Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A VERY NICE Article on El Kapitan

Original Article Here

Raul is Real Madrid's man for all seasons
Outside Real Madrid's Bernabeu, they were handing out a free newspaper bearing the front page declaration 'Raul es Eterno'.
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(By Ian Chadband in Madrid)
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Inside, the man himself was busy simply proving the headline writer's point.
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For around these parts, Raul Gonzalez Blanco really does seem everlasting; a living, breathing, scoring monument to Real Madrid's glory.
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And like all monuments, sometimes he can be taken for granted. And sometimes his admirers will even forget what they ever saw in an ageing relic.
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Then, all of a sudden, maybe with a crucial goal or perhaps the annexation of another extraordinary club landmark, he will remind them and it dawns again why they cannot quite bear to be without him.
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So it has been this past fortnight as the occasionally invisible legend of 'El Siete' – the blessed No 7 – has been dusted down and allowed to soar again.
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Almost standing as a symbol of Madrid's rejuvenation under Juande Ramos these past two months, Raul's surpassing of Alfredo Di Stefano's venerated club goalscoring record has knitted the past to an exciting future.
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At the weekend before the game against Betis, the Bernabeu may have cheered his name just a little louder than usual but there was no great pomp. As they have done for 15 seasons, they just watched the quiet one disappear and then wake them up on cue like a genie.
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Perhaps it was a mirage but it really did feel as if he touched the ball just three times. Once to perfectly cushion a header to facilitate the opening goal; once to sweep an instantaneous left-footed strike from the D into the net; and once to lob the keeper with an exquisite chip which made a nonsense of the idea that this great goalscorer cannot actually also score great goals.
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So it was now 311 for Madrid and counting. Maybe on Wednesday, to go with his all-time record of 44 for the Spanish national team, he will take his all-time European Cup record beyond 64 when desperate Liverpool come calling.
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Rafael Benitez needs no warning that Raul could be his season's ultimate assassin. "From the first day I saw him I knew he was going to be a success," said the Anfield manager, recalling his days as Real Madrid's reserve team manager when this 17-year-old Atletico Madrid supporter made the briefest of stopovers before racing into the first team.
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Benitez still sees the same "charismatic player with a huge heart and a personality which rubs off on others". So, while the extravagant gifts of Gonzalo Higuain and Arjen Robben must preoccupy him, it is the totemic value of Raul which concerns him more for it reminds him of his own Steven Gerrard.
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Yet while Gerrard has been colossal for a decade, he has nothing on Raul in the one-man, one-club pantheon. If there was a Mount Rushmore for current footballing wonders, Raul, on 686 appearances for Madrid, would have to be chiselled out alongside Paolo Maldini (890 for Milan over 24 years), Ryan Giggs (789 for United over 18) and perhaps Juventus's Alessandro Del Piero (589 for Juventus over 15).
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Only next to the defender supreme, the dazzling winger and the artist, wouldn't Raul be the Teddy Roosevelt figure, the one you can never quite remember? Because beyond his kingdom in Madrid, maybe it will always be Raul's lot to have people mutter that they have never quite seen what all the fuss was about.
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He is good, they will concede, but he never did stir the blood like, say, his old galactico pals, Zidane and Ronaldo. No electric burst of pace, could not dribble, no spectacular thunderbolt shot. You would never say he was the best in the world, would you?
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Except Alex Ferguson famously did after Raul sliced through United in the Bernabeu in 2003. Fergie saw fancier and flashier players but wondered who on earth was more effective, more industrious and who else always had the knack of being in the right place at the right time? It is why Raul is a players' player.
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The irony of Ferguson's blessing, though, was that it preceded a bout of appendicitis which appeared to be the trigger for Raul's career to plummet for a couple of seasons to the point where the goals dried up and he pondered quitting in 2005 if it was what the fans and the club wanted.
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They did not want it, of course. Raul had become too much of an institution there, politically powerful too. Only then, though, did they rediscover the secret of his excellence – that bloody-minded, almost obsessive professionalism which meant he would embrace anything from cryotherapy to kipping in oxygen tents if he felt it could rejuvenate and prolong his career.
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And so, a bit like David Beckham, only with a quite un-Becks-like aversion to the swirl of celebrity, he thieves on, happy to play in a deeper, more versatile role if required but back to pinching goals at will, 19 all told now this term.
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He never was as supreme a player as the matchless Di Stefano but maybe time will pronounce that his greatness lay in a consistency of excellence which will be laid out starkly before us in the record books.
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Heck, he has been around for ever but he is still only 31 and even Alfredo himself reckons his successor could end up with 450 goals. Raul just shrugs that, yes, he may have two, three more years in him. And a hell of a lot more, they laugh in Madrid; why else would they call him the Everlasting One?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

2009-02-21: Real Madrid 6 - Real Betis 1

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...

