Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Good Try


It was nice to see Diarra V1.0 on the pitch again. He grew into the game as the match wore on and put in a pretty good performance
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At the end of last Saturday’s match against Racing, Mourinho chose to talk about the Copa Del Rey instead of basking in the glory of the massacre of Racing Santander at the hands of his team. He declared that those who dared to fail at the task at hand would be branded as ‘dead to him’.
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Jose Mourinho however is not the first coach who talked up the importance of the Copa Del Rey. We’ve heard that script so many times before: harping about how a team like Real Madrid owes itself, its fans and its history to put in the effort to win the Cup… only to be humiliated at the hands of a third division team… to the likes of Real Union Irun and Alcorcon.
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Mourinho however truly was dead serious, putting on his quintessential ‘I know all about it face’ to the press… spouting out the much forgotten fact that the last time we won the Copa Del Rey, current Director for whatever Emilio Butragueno was still playing and scored one of the winning goals 17 years ago… and that it wasn’t normal for a club of Madrid’s stature to have failed to win it for so long. He was right too of course.
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But I suppose that’s the thing about Real Madrid and the Copa Del Rey. Judging from the glut of talent that we perpetually have in the squad, putting together a starting XI capable of beating a third division side would have been easy. As it stood, Real Madrid’s second XI would have looked like this:
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--------------- Dudek ---------------
--Lass - Albiol - Mateos - Arbeloa --
--------- Diarra - Granero ----------
Pedro Leon – Canales – Juan Carlos
------------ Benzema ---------------
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I’ve slotted Lass in at RB with Arbeloa at LB given the fact that Marcelo is the squad’s only true Left Back. To partner with the recently-promoted-from-Castilla Mateos, is Albiol – an automatic starter for us last season and all of a sudden, the poor guy hasn’t played a game all season following a summer without any playing time at the World Cup. Pedro Leon and Canales are would then be supplemented with Juan Carlos from Castilla at midfield with Benzema as the lone striker. It’s a lineup that’s easily good enough to beat a third division side, but it was clear that even this wouldn’t do for Mourinho.
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He instead chooses to go with Casillas in goal and equip his attack with the team’s best outfield player too:
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----------- Casillas -----------
- Ramos-Pepe-Albiol-Arbeloa -
------- Diarra – Granero -------
Pedro Leon – Canales – Ronaldo
---------- Benzema -------------
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The now-fit Ramos slotted in at RB (given Lass’ illness) while Pepe remained at the middle to partner with Albiol at the middle – while Marcelo was rested to give Arbeloa the LB spot. The Khedira-Xabi Alonso tandem of utility player and passer was replicated by Diarra and Granero behind Pedro Leon, playing as a true winger in Di Maria’s place, while Canales gave Ozil a ‘vacation’ to complement Cristiano Ronaldo who was kept in the starting XI in Mourinho’s hope that the Portuguese Winger’s pathological obsession to win would rub off on his teammates. The biggest talking point of all was of course Karim Benzema – who gave Higuain some much deserved-minutes to rest on the bench: it was to be his ‘trial’ to prove himself worthy of the badge on his shirt. The outcome of the match however was disappointing (but not the disaster that many are calling it). Had we taken a lead or get a 2 goal cushion, I’m pretty sure that we’d have seen Mateo come on or some other Castilla player.
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The match started off tentatively for Madrid, where the XI on the pitch reminded us quickly that this wasn’t the side that had scored 18 goals in their last 4 matches. Early pressing by Murcia kept us on the back foot with the play-it-safe Diarra repeatedly sending the ball back to his defenders. We did grow in to the game however as we started to find our feet at midfield with Diarra growing in stature as the game progressed and Granero showing some activity in the midfield to feed our front players. It wasn’t too long however before flashes of our dull draw to Levante began to flicker in my mind.
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There were no problems in keeping them at bay when Murcia came forward because of Diarra’s ball recovery, coupled with Pepe’s strong form and Albiol showing us all that he doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Our DM and defense ensured that Casillas was wrong not to bring a newspaper and a lounge chair with him to his goal to kill off boredom as the 90 minutes of the match wore on. The problem once again however was the front4 who began to look like the same front 4 that started the season and had everyone yawning.
