Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Still Pretenders

We now know what happened in this ridiculously hyped-up duel. It wasn't even close. Mourinho failed and failed miserably on this one. He's NOT Harry Potter. He's either a mere human.... or worse... Voldermort (meaning Pep is Harry?).

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The La Liga table now says Barcelona 34 Points, Real Madrid 32 Points. El Clasico ends Barcelona 5, Real Madrid 0. I’ve heard that such scorelines did take place in the days of betamax, but I never thought I’d live to watch one myself – with Madrid on the losing end. I’d never thought I’d be made to feel this awful about a football match.
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Once again, Cristiano Ronaldo failed to score against Barcelona. Once again, Lionel Messi fails to score against a team of Jose Mourinho. But most importantly, once again, Real Madrid are unable to beat Barcelona – for the fifth straight time. And that’s the part that really hurts. Thus far, no sacking of Bernd Schuster, no emergency hiring of Juande Ramos, no triumphant return of Florentino Perez, No arrival of any player whomever to Real Madrid has been able to stop this Barcelona Juggernaut from crushing us. That they did so in such spectacular fashion tonight with all their biggest Real Madrid figures of hate present (Ronaldo & Mourinho) makes it so much sweeter and more glorious for them.

Those who called this a Messi vs. Ronaldo duel got it wrong. Really Wrong.
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It’s not the loss that bothers me. It’s how spectacularly we failed that does.
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Tactics
I thought about writing on one of the several thousand pieces to breakdown Real Madrid’s keys to victory prior to the match but decided not to after reading one too many of them. Some were very good, while some awful (those of the ‘We will win because we have Mourinho!’-type). My keys to a Real Madrid victory were very simple:
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Point #1: Don’t let Barca do their passing at your third of the pitch: Let them go to town with it at their 3rd or at midfield (forget about having majority possession of the ball), but not in front of Iker’s goal: that’s just asking for it.
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Point #2: Win the ball at midfield and use the pace of Di Maria, Ozil, Cristiano & Pipita to hit Barca on the counter. The parked-at-the-halfway-line Alves & slow-footed Puyol will be vulnerable.
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Pont #3: Points #1 & #2 are dependent of each other. Because holding Barca to a fixed zone can only be done by a combination of relentless pressing and by winning the ball. If you let them have it for long enough on that third of the pitch, they will INEVITABLY move it forward… and closer and closer to your goal.
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What Happened?
Not having Pipita around didn’t make much of a difference in my opinion. I thought Benzema was ok. Not great, but not the frustrating Benzema we all grew to hate this season. So I’m not even going to buy the argument that Pipita’s absence made such a big difference.
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Point #4 One odd thing that Mourinho seems to have done for this game was opt to use Ronaldo and Di Maria as an outside right and outside left, respectively instead of using them as inverted wingers as we’ve seen for most of the season. I can only hypothesize 2 reasons for this:
-Benzema’s tendency to drift to the left. (as opposed to Pipita’s tendency to drift to the right side)
-By positioning Ronaldo and Di Maria in a manner that gave them the tendency to drift wide instead of the center, it allowed Madrid to stretch the field wider to spread Barca’s players across the entire pitch when they pressed Madrid while we had the ball and in a way, give a lag time period for them to ‘contract’ back together again to play their close-range passing game if/when they did win the ball back.
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The First 2 Goals


Xavi was spectacular for Barca. We stopped Messi but we didn't stop him. Messi's an unstoppable player. But he makes Barcelona an unstoppable team.