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Day in a Life Without Robben

Have We Finally Discovered how to Live without Robben?
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I'm not really VERY sure as to why I've been gone from the past few weeks for my 'thoughts and commentaries' bit for this blog. Maybe it's because of the few personal milestones in my life that have taken place recently, or the insanity at work the last few weeks... Or it was just me going about, calm (over our 8 game winning streak with only one goal conceded) but bored over our stale play and seemingly hopeless dependence on the Glassman.
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Last night's 4-0 win over Sporting Guijon was a great relief though I have to say. We scored 4 goals and were utterly convincing in our play. It was the kind of commanding performance that the team needed to put in and the fans needed to see: including myself, feeling now like I've been zapped with a thunderbolt to hop back onto the keyboard to talk about my thoughts on the team.
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Tactical Flexibility and Dynamism from Juande
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With every game played by this team under Juande, I am beginning to really respect and look up to the man. Not that I thought he was no good before (I've always admired his Sevilla side), just that I never regarded him as a top, top class manager. But as things go on with this team, he's going higher and higer up my respect rankings. He is showing a very skillfull tactical sensibility that allows the team to adopt in a dynamic manner to the situations presented to them: in this case, the loss of all players from whom supposedly all the offensive creativity was supposed to come from: Guti, Sneijder (injured playmakers), Robben (our only 'crack' lost through injury as predicted to happen at some point) and Van Der Vaart (lost though suspension).
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309 Goals and Counting: Raul's legend continues
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Last night, we saw Madrid start with their favored defense (Ramos, Cannavaro, Pepe and Heinze), and central midfield (Gago & Lass) while Juande tweaked his 4-4-2's attack to fit a left back and 3 strikers. Marcelo played in a straightforward manner as a Left Winger while we found Raul and Higuain perpetually switching roles in the hole: where Raul was astonishingly effective, and Higuain was just an absolute pain in the ass for the Sporting Defense. Nevermind that we lost our right wing presence: Sergio Ramos surged forward to put in some absolutely dangerous crosses: 1 which almost led to a Higuain goal (he missed), another to give Raul is 308th goal (congrats to El Kapitan!) and another for Huntelaar's disallowed goal (which looked totally onside to me). The adjustments made by Juande were subtle, within his 4-4-2 and astonishingly effective.
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His substitutions also created dynamic situations for the switching of positions. Torres comes in for Heinze at Left Back on a straight swap. Then Javi Garcia for Gago as another straight swap... then finally we see Parejo come in for Sergio Ramos: as I began to scratch my head over the prospect of Juande going with 3 at the back, Marcelo withdrew to left back, Torres switched to Right back to allow Parejo to come in as the attacking left sided midfielder. This guy knows his stuff and I say we deserve a title for it. A dramatic La Liga comeback would be almost just as great as a 10th European Cup.
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Marcelo convinced a lot of Madridistas last night.... including me. .
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Ok, I admit it: Marcelo ain't bad as a Left Sided Midfielder
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By halftime, I was still a skeptic over the Brazilian. He did raid the left side of midfield, but he rarely crossed, often forced to pass it to the center where a 'reset' of the offense would almost always be possible. In the second half, his defender finally gave him running space: and paid for it dearly with a cracker of a goal. On another occasion where his defender let him get past, he found Marcelo making a decent cross in. Maybe there's hope yet. The kid ran his socks off. So from this space, I have to admit it: he played a great game (perhaps his best so far in a Real Madrid shirt) and I applaud him for it (and congratulate him for his first Real Madrid goal). More of those types of performances and we'll be able to breathe easier knowing that we have a few more backups from the wings in this team.
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Super Lass and Gago
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Lass and Gago were absolute monsters out there last night: they just swallowed the Sporting midfield whole. Lass's energy is amazing: an absolute attack dog at midfield. His ability to run and harass anyone not wearing a Real Madrid shirt with the ball is astounding. Gago on the other hand, is turning out to be an absolutely elegant Central midfield organizer. simple passes, long passes, short passes, keeping play live.... a lifeline at the midfield. I have no idea how Guti will fit into this midfield once he's back... maybe he needs to compete with Sniejder for that spot. But I'll say this now: we shouldn't mess around with the midfield anymore: This is it. Lass and Gago. Monster Midfield.
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I would however say that our great play was not only because of the midfield: it was also due to how we used our attacking players. It's been a long time since I saw Raul drop off deeper to midfield to many times to initiate and link play. I suppose it helps if you have Huntelaar in there too... playing the '9', holding the ball up and keeping the centerbacks of Sporting busy. To make things ever better, Higuain would do this too... his range of movements was much more considerable though: drifting left, right, running at the centers. Perhaps the only injustice of the night is for Higuain to not score.
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Rock solid defense
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I can't really talk about the game if I didn't talk about our defense. Pepe and Cannavaro were both outstanding in just erasing anything that remotely came near Iker's goal. I'm happy to see him get a day off.
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I'm REALLY Happy the Hunter has opened his White Goal Scoring Account
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Huntelaar
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Finally, I am happy to see Huntelaar open his account too. I expect him to be out there for 90 minutes against Betis since we won't be seeing him in the Champions League vs. Liverpool. The goal (even the disallowed one) will give him the much needed confidence that a striker needs to finally debut as a starter in the Bernabeu and make his place in the team even more firm.
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As the Red Train of Liverpool approaches the Bernabeu, I'm happy to see that while we get our best guns ready for them, we are now finding small but effective pieces to use for the La Liga campaign (as we optimistically wait for Barca to drop more points). Life without the Glassman has not proved unlivable as most had predicted. As the verdiblancos of Betis approach, a revived Marcelo and the Hunter awaits them... as does a few new tricks up our sleeve. Let's hope for the best.