhere as comfortable with the ball as they are...
10:55 - Cristiano is fouled... RPG (Ronaldo-Propelled-Goal) opportunity... into the wall.
12:00 - Great run by Sergio Ramos gives a Pipita a chance... until he's called offside.
13:00 - Great ball over for Xavi from Iniesta! Shit!.... Casillas alert enough to swoop for the ball.
16:10 - Good spell of possession for Madrid until Ronaldo loses it by fouling Busquets to get to the ball.
17:50 - Barca forces a corner after Madrid chokes up the middle of the park forcing the ball to the flank to Abidal... concentration alert...
19:00 - Whoa! Kaka tears the Barca defense apart.... leaving off a pass to Cristiano who forces a save from Valdes... That should give them something to think about!
20:30 - Backheel brilliance from our attacking line giving them a headache.... hahaha!
22:25 - Alves gives the linesman a piece of his mind... card his ass ref!
23:50 - I'm beginning to sense that Madrid are creeping into this game in terms of control...
25:46 - Marcelo gets a shot off (great pass from Kaka)! Blocked by Puyol... we are finding spaces...!
28:00 - Someone once called Lass a big game midget... he's totally pissing Iniesta and Xavi off... which means that he's playing well
30:00 - Ramos great long ball to Pipita... too long though. Good intention. On a good note... I have to say that Pepe's presence is REALLY making a difference
33:05 - Shit. Yellow Card for Arbeloa. That's a crack in the armor now.
35:34 - Why does Keita still have no Yellow Card?
36:41 - Henry forces Iker to save... Corner Kick... That's probably Barca's 3rd cross with no one home to tap or head home.
37:33 - Iniesta forces Casillas to a save... Barca are pushing back now.
38:26 - Madrid's defensive alertness has so far been impressive... great balance between housing the Barca attackers but with the awareness to still put an offside trap together.
40:15 - Shit... another Yellow Card. This time from Albiol. Those yellows might back to bite us.
41:40 - Marcelo seems to be the weak link... since we have the personnel... shall we let Benzema in and let Cristiano into the midfield?
42:30 - Whoa... Iniesta losing his temper... Lass is getting to somoene's head. hahaha.
44:05 - Soft shot attempt from Marcelo. Easily saved by Valdes.
Halftime - This doesn't smell bad at all....

Some Halftime thoughts:

-If Real Madrid continue to play this way... I really believe that we can hit them with a goal or 2. The quality that Kaka and CR96 offer up front with Higuain's industry can produce the goods.

-The job that Lass and Xabi Alonso have done in midfield to compress the space for the Barca midfield to operate seems to be working really well
-The Pepe-Albiol partnership that we have now is a clear upgrade form last season's defensive line. Let me highlight that in our 1-0 win in this same fixture 2 seasons ago, Pepe was the titan that won us the match.
-The question now remains: can we keep this up in the 2nd half? Will those yellow cards haunt us?
46:00 - Whew! Close call! Nice cross from Iniesta!

46:58 - Raul, Benzema & Ibra are now warming up

47:46 - Shit. Now there's a Yellow Card for Lass. That might be crucial

49:05 - Impressive... Pipita hounding Barca's players at midfield

49:55 - Yellow Card for Busquets. What about Keita? Ibra is getting ready to come on.

50:40 - Ibrahimovic in for Henry. Let's see how this goes.
52:10 - Barca in control... Xavi takes a shot... delfected for a corner.
52:57 - Shit! Higuain almist scored on a great counter... should he have passed to Kaka? Great sliding tackle from Puyol though.
55:35 - Goal. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Cross from Alves. Shit. Great Goal.
57:00 - We can still win this... a draw wouldn't be bad either. Come on guys.
59:55 - Should we try putting Benzema in?
61:00 - It's been all Barca. They're a different side with Ibra.
62:05 - Oh my. 2nd Yellow for Busquets. That's a Red for him now... for a handball... is that a lifeline?
63:58 - Ronaldo knifes into the area... tackled by Pique. Uff.
64:34 - Benzema getting ready to come on.
65:00 - ufffff!!!!! Cristiano Misses a header. Then he comes off for Benzema. Looks like he's not getting 90 mins. then. Maybe a fresh Benzema can change things for us?
67:54 - Benzema getting robbed by Iniesta? I guess that's my answer...?
68:34 - Pepe booked for a foul on Messi. Shiiiiit! Whew! Pique just almost scored. Lucky break.
70:30 - Uff. Benzema drags a shot wide AND over... we've seen that before.
72:07 - Corner kick is a flop. Marcelo High and wide. Come on guys!
72:50 - Raul gets ready to come on. Who comes off... Arbeloa... Marcelo plays left back. Let's hope he doesn't get skinned by Messi.
75:00 - Abidal misses. Even as he broke free.... knowing it was him... it didnt worry me much.
76:44 - Kaka runs circles around Abidal... till he wins corner... Ramos gets to the corner... but it's wide. Come on Ramos! When are we going to see you score off a deadball again?
78:24 - A yellow for Marcelo.
79:31 - Kaka shoots and wins a corner. Shit! what happened? Benzema misses from a shot oppotunity that looked easy to score. How'd he miss that?
81:55 - Raul shoots from a Xabi corner... deflected. We're making our numbers tell, but we're not capitalizing...
84:30 - Raul on a heroic defensive duel with Messi.... you gotta love the Captain's heart.
85:32 - Xabi Alonso fluffs his CORNER KICK! What the hell is going on?
86:40 - Pipita pushes Puyol off and has a few choice words for the Barca Captain lying on the ground... nice to see the kid show the edge to his character.
88:32 - WONDER SAVE from Iker from Messi!
89:28 - Now we're even... 10 vs. 10 Lass gets sent off. Last minute... plus 3 mins. extra time let's pls. get on with it and try to get the equalizer.
+1:14 - We're shitting on our pants now.
Game Over... 1-0 to the hosts. We could've won this... More Thoughts tomorrow.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pre-El Clasico Thoughts