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The challenge that is now being faced by this ‘second team’ after their debut is the same as that of the ‘first team’ when the season kick-started: how to get past the massed-up opposing defense into the goal. It took the first team a few weeks to work as a team in applying the key principles that facilitated a smooth offensive game:
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-Efficient and quick ball recovery at the opponents’ third of the pitch or at the very least, the midfield
-Quick exit of the ball from midfield to attack
-Constant off-the ball movement to create chaos and destroy the opponents’ team shape and marking system
-Interplay between the front 4 usually through inverted wingers while crosses from the outer edges of the pitch will come from the fullbacks.
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It’s taken about 5 games for the ‘first team’ to get the hang of it and when they did, the effects were devastating. The obstacles that this second unit is facing make it a bit complicated though:
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-Few in the world can match Xabi Alonso’s ability to think on the fly while spraying passes across the pitch near AND far.
-The Second Team play with Pedro Leon, a true winger who prefers to play beside the touchline to unleash crosses to a target man-type striker: a very different player from Benzema. If we had a Fernando Llorente in that box, we’d have scored 4 last Tuesday.
-Benzema ‘s work rate continues to be poor: very little pressing when we don’t have the ball and very few off-the-ball runs to free himself or his teammates.
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Running off the ball is a particularly critical for teams like Madrid who are expecting to win but are faced with teams usually content with a draw. For attacking players, this is where the team mentality becomes critical: off the ball runs regardless of whether one will receive the ball or not are critical because it opens up space for one’s other teammates as defenders are rendered confused and lose their shape and control over their marking systems. It takes effort and doesn’t always guarantee goals for everyone: this is the precise reason why Mourinho hailed Pipita in his explanation on why Benzema has had to warm the bench thus far: ‘Pipita runs, applies pressure, makes himself available, he assists, he scores goals…’ Benzema must wake up, learn and embrace this concept to open the field up for his teammates and find spaces for himself to score as well.
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Benzema wonders when it will all come good for him. We're all wondering the same thing too.
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He was supposed to be the star in this match but clearly wasted the golden opportunity to prove his credentials and his 35m Euro pricetag. Looking back, I can still remember at the disappointment I felt when we purchased Huntelaar because I thought that it effectively killed off our chances to get Benzema (whom I wanted in the team even moreso than David Villa). It’s hard to look back at those times and see what Benzema has done so far with his opportunity to become the world’s best striker. I shook my head in deep dissappoinment in unison with the majority of Madridisimo upon seeing Pipita come on for him at the 62’. It was essentially Mourinho saying ‘enough of this give-the-second-string-guys-a-chance… let’s win this thing now!’ In a squad where the greedy-for-attention Ronaldo and the greedy-for-goals Higuain are learning to get along, where Ozil’s unselfishness, and Di Maria’s has his manager imploring the Bernabeu’s 80,000 to applaud him for his selflessly effective and brilliant play… It is one Karim Benzema whose talent is being corrupted by his apathy and lethargy is fast becoming its biggest disappointment.
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In the end, it was 0-0. The result was disappointing indeed… but make no mistake about it, this was very different from the team that faced Alcorcon and the one that ultimately capitulated to Real Union Irun. This instead was a very similar side to the one held to blunt, goalless draws at Mallorca and Levante: a side lacking just that bit of sharpness but one that shouldn’t be faulted for the lack of trying… all except for one.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Mourinho’s Monster


Real Madrid have become an 11-headed hydra on the pitch: swallowing their opponents whole. 4.5 goals/game in the last 4 matches. The biggest head of this 11-headed monster has thus far been Ronaldo
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Last Tuesday, as the referee blew the final whistle in our commanding win (despite the fluke-ish goals) over AC Milan, the Sky Sports announcers covering the match, Gerry Armstrong & Rob Palmer ended the match
with a haunting statement that should have echoed across the Spanish Countryside and across the European continent: ‘What a monster Jose Mourinho is building here in Madrid.’ They said
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Tactics: a pointless Back 5 against Madrid’s hungry Four-some
Last night, Miguel Angel Portugal, back at Racing Santander after Madrid’s Calderon-Mijatovic and Schuster catastrophe visited the Bernebeu and SEEMED to understand that they were about to face: “We might have to make this ugly…’ he threatened, seemingly aware of the firepower and the now-clicking awesome foursome of Di Maria-Ozil-Ronaldo-Higuain is capable of. Last night, as the team sheet came on: Racing Santander did send that “we’re not afraid it this turns ugly” message: with a formation featuring a 5-man backline.