Ultimately, neither factor made much of a difference as Barcelona was allowed to do what my Point #1 was all about: play their passing game at our third of the pitch. We also happened to concede the goal in the same manner that we conceded out goals for most of the season. A pass / cross from our right side to our left side, being defended by the defensively-shorthanded Marcelo. The second goal, scored by Pedro was something similar, albeit a rebound (also being defended by Marcelo) instead of a shot.
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Our opportunity to get back into the game did come when Barca began to fall back after going 2-0 up (happy and comfortable perhaps?). Cristiano had a legitimate claim to a penalty and had a free kick that wasn’t far from going in as well. Point #4 Comes to mind:
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- Somehow though, my theory about our effectiveness increasing when Ronaldo and Di Maria are used as inverted wingers comes to the fore as both our wingers drifting to the touchline meant longer passes to interplay with Ozil & Benzema – which are easier to intercept and win back for a Barca team very adept at pressing.
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-Cristiano Ronaldo was made to face a defensively stronger Eric Abidal rather than the attack-minded Alves (whom he could have pinned back as well with his presence).
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Ultimately, the closing 15-20 minutes of the first half was an opportunity lost. A goal to make it 2-1 before halftime would’ve changed the face of the game entirely. But it was not to be.
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In my opinion, Point #4 backfired for us.
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2nd Half – The ‘Trivote’ Fails Twice and it’s Game Over
Mourinho did what many thought he’d do in the 2nd half: Stiffen up the midfield by adding Lass into the mix at the expense of Ozil. Despite what looked to be promising signs of keeping things contained within the midfield 3rd of the pitch, eventually our failure to win the ball and do something with it effectively cost us: Barcelona eventually got very comfortable with their possession and used it to generate the momentum to break forward. When David Villa scored the 3rd, I tweeted that only Divine intervention could save us. When Villa scored their Fourth, I knew which side God was on. (Barcelona had fully broken our team’s will by then)… And when Jeffren made it 5-0 despite Mourinho sending in Arbeloa for Marcelo to keep the score respectable… I started to feel like God really wanted to give Mourinho and Madridismo a good whack in the head.
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Keep Your Head, Shut Up & Learn
To add insult to much injury, Sergio Ramos was sent off with a straight Red for his actions in taking his frustrations out (perhaps for being responsible for Jeffren’s goal) on Messi’s leg. These are not the actions of a Real Madrid Vice-Captain. You’ve lost. Keep your head, swallow your pride, watch the game tape and learn.
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Mourinho's failure is so spectacular that not even Juande’s 2-6, Luxemburgo’s 3-0 and Pellegrini’s 1-0 and 2-0 can come close (nevermind the loser Schuster’s 1-0 and 4-1 wins) can match it in its failure.
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He goes on to mention his worry about the psychological impact of such a game on the team and he’s right to worry: getting raped (figuratively of course) by your eternal rival in front of 98,000 of their rabid supporters and in front of several billion people watching it on TV and reading about it for the next few weeks / months will screw your head up pretty good. His pre-game message to his players and to Madridisimo was right on too: tomorrow is still going to be Tuesday, win or lose.
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Losing and losing this way however means there’s a VERY LONG WAY to go for Real Madrid and that things between us and Barcelona are still not quite as close. I can now find myself recalling a discussion in last season’s podcast with Corey Fiske (of Real Madrid – The Offside) where he disagreed with my statement that I was happy to win La Liga even if we failed to beat Barca (he felt that it would have been an ‘empty’ title). I totally get what he means now… This is why Mourinho’s caution of ‘The last time I lost here, I was on my way to the Champions League final.’ is empty to me. Because after a loss like this… Until we beat THIS Barca… We’re all still just Pretenders.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Madridistas Vs. Cules: a Pre-Clasico Discussion

Some Weeks ago, Total Barca's Mike Watton invited me to answer a few questions re: Barcelona and Real Madrid, as a sort of appetizer to tonight's El Clasico. Aside from me, he also invited fellow bloggers Corey Fiske and Jordan Ziehl from the Real Madrid Offside to answer a set of questions alongside his Total Barca co-contributors Emma Cardenas (fast becoming a frequent panelist in our weekly podcast), JM Spencer and Mahmoud Rasmi.
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Here are the answers. It's 12.5 hours to kickoff and I'm bursting at the seams.... unable to think of anything else but the game!
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Anyways, here comes the Q&A:
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QUESTION #1: Take the current rosters of Real Madrid and Barcelona, combine them, and name your starting XI. And also name your manager from Pep and Mou. The formation is your call. Comment on your choices as you see fit (defense-midfield-front, or player-by-player, overall, or whatever).
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Madridista Mac:

Football Fans Know Better
My Fantasy Real Madrid + Barca XI: It's an unrealistic PSP-ish 3-5-2 formation. What the heck: that's why it's called a fantasy XI. There haven't been many comments these past weeks. But if there are readers out there who wish to voice their Fantasy XIs... please share them at the comments section
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Given that this would of course be a ‘Fantasy XI’, it would essentially be a lineup that doesn’t take tactics into consideration: just the best ‘logical’ XI that can be put out there from the list of active players that are available (i.e. Kaka not being considered). So here goes, it’s a 3-5-2: it’s a formation that we’ve seen Mourinho play in the last 2 matches after needing to overcome a deficit.

Casillas
Despite the fact that Valdes is going through a purple patch at the moment, Iker Casillas is still the hands down choice. A better shot stopper and a very good leader.

Alves-Ramos-Pique
There has been much talk about the so-called ‘best fullback in the world’ tag and while the Italian Press and the Madrid press talked a lot about how Maicon is the world’s best fullback (given how he’s kept Alves off Brazil’s starting XI)… but given his age and current form, Alves finally gets to stake his claim as the world’s best fullback. Sergio Ramos is technical, strong, powerful in the air and has pace. He can be a bit unfocused and get carried away when on attack (usually as a fullback) but he’s been great at the Center of Defense. Pique on the other hand is what I like to call ‘The most updated Evolutionary outcome of the Center Back’ – in football’s post-Beckenbauer era where the Centerback’s role has essentially devolved back to being just to make lunging challenges, head crosses away and hack the ball back out to the opponents’ half. Pique is the most complete central defender on the planet… the next ‘evolutionary step’ for Sergio Ramos: aside from offering strength, speed, power, an aerial presence and technical ability, Pique offers playmaking qualities with his vision and even gives his team a legitimate goal threat in open play (rare among CBs).

Xabi Alonso – Xavi
My Central Midfield would be essentially Spain’s World Cup-winning passing axis. I’ve openly admitted my admiration and my belief that this year’s Balon d’ Or belongs to Xavi. Xavi provides the pulse and tempo of the team, prodding the ball forward to the attackers or retreating back to and lookout for holes in the opposing defense. Xabi Alonso offers a bit of tackling (more of ball interceptions in recovering the ball) along with multi-range passing, and organization on the pitch. Neither Barca nor Madrid would be anywhere near where they are in their supremacy without these 2. Any fantasy team for Barca and Real Madrid that excludes one of these 2 is a travesty in my opinion.

Di Maria – Iniesta – Ronaldo
The attacking portion of the midfield is where the conflict lies in the selection headache. First in would of course be Cristiano Ronaldo for very obvious reasons.

Then perhaps, the closest thing there would be to a ‘surprise’ in my selection would be Angel Di Maria who has impressed me very much. The Argentine plays as a classic ‘outside left’ for the National Team and did the same for Benfica, using his pace and trickery to get pas his defenders to make crosses in or even take shots on goal. Under Mourinho, he’s learned to become a devastating ‘inside right’ midfielder (an inverted winger as some would call it), drifting inwards to help the midfield and increase interplay in the final third at the center of the pitch with his forwards and attacking midfielder… he also helps a lot in ball recovery in this role. He interchanges between both positions at Real. For all the plaudits received by the usual suspects in Madrid (Ronado and Higuain) and the new ‘star arrival’ (Ozil), it has been Di Maria in my opinion who deserves to be in this XI.

Rounding off the attacking midfield would be Andres Iniesta. I’ve rated him very highly even as a mere ‘role player’ in his early days as a Barca first team player (I will explain further below when talking about him vs. Ozil).

