Wednesday, December 9, 2009

And Now Comes the Hard Part


So now we're off to the elimination stages after last night's 3-1 win over Marseille, allowing us to advance seeded first in our group to give us the advantage of having the home leg at the Bernabeu. I'd say that last night's match wasn't quite as tricky as many have said it would be considering the fact that we needed to lose by 3-0 to lose our place in the elimination round. That said, with a draw enough to do the job for us, credit goes to the team for wanting more and getting more. It's not quite the 'character win', but it is nevertheless a good win: boosting our confidence to give us the belief that perhaps this season will be slightly different to seasons past in this tournament.

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A few thoughts on the match and some of its characters:
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Cristina becomes Cristiano Again

It's so much more fun to remember him as Cristiano the scorer of Spectacular goals rather than Cristina the Prima Donna don't you think?
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Going through the comments section in Adam Bader's Real Madrid Talk blog, a ruckus broke out over one of the comments that called out Cristiano for his Bitch Fit antics in the Almeria game... resulting in him being baptized with a far more creative name than the one I bestowed upon him (mine was an uncreative 'Bitch-Naldo): Cristina Ronaldo. I've written on this space about my thoughts on the matter as well as shared them on other blogsites: The essence of my comments have been that if he costs 96 Million Euros (and also has the cheek to say with a straight face that he's indeed worth that much), then he better live up to it. That means spectacular play, lots of goals and absolute professionalism. He failed in the latter category in last weekend's match and deservedly got some stick for it.
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Last night though, Cristina decided to become Cristiano again. He did it all: terrorized the Marseille defense, ran at them, did his flicks and tricks, put in some crosses, and scored 2 goals including a signature RPG (Ronaldo-Propelled-Goal a.k.a. Free Kick). The second goal, though seemingly easy, was a display of alertness and impressive strength and agility: recovering from a three-man collision, a quick and snappy turn and a precise and suave finish to make it a 2-goal lead for us. He just missed a chance for a hat trick when he hit the bar with a header off the corner and chose to pass off to an open Benzema (an apology gift perhaps?) instead of opting to shoot during one exchange, which the Frenchman failed to put away.
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I've been an outspoken critic of his, but I will call a spade a spade: he was hands down the Man of the Match last night. He also demonstrated that he might perhaps be the solution to Real Madrid's knack of dropping its level and losing their focus and concentration after jumping forward with the lead. His desire for the (or his own) 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and so forth.... goal keeps him perpetually blood thirsty which in turn helps keep the entire team's level up out there on the pitch.
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Defense
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Our defense generally held up ok. Last night's defensive performance will be remembered for Albiol's poor clearance, which gifted the ball to Lucho Gonzales, which followed an impressive goal-line clearance. Perhaps the fact that it was his goal that broke the deadlock somehow made up for this error that would've likely never been 'forgiven' by a superior team. I am very happy for him though to have been able to score his first goal in the white shirt. Another notable point to remember would be Casillas' poor judgment that made him see yellow (easily could've been a red) and concede a penalty (and consequently injure the impressive Niang who to me was Marseille's MOTM). The football Gods were with us last night however, as what could easily have been Lucho Gonzales' 2nd goal for the night, smacked the crossbar instead of the top corner of the goal. Great Champions are always the ones blessed with luck and last night, we were blessed with plenty of it.
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Midfield
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It seemed to me like Marseille wanted the game to become a rough, bruising battle in perhaps some effort to rattle Real Madrid? In Sergio Ramos and Lassana Diarra, Real Madrid had 2 players who were happily willing to oblige such a challenge. Lass was a monster as usual and his commanding midfield presence, ability to win balls as well as hold on to the ball while warding of 1, 2, 3 players trying to tackle him almost won the midfield battle on his own. Lass the Little Tank (yet another cheesy nickname from me) was complemented really well by Xabi Alonso who calmly tapped the ball back and forth, finding players surging forward, or offering outlets from his part of the pitch.
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Let me also call out Marcelo, whom I admit I was probably singling out as the target to allow Benzema, Kaka, CR96 and Pipita play together. As a left back, he was quite poor immature because of his gung-ho attitude in attack. As a midfield player however, his pace, technical skills and ball control, coupled with his elementary defending has made him a very useful utility player on the pitch. Able to hold positions, run into space to receive passes as well as use his pace and dribbling to surge forward, he gives a very unique quality to the left side of Madrid's attack. He played ok last night, missing a host of chances to score however.
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Rafael Van Der Vaart also continued his improving vein of form, likely encouraged by the gradually increasing minutes handed to him as well as being handed these opportunities to play in his favored position behind the striker/s. His emergence into the lineup has come well for Real Madrid in lieu of Kaka's injury that will likely keep the '8' for the rest of the year: that means starting berths for the Dutchman against Valencia at the Mestalla (who oddly almost signed him the summer before his move to Madrid) as well as against Zaragoza. I have to say that Rafa has been taking his chance well, slowly winning the confidence and support not only of the training staff, but also the club's supporters (including this critical one) and even (gasp!) the Real Madrid Press (AS's Resident Mad Madridista Tomas Roncero even had words of praise for him in today's 'Contratonica').
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Attack
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While CR96 dazzled us and the world with his great performance, the same however could not be said about the rest of our attacking line. After his Man Of The Match performance against Almeria, leading to my moaning about him not being given the respect he deserves, Pipita completely embarrassed me with an absolutely mediocre performance. One odd thing that I’ve noticed in this particular match however, is the frequency by which he ended up with the ball on the left side of the Madrid flank: a position I realize he looks very uncomfortable in.
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Benzema marked his return to his home country amidst a hail of boos likely out of the trauma he has subjected the Marseille fans to during his past years with Lyon. And while we saw him make some absolutely menacing runs at the Marseille defense, his night ended with the memory of squandering a perfectly good one-on-one with a keeper served to him on a silver platter by a not-normally-generous CR96.
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Nevermind Raul, whose most significant anecdote comes form his reunion with old friend Fernando Morientes in the warm up area…
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Other Random Notes on the Match
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Double Diarra
For the first time this season, we saw a the Double Diarra midfield, though we didn’t get to see them at their most destructive given that Diarra V1.0 came in with the game already won. I’d still like to see it one day in unleashing the ‘counter attack from hell’ to be led by CR96, Kaka, Benzema & Pipita…
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Sponsorless Uniforms

Real Madrid Old School: I'm wondering where I can buy such Jerseys...
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Let me just say that the boys looked very impressive and imperiously legendary in those LITERAL all-white kits (without the shirt sponsor's logo)… a throwback to the days of Di Stefano & Puksas’ all-conquering teams… here’s to hoping to achieve those same results in this season’s Champions League!
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We're off now to the elimination round of the Last 16: a hurdle we haven't gotten over in quite a few years: Roma, Bayern, Liverpool, who will it be this year... maybe it's just some crazy club-wide psychosis, but now we must REALLY get over this next hump.
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Now comes the hard part.

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