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10 minutes into the match however, it became very clear that Racing’s supposedly fearsome 5-man backline was a tactic that reeked of pubescent naiveté. With their backline, deployed high up the pitch the Argentine-connection clicked into gear with Di Maria finding Higuain with a long looping pass that made Xabi Alonso feel like a proud father. Pipita then gamely beat the high backline, whose combination of naïve positioning and poor communication made their joke of an offside trap easily beatable: the outcome was a typically clinical Pipita finish: the kind we saw plenty of times last season.
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Tactics and Team Attitude: the fate of a team that concedes an early goal against THIS Madrid
Once again, the early opening goal was the key factor: being one up, Real Madrid gamely dared Racing (much like Milan) to have a go at them: only to be trapped at midfield with a combination of a Pepe surging forward and the front 4 collapsing on the Racing midfield to win the ball back. The story then repeats itself a few times: a quick exit of the ball upon winning it back… funneling it to a forward player who would then create a goal-scoring opportunity: With the 2nd and 3rd goals being of an identical nature: Pipita / Ozil receiving the ball at the wings and unleashing a cross to an oncoming Cristiano Ronaldo.
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The astonishing bit about this game that we are seeing more and more with this Real Madrid team is the team attitude: Pipita and CR7 entrenching themselves in the box to defend corners and free kicks and even the forward players are looking for each other in open play to create scoring chances. Most of all, last night, we saw a full 90 minutes of intensity and aggression against their opponents. It was that killer instinct of wanting to go for that 4th, 5th, 6th goal and some more that was impressive about this Madrid side last night. This is the Real Madrid that the Bernabeu and madridisimo at large had always wanted to see.
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Ronaldo’s Form & Attitude
Cristiano Ronaldo now looks like the player who scored 42 goals in one season with Manchester United. This is not to say that he had a bad season the last time around though: this year however, after killing off his early goal-scoring anxieties, Ronaldo looks comfortable, confident and with no insecurities: the kind of insecurities that frustrated his teammates and fans alike. This is the reason why he seems to trust his teammates more and is now much less likely to hog the ball or take an ill-advised shot. His decision-making in picking out a pass, making a run or going for goal has remarkably improved. Best of all, his efforts on the pitch for his tireless running get rewarded as well. Last night’s 4 goals were all scored via chances with which his teammate created for him: he didn’t have to beat 5 men with a mazy dribble or with his feints and stopovers…. He only needed to stick to his coach’s game plan and put in the requisite effort to enjoy his best goal-scoring night in his professional career: 4 goals (could’ve been more!).
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Even the intangibles of his play andhis reactions showed a very different Ronaldo: Ronaldo’s reaction to his goals was a surprise: running off to hug his teammates for the goals-on-a-silver-platter that his teammates have laid out for him. He still did that ridiculous ‘tit-squeeze’ goal celebration of his. To top it off, he was actually chasing after Pipita to celebrate the opening goal. Is this a sign that the 2 can actually learn to get along and form the strike partnership that we’ve all craved to see? The big shock however was his comments postgame where he gave all the plaudits to his teammates: Full marks to Mourinho for what he has done for these 2.
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"This is the first time I score four goals in a game as a professional player. My team-mates served me every ball I got and all I had to do was push them into the goal. They should be congratulated because they all played a great game tonight." said Ronaldo.
The only missing bit in Ronaldo's game is his free-kick taking. He scored off one last Tuesday, but that was mre down to idiotic defending from Milan than his skill.
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… Now, if only he can get his free kick to get over those defensive walls… hahaha.
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Pipita’s, he of the I-want-to-be-Pichichi-every-season, also had a remarkably impressive and mature postgame response:
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“I don't care who is the competition's top scorer as long as he is a Real Madrid player. I am very happy for Ronaldo and for the entire team. We have the least scored upon goalkeeper and we are playing rather well. I always work for the team and I must do my job."
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Next Up, Copa Del Rey
Next up, Real Madrid travel to Murcia to play in the Copa Del Rey. It will be a perfect opportunity for us to vanquish the ghosts of Alcorcon and for the likes of Granero, Lass, Canales, Pedro Leon and Benzema to show us all that they are indeed good enough to be in the squad and a second look on their chances to get into the first XI or not. Mourinho has already issued out his warning to the squad:
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"...It is a very important game to me. If last year’s situation repeats itself, I will cross those who play off my list because they will be dead to me."
