Wednesday, November 24, 2010

All Warmed up for the Clasico

2 Games, 2 wins. 9 Goals. The world awaits the clash of the Spanish Titans at the Camp Nou this coming Monday… and from the looks of it: Real Madrid have cranked themselves into gear for this one.
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Slaying the Lions in the White Coliseum
Cristiano Ronaldo: A Hat Trick Hero Yet Again
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While the Romans used to feed Christians and conquered Barbarian leaders to the Lions for the entertainment of the mob, the show put on display at the Bernabeu was not quite the same, this time it was the White Coliseum’s band of white super heroes slaying the visiting Lions from Bilbao by scoring a ‘manita’ (a 5-goal victory) on them.
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We however, have to give credit where it’s due: it was a deceptive scoreline that included 2 penalties in favor of Real Madrid and one that gave no indication of the difficulty that Bilbao put the team through (Assistant Coach Aitor Karanka had in fact labeled Athletic as the toughest side they’ve faced at the Bernabeu so far). Bilbao pressed and flooded forward and choked our midfield early on in the game and made the men in white very uncomfortable in their own turf.
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It was a classic moment of grit and graft however from the bull-headed Higuain that made the difference for Real Madrid: taking hold of a nifty Di Maria through ball and forcing himself through narrow gap while sandwiched between 2 Bilbao defenders to get into position to make it 1-0 for Madrid. We were then given a glimpse of a Higuain’s early days (when he was just an effective, yet-goal-shy attacker) when his ball forward to start a counter was given a magic, one-touch shine of genius from Alien Attacker Ozil onto the onrushing Cristiano Ronaldo, who made it 2-0 with a nonchalant yet much-more-difficult-than-it-looks finish.
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Passing his Try-out
Indirectly, the game was also a sort of try-out for Real Madrid transfer target Fernando Llorente, who is fast-becoming something of a Spanish Drogba. It is becoming more and more clear now that hulking Spanish Striker should probably be playing his football at a ‘bigger stage’: which explains the rumored interest of the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and even Manchester United in his services.
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It is perhaps not a coincidence that Ricardo Carvalho had one of his poorer games in a Real Madrid shirt. Happy to come to La Liga on Mourinho’s alleged promise of a prolonged professional career because of La Liga’s dearth of powerful, physical strikers, the Portuguese defender struggled against Llorente’s combination of power and skill on the ball. His combination of aerial ability and skills on the ball (he had this moment of brilliance: chesting the ball down, then turning and shooting in one motion) gave Real Madrid’s defenders a busy night. His goal to make it 2-1 made it interesting for a while too….
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Fortitude
In the end, it was Real Madrid’s quintessential fortitude and new-found clever-ness that sealed the game: a sinister fall by Di Maria off the slightest contact in the box made it 3-1 for us off the night’s most controversial occurrence: Sergio Ramos’ penalty, Mourinho’s reaction to it and CR7’s lack of greed to let him take it. The scoreline was of course padded by Ronaldo’s Free Kick (his first this season if I remember correctly) off Iraizoz’s howler and his 3rd, a penalty to complete his hat trick (to match Messi’s).
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Comparisons
There was of course this idiotic exchange in the media and in the blogosphere comparing Barca’s 0-8 vs. Real’s 5-1. Let’s put things into perspective: Almeria are a team battling relegation and struggling under their ex-coach Lillo. Bilbao is a realistic contender for a Europa League spot. ‘Nuff said.
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Winning on the Road with a Semi-Second String Team
Benzema is starting to come good for Real Madrid. Thumbs Up for his performance last night.
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The week’s on-the-pitch preparations (Mourinho’s Psy-Ops vs. the Cules will go on till Monday I’m sure) for El Clasico were wrapped up last night with a win so comfortable for Real Madrid that the world got a pretty accurate glimpse of how far the mighty Ajax has fallen from their Eredivisie and Champions League glory days.
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Real Madrid, with an eye towards the Clasico, rested the free-scoring Higuain, midfield workhorse Khedira and defensive lynchpin Carvalho while also benching the noodle-limbed Di Maria. And despite needing 18 minutes to go behind, the Dutch side was still easily exposed easily as a bungling, clumsy, and sloppy team of Champions League pretenders.