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Perhaps to continue the train of thought from what I had just mentioned in my earlier blog entry (Killer Instinct), Barcelona (or this particular Barcelona side rather) do not fall anywhere near the category of Zurich or Racing… and not even to the current Milan (emerging from their ‘slumber’) side. Against them tomorrow, we will need to summon the best individual and team performance(s) as well as tactical effectiveness on top of 90 minutes of pure Killer Instinct from our team. This doesn’t necessarily mean a full on attack, but 90+ minutes of pure and absolute concentration and game awareness.
As I’ve mentioned in the podcast posted below, I do not think or expect for us to step onto the Camp Nou pitch and give take the fight to them. I am expecting and hoping for a clever tactical plan that will allow us to effectively absorb their one-touch possession football on key points of the pitch; which can allow us open avenues to hit them on the counter. This season, the players that we have are far more suited to play with this game plan.
One defense, we have a fit Pepe (albeit likely to be partnered with a 2nd-choice Garay, coming in for the likely-injured Albiol), Sergio Ramos (who was given cover by Lass during the Zurich game, in a clever tactical move by Pellegrini) and the usually defensively-disciplined Arbeloa: a clear upgrade from our backline in last year’s equivalent fixture.
We continue to have Lass Diarra who will now partner with Xabi Alonso at the Center of the pitch: making for a combination of players who are both technically gifted, have the combative ability to by physical to win balls and finally with Xabi Alonso around: the vision and the ball distribution capacity to funnel out balls to initiate counter-attacking maneuvers. The big difference will of course be the attack, where it is obvious that we have an across-the-board upgrade.
The biggest difference between Juande Ramos’ and Manuel Pellegrini’s side between last season however, will be on attack. The Chilean has already made the bold decision to place Raul on his rightful place on the team based on ability and form (on the bench). Due to Cristiano’s injury, we have thus far seen Marcelo play the role of ‘faux-winger’ on the left side with Kaka playing his natural role behind the striker/s. Pipita Higuain has also been given his rightful place in the Starting XI and has been making his statement ‘Damn Right! I deserve to be here!’ with his goal scoring form. His presence on the pitch, as opposed to Raul has also made the 35m-Euro signing Karim Benzema look better and more comfortable.
With this lineup, Manuel Pellegrini can sleep tonight knowing that once that single counterattacking opportunity that leaves one of our players one-on-one with Valdez comes up, the Man-in-White charging the Catalan ‘keeper would likely be one of either Higuain, Benzema, Kaka or Cristiano Ronaldo instead of Miguel Palanca or Royston Drenthe.
In the end though, I am not bold enough to predict a win at this point given how truly awesome this Barca team is at the moment. We still have the guns however to get to them and to walk away from this match able to prove that we can stand toe-to-toe with them and send the warning out that we WILL get them.

Killer Instinct

To my few readers: this blog entry also appears on Kevin Walker's La Liga Weekly (with whom I've been doing the Real Madrid talk podcast along with Ole Ole's Adam Bader and The Offiside's Corey Fiske) where I've agreed to drop in a thought or 2 every so often...
El Pipita: Perhaps the only player in white these past few games who has shown a genuine thirst for the opponent's blood.
2 1-0 wins.
Both by Gonzalo ‘Pipita’ Higuain.
Both in the first half.
Both concluding a period of utter Real Madrid domination and control of the game.
Both leading to a game that eventually bored the living hell out of the Bernabeu.
More ammunition for Marca and AS to call for Pellegrini’s head.
More worries for the team as it faces this Barca team that had managed to bitchslap themselves awake once again (if we were to judge them on their performance against Mourinho’s Inter) just in time for our big encounter with them.
On the eve of this season’s first El Clasico, I wish to highlight the one thing that has been missing in Real Madrid’s game as evidenced by the past several matches: Killer Instinct. Real Madrid need to develop the killer instinct that all great teams need in order to become more than FIFA ’10 video game team. It seems clear to me that Real Madrid begin to doze off into a gentle slumber after scoring that first goal, happy to control the game, keep hold of the ball and let the 90 minutes go by. This however is not Real Madrid… at least not what Real Madrid is supposed to be. This is not the Real Madrid who will go for the 3-0, 4-0, 5-0, 6-0 ruthlessly till the referee blows his whistle in front of their 80,000 fans crying for the blood of their opponents on the pitch. When did we ever get so ‘professional’? When did we all of a sudden become ‘Oh, we won, so we’re all ok.’???
As I look back, I am no t just speaking about the games against Racing Santander and Zurich… I look back also to the games against Milan and perhaps further back: the team shows its class early on with an impressive display of controlling the game, and scoring the all-important opener in each of these games… which would ultimately lead to very discernable drop in level in terms of the performance from the players and the entire team as a whole. Is this an issue of attitude? Motivation? Tactics even?
We had suffered defeat at home and missed the golden opportunity to rid ourselves of the ‘curse of the San Siro’ against a Milan team that is only slowly regaining its old status as an elite side (after the dreadful start of the season) for this reason. On this basis, I would like to in fact argue then that our only loss as a result of lack of quality from our overall play was against Sevilla. This need for that Killer Instinct may or may not be an easy thing to address for the coaching staff but I imagine that this will be an issue that will haunt us perpetually as the season progresses.
I am hopeful however that the return of Cristiano Ronaldo would help with this… as he is to a fault, a player who craves for that 3rd, 4th, 5th goal. We keep our fingers crossed on his fitness though.