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Judging from last night’s performance however, if Real Madrid can manage to repeat this performance, it will be Murcia who will be dead to all of us.
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p.s. I’m sorry if I wasn’t able to comment on the AC Milan game. Been very busy last week…

Monday, October 18, 2010

5 Thoughts and a Reaction


Getting Jiggy With It: Ozil wonders why Ronaldo is celebrating with Marcelo when the pass and all the hard work of opening the Malaga defense came from him.
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It’s hard to wake up from the state of ‘hibernation’ that the international break puts me through… as of yesterday morning, despite last Saturday’s nifty performance (coupled with a nice scoreline), my blogging brain was still in hibernation (it also has to do with the fact that I finally got my hands on FIFA 11 for my PSP). But anyway, here come the thoughts from last Saturday.
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First Thought: Wow: 10 goals in 2 matches
While I found myself urging caution from the dangers of euphoria in my last commentary post following the 6-1 annihilation of Depor, it might be a bit more difficult to do it again following last Saturday’s clinical performance against Malaga. It was a no-fuss, non-epic, nonchalant dismissal of a Malaga side that was supposed to be a potential banana-skin match at their ground.
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Don’t get me wrong: Malaga was great: they fearlessly had a go at us: using pacy attacking players Rondon and Quincy (what a great signing!) to put us on the backfoot. In the end, our Portuguese Central Defensive pairing that combined pace + athleticism (Pepe) with intelligence and anticipation (Carvalho) kept Casillas safe. Having said that however, it became clear that even the ‘conservative’ Arbeloa had his hands full with the pacey Rondon… and before anyone wonders what would’ve happened had Sergio Ramos been on the pitch, I’d have to say this: he’d have been carded or would have hurt someone had he been on given his propensity for the balls-out challenges.
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Second Thought: Malaga is looking GOOD
With new cash-rich ownership, despite the fact that the new owners are not in the Chelsea-Man City league of cash-splashers, we might now be looking at La Liga’s next Villarreal: a ‘solid’ club with sound spending principles who bring good talent and is capable of being reasonably competitive without jeopardizing its future (think Super Depor). With financial stability, a budget that allows continuity and security (of getting paid their wages) for the players and some spare change for a few modest signings that can turn out to be really good buys (e.g. Quincy), we might be looking at a Europa League team in the next couple of years.
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Third Thought: What life is like with an off-night for the Central
With Malaga constantly knifing vertically through us last Saturday, Xabi Alonso wasn’t able to control to play the role of the Master Conductor last night. Malaga attacked us quickly and gave the Basque midfielder and his Tunisian sidekick too little time to react and get things under control especially early on in the game. Khedira put in a nice energetic performance that even saw him take a vicious long range missile shot from long distance that was only denied by the woodwork. Last night’s performance showed us what a life with an off-color Xabi looks like: a bit porous…
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An overrun midfield usually means that there’s space beyond… of only there’s a way to funnel the ball forward to the front 4. If that can be managed in whatever way, via a ‘carrillero’ play where Khedira can shuttle forward to bring the ball forward or a lateral pass can find a surging fullback (anyone saw that awesome run by Marcelo where he just totally brushed off 2 Malaga players and zipped past another one? Sick move!). Last Saturday, it was the front 4 who showed how truly lethal they could be. And that’s where I go to my…
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Fourth Thought: What happens when the front 4 LOOK FOR EACH OTHER

Mars Attacks! Ozil tore Malaga apart
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Apart from shuttling the ball forward or getting the ball to the front 4 via the fullbacks, one of the front 4 can also drop deep to collect the ball and then start the attack. Few are as good at this role as our half-human, half-Martian no.23: Mesut Ozil. The German international was a terror for the Malaga defense last night: using his pace and verticality to get behind the defense… and when he got beyond them, his first instinct was always to pass. Pacy, vertical, technical and unselfish: what a player.