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With a place in the last 16 guaranteed, Mourinho allowed Benzema to start in attack (more on him below). At midfield, Pedro Leon started in Di Maria’s place but struggled and looked clearly off-the-pace – resulting in his substitution for Di Maria in the second half: a clear message from Mourinho that there is no mucking around in this team. Regardless of what the game means in the bigger scheme of things, playing up to standard was a requirement. Lass, on the other hand, starting in Khedira’s place, understood this perfectly. Given a chance to play after his relentless bitching and moaning to the press about his lack of minutes, the Frenchman put in a vintage display. Reminding us of what endeared him to the Bernabeu during Juande’s tenure: he covered lots of ground and won countless balls with tackles and interceptions while keeping it simple when in possession. It was an impressive game of tackle-and-pass, intercept-and-pass for the Frenchman with the Sperm-Whale-shaped head – no elaborate dribbles, no senseless surges forward.
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To cap things off Arbeloa and Albiol started on defense – with Arbeloa having himself a great game with his solid presence on attack and defense which was capped off with a screamer of a goal from 35 yards. Albiol had just an ok game. I was ultimately disappointed however to see Granero miss out – especially after his standout performance against Murcia. A last pleasant anecdote on appearances in the game: David Mateos finally made his first-team and Champions League debut.
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Benzema vs. Suarez
It was also a game of striker vs. striker: in this case Benzema vs. Suarez. It was time to see if the Frenchman’s growing form can be affirmed with a good 90-minute performance following a spate of super-sub performances. For the Uruguayan, it was a great chance to show the world that he was not just a volleyball player (see highlights of his World Cup performance against Ghana) but a genuine top-level striker worthy of the clubs that the rumor mill has been linking him to.
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We found out last night that our suspicions about Benzema might actually be true: he is indeed emerging from his shell: active in attacking exchanges and very much capable of putting chances away. Suarez on the other hand, despite loads of effort to cover long distances for his team was clumsy and sloppy in the final third.
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Mourinho's Evil Plans
You're on Candid Camera! Mourinho tells Dudek of his Evil Plans
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The biggest talking point of that match would now of course have to be the controversial ‘engineered’ sending off of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos – both of whom are terrible actors during their time wasting antics in their bid to get that second yellow card to get themselves sent off. It will in fact be something of a polarizing subject matter.
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On one hand is the rationale behind Mourinho’s ploy: allowing Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso to sit out the last match vs. Auxerre at home and start the round of 16 with a clean slate. The decision to get this booking from time-wasting as opposed to making a bad tackle (to risk injury to yourself and/or another player) or through dissent (which on certain cases might earn you a straight red) was in itself a clever move as well.
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On the other hand is the fact that such acts are essentially unsportsmanlike and in the eyes of many, beneath Real Madrid. Perhaps another dimension to this is how poorly the whole thing was executed as Xabi Alonso’s 3-4 ‘faked’ free kicks clearly looked like he was really trying to get that 2nd yellow. Sergio Ramos’ decision to shake the hand of the ref after seeing red is also as hilarious as it is ridiculous. In the end, this clearly-obvious plan to ‘complete the cycle’ can backfire against Mourinho and the club as all it takes is an attention-seeking, self-righteous clown with some clout to come forward and insist on a retrospective punishment for the guilty. Perhaps it is revealing that even the Real Madrid press, who have elevated Mourinho to God-like status, are frowning upon this.
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We will perhaps debate about this endlessly for days to come and hold our breath for any ‘consequences’ because of this… on top of our present worries of even more punishment for Mourinho because of the firefight he had with Preciado some weeks back.
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In any case, it’s Wednesday noon time here, and I’ve already been asked thrice today in this EPL-crazy country when the El Clasico will be… looks like everyone is looking forward to it. From the last 2 games, it looks like we’re ready. Here’s to hoping that we really are.

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