David Villa – Messi
The forward line is an all-Barca affair: The world’s best footballer (Messi) and Spain’s best striker (Villa). Nuff said.

Coach: Jose Mourinho
Mourinho has more experience and has a proven track record with multiple clubs. He has dominated every domestic league where he has managed. Whereas Pep, despite his hugely impressive trophy haul as a newbie manager, he has inherited a Barcelona-team that features the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Pique and the best footballer on the planet: Leo Messi. They all also happen to play in a system which they have been all playing since they were kids…a system which he himself played for probably more than a decade.
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Mourinho’s Porto, Chelsea and Madrid are all a bit different despite certain similar characteristics (like Portuguese or Portuguese-speaking Centerbacks), and of course his Porto was nowhere close to being as good or talented as Pep’s Barca.
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Mourinho is also known for his ability to change the outcome of the game with his now-signature on-the-fly tactical adjustments with or without substitutions: a quality that will take Pep perhaps a few more years to master.

Bench:
Pepe, Carvalho, Higuain, Ozil, Puyol, Busquets, Pedro
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——————Casillas———————
Ramos—-Pique–Carvalho—-Abidal
——————Xavi—Xabi—————–
Messi——————————Ronaldo
————-Higuain—Villa—————–

Casillas is an easy choice, he is the best keeper in the world.
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I do not like Dani Alves on a personal level, but I preferred Ramos in this lineup due to the very offensive nature of the midfield. Ramos is a better defender in my opinion, and can still make strong overlaps to help Messi drift inside, which is essentially what Alves does. Puyol is getting up there, so I preferred Carvalho, who has been fantastic this year, and I was trying to be equitable and pick Pique over Pepe, simply because I prefer his physical style play to Pepe’s highly aggressive approach.
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The center midfield is pretty obvious. Busquets would be a nice luxury I suppose, but lets go for all out attack. I think Xabi can handle the Busquets role, while Xavi can do some of the playmaker role. You cannot fit Ozil and Iniesta in to the team, so I decided to not use a dedicated play maker and let Ronaldo and Messi create from the flanks and allow Xabi and Xavi to simply feed the players the ball.
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Two strikers in a 4-4-2 is not exactly in vogue right now in European football, but how can you not play Higuain and Villa? What I like is that both strikers can pull out wide, with Villa very effective on the left, and although many people do not associate Higuain with this, he has play on the right a bit and was very good there. This means Ronaldo or Messi can play more centrally depending on whichever striker pulls out wide.
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Well I’m going to start with manager first and it has to be the Special One, Jose Mourinho. No one has had a recent track record as good as Mou’s and the gigantic turnaround he has seemed to pull off thus far at Madrid this season only bolsters an already very solid résumé. His flair for the dramatic (he’s pulled Pepe off twice this season in favor of an extra striker) as well as his psychological warfare he wages in an effort to divert attention from his players gives him an edge over Pep. Sure, Guardiola’s side won six or so titles in Barca’s revival season a year ago, but as Zlatan said a few weeks ago, I could have probably managed that team to similar glory.
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First up will be the keeper, and I don’t think there is much of a contest here. It’s Iker, Iker, Iker. Or San Iker as we like to call him. I think Casillas would start on the “World” team, if we ever had a need to construct one. He truly is second to none in terms of ‘keeping’ class. Sure, he gets a little brazen and perhaps charges out of the box when he shouldn’t and his long ball distribution could use some work, but have you ever seen a man be the general so well between the posts? I don’t think so. Valdes would be a solid backup, as he was in the World Cup, but he isn’t starting XI material for this squad.
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Next I’ll construct the back four. At right back I think Sergio Ramos is a slam dunk. Dani Alves would make a solid backup, but I don’t believe he has neither the same physicality Ramos has nor the sheer athletism. Sure, Alves might have the Brazilian blood coursing through his body to give him the flair for the occasional long strike, but with the team we’re going to assemble here, it isn’t necessary by a long shot.