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Pipita finally showed up with his shooting boots. No tap-ins this time. His first goal showed us all that he is still oozing with confidence by showing us that he did dare take that tricky shot from the tough angle (as his momentum took him away from the ball and the goal) on a first touch from Cristiano’s looping cross. His 2nd was a more ‘traditional’ Pipita finish, playing off the shoulder of the last defender, latching onto a lead pass and scoring with a clinical finish.
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Cristina & Pipita: They could make an Awesome Twosome... If they want to
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Cristiano Ronaldo is of course hands down the Man of the Match (and Madridista of the Match too of course): 2 goals and 2 assists. Both of his goals were created by Ozil (a penalty won by Ozil and a neat pass after carving open the entire Malaga defense) while his 2 assists were for Pipita: putting to rest (likely for the only meantime) the rumblings that the 2 don’t like each other. After the match, he cheekily denied the ‘allegations’ of his anxiety to score despite the fact that it was so obvious. Last Saturday, he walked onto the pitch having scored for Madrid against Depor and for Portugal in the Euro qualifiers and was devoid of anxiety or insecurity that he claimed he never had. He played with a clear mind and a steady sense of self-confidence. He looked for his teammates in open play and didn’t try to win the match on his own. It was a performance that stood above his teammates, yet one where he played TOGETHER with his team. It was a Cristiano Ronaldo we had all dreamed of seeing.
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Fifth Thought: The subs’ level vs. their potential
Peter Lion finally stepped into the game after the media circus that came out of his supposed tussle with Mourinho post-Levante. It was a great sign for the team: showing Mourinho as a man who knows how to give a lesson and send a message to a squad member without bearing a grudge. Pedro Leon on the other hand, turned in a good performance – looking dangerous on Madrid’s right flank.
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Wonder boy Sergio Canales was next. He’s finally back from his injury. His entrance into the match got a ‘he’s cute’ from my wife, which she later tried to indirectly take back with a ‘… in a Backstreet Boy kinda way.’ Canales did look like a Backstreet Boy with his new haircut and looked even moreso as it really did seem like he’s still lacks the physical strength to keep up with the big boys on the pitch. Giving the wonderkid minutes however is an investment for the team that I’m sure will pay off.
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Finally, third off the bench was Karim Benzema, who was coming off a goalscoring performance for France. The problem was that he turned in an ineffectual performance, doing little and showing the necessary sense of urgency one would expect from a man who was supposed to be hard at work to crack the starting XI. He got 2 great chances: blowing the first one by hesitating to take a shot with his right foot (by the time he got it to his favored left foot, the chance had gone) while completely missing a sitter served to him by Ozil. This has gotten frustrating to the point of me finding myself daydreaming about a cash + player deal for Rooney over the rumor mill cranking up in England. Uff.
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My Final Reaction: Salivating and with my drool frothing up for tomorrow’s Milan Encounter.
Benzema aside, I just CANNOT wait for us to meet Milan at the Bernabeu tomorrow. A great old rival in Europe who we couldn’t manage to beat last season… 2 assholes in their team: an ex-Barca player who likes to kick his own teammates and an ex-Madrid player who has no idea what the definition of gratitude is. I can’t wait to see Mourinho’s men to smash their faces in.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Prophecy? Not.


Xabi Alonso played the role of 'Master Conductor' Last Night
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5 before last Sunday’s match, after the Champions League Match against Ajax, Jose Mourinho proudly declared (and I paraphrase): “One day, some poor team is going to pay for all the chances we’ve missed today.” We all looked forward to it over and over again and got miserably disappointed… until last night.
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It turns out that the poor team Mourinho was talking about was Deportivo La Coruna.
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Last night, Real Madrid had finally put on the performance of Mourinho’s and Madridisimo’s dreams: a full-on attacking display built on a rock-solid defense and midfield. After a week of much unnecessary controversy due to Pedro Leon’s exclusion from the Auxerre Champions League game as well as Mourinho’s subsequent decision to conduct the training sessions prior to last Sunday night’s match behind closed doors, Madridistas around the world finally have been able to experience the cathartic event of seeing their beloved football team bang in more than the requisite 1-0 scoreline. Nevermind that the opposition was the fossilized remains of what we all used to fondly call ‘Super Depor’ (they’re more like ‘Sucker Depor’ these days)… when you go down 0-0 to Levante, hammering yet another hapless club with 6 goals will still feel like you’ve just done something REALLY huge. Besides, Barca only managed a point against Mallorca who were visiting them (our dropped points to the islanders were on their turf).
