Monday, November 30, 2009

Post-El Clasico Thoughts

We COULD'VE won at the Camp Nou... But What Happened??? Puyol Got in the Way.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Tactics
Pellegrini had the right players and the right tactics... perhaps he didn't have the right luck.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Lineup
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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.
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Performances
Lass was a Beast... an absolute pain-in-the-ass to the Barca midfield
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I read a piece on goal.com 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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