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Needless to say, despite the great football and the great scoreline, Mourinho actually didn’t do all that much to this side as compared to how his teams have played so far this season. He lined up what looks to be the first choice-formation and possibly first-choice starting XI for this team tonight (a 4-2-3-1):
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----------- Casillas -------------
Ramos-Pepe-Carvalho-Marcelo
----- Khedira-Xabi Alonso -----
---- Di Maria-Ozil-Ronaldo ----
------------ Higuain -------------
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Last night, the team took on its now-characteristic rock-solid defense and combined it with a well-tuned Central Midfield. Xabi Alonso seemed to have the room to dictate play from deep with Khedira running about tirelessly to do all the dirty work. The half-tunisian German International is actually a pretty awkward looking midfielder. With his height and built giving him what appears to be a pretty high center of gravity, his running about on the pitch making tackles, winning balls and shuttling back and forth and side to side make him appear awkward. Having said that however, his work rate and blue-collar style of play, coupled with his slightly more –creative passing game (compared to say… Lass) make him a good choice as Xabi Alonso’s partner-in-crime.
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The fullbacks once again played a crucial role in the game: Sergio Ramos this time however, played a far more mature game, this time not being beaten by his man, despite that man being Depor’s usual main wing threat: Andres Guardado. It was Marcelo who showed us this time again that he’s still not quite the finished article: being beaten twice late in the game after failing to track / mark his man: with the second instance gifting the goal to Depor while risking himself to get sent off and further suspended with a Luis Suarez-esque volleyball slap on the ball.
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With more space, better interplay between the attacking 4 was much easier.
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The biggest impact on this game clearly came from the front 4 of Di Maria, Ozil, Cristiano Ronaldo & Higuain, each of them getting a goal (CR7 got 2), assisting each other for the most part to create these chances. Euphoria however should be something that we should all watch out for (perhaps it’s a good thing there’s an international break to cool things down a bit) as one must note that most critical milestone of the game: the opening goal at 4’ to give us the 1-0. I was in fact Casillas who said: “The key was to score early in the game"”
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With a lead to chase, Depor didn’t give us the same 10-men-behind-the-ball defensive ploy when we had the ball. They were also eager to push forward in the early part of the game even while our front 4 pressed them. In fact, it was only when we started to relax on our pressing that they began to get comfortable pushing further and further forward. It was through this that we won the opportunity to score again: with swift counterattacks as evidenced by Pipita laying off a ball for Ozil who, for a, while, looked like he’d let that chance go to waste by delaying too long with the ball, before proving us wrong with a shot that hit the post and into the goal. The third goal was also off a counter-attacking move, this time through the Argentinean connection of the team, so was the 6th (off a super long ball from Xabi Alonso). And ditto for the 4th goal where Pipita did look offside.
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Another positive note to the game as a result of this was Juan Carlos’ debut in the Bernabeu. The Canterano, contrary to Mourinho’s suspicion (Mou reportedly asked him ‘are you shitting your pants?’ before asking him to warm up)
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Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in anyway, playing down the good points of the team… all I’m saying is that we should all weigh this match with 2 basic thoughts in our minds:
1.) That we played against a poor team
2.) That we had scored an early goal which allowed us to play on the counter and take advantage of the spaces they left behind them as they tried to get back into the game.
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Mourinho’s post-game reaction was in my opinion, as brilliant as it was surprising:
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"We are not the best team in the world yet for having beaten Depor 6-1," Mourinho declared. "We are under construction and neither the result nor the applause of the fans makes me think our work is done. The work continues. I am very calm. We have a lot to do and a lot of work.”
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Mourinho's 'humility' might also actually be to keep control of the Euphoria of the Madrid media
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Instead of basking in the glory of his convincing victory, as if to tell the critics ‘in your face!’, Mourinho, stunned us all with his humility. It was however a calculated exercise in humility as he likely knew that he was still some way from getting this type of result and performance from almost every game… he also probably understood the circumstances that unfolded during the course of last Sunday’s game that made it seem to be convincing. His reaction also sends a message to Madridisimo: don’t be too euphoric about this win; we won’t always win this way.
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So was this Mourinho’s prophecy? I think not. And I think he knows it too…

Friday, October 1, 2010