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Now, the central pair is going to be quite difficult to pick out. Carvalho has had a sort of renaissance at Madrid this year and his partnership with Pepe has soared since the start of the preseason. Pepe has been a rock at the back for us since coming on and pairing up with Cannavaro. I will be honest and say I utterly despise Puyol and Pique. I mean I hate these two, but the quality of their partnership is hard to deny. Coming off the WC victory with Spain, I think I would have to select one of these two. I think the obvious choice is then Gerrard Pique. He is a little on the sluggish side, so I would pair him with the quicker Pepe. Are these two the best technically speaking in the group of four? I’m not sure. I think, however, from a pairing point of view, these two would make the best pairing. Pique would hang back and Pepe would be given license to come out against strikers.
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Does Barca have a LB? Jokes aside, Marcelo has become one of the premier LB’s in the world under Mou and the sky is really the limit for this kid. He really could be the next Roberto Carlos with even more space and dribbling skills. I think in the current system his offensive strikes and free kicks will be nonexistent, but that is fine as it isn’t needed at all. So that rounds out my back four, Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Marcelo.
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Now this is truly the tricky part. I have an idea in my mind who I want in my lineup, but I think it’s hard to figure out a working formation. It would be easy to simply pick the best players leftover and just send them out there and hope for the best a la Maradona’s Argentina or Pellegrini’s Real, but we all know how those turned out. I think the best option is something similar to what Real does now, but two holders in the middle and four in attack. I think this is probably the fairest way to divide up the remaining players. Sure, there will be a gap or two, but I think it’s the best option.
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For my two holders in the middle, I’m going to select Xabi and Xavi, hopefully to recreate what we saw at the WC. Now, the first thing that’s probably going to be said is that Xavi isn’t much of a holding player and Xabi works better with someone behind him or partnered next to him. Well…tough, this is how it’s going to be. Xavi can have more leeway going forward and Alonso will obviously anchor back more to be a distributor. I’m not sure if there’s anyone on Real or Barca who could challenge these two for the central midfielder roles as they seem to be two of the best in the world at what they do. Man, I can already here the clamoring for Busquets and Khedira. I think Xabi can do Khedira’s job while next to Xavi and Busquets is a steaming pile of horse manure that enjoys working on his swan dives in his free time as well as his theatrical performances.
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Now, the hardest part, the front four. I think Cristiano and Messi are shoe ins here, with Ronaldo on the right and Messi on the left. They can switch all they want, I don’t think it matters when it comes to these two, they are that special, just put them out there and let it happen.
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Lastly we need a creator and a striker. As I mentioned earlier, I believe Özil to be better than Iniesta and therefore will name the Turk in my starting XI. For my striker, I think I would have to give the nod to David Villa, although I admit it’s hard to really see him as a Barcelona player. I will give special consideration to Gonzalo Higauín, being he has really hit his stride as a striker for Madrid this past year. He is, however, more of a poacher than anything and not as complete a striker as Villa is. Villa is also more comfortable, in my opinion, further outside the box, which would leave more room for CR7 and Messi to operate up front, where they like to drift.
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Emma Cardenas (totalBarca)
My starting 11:
Valdes
Alves = Pique = Puyol = Maxwell
Xabi = Busquets
Xavi
Villa = Messi = Bojan
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Manager: Pep Guardiola
This was a tough one for me, mostly because I think our blaugrana players fit the playing style I love so perfectly. I did like how Xabi and Busquets worked together during the World Cup, also Xabi [along w/ Casillas, and Raul before he left] is a Real Madrid player whom I respect because he’s a great, humble footballer whom I can only cheer for when he plays for Spain haha! I would take Casillas and Higuain for my subs bench [along with our blaugrana subs].
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JM Spencer (totalBarca)
Personally I wouldn’t fill any position within our squad with any of Madrid’s current crop. Having said that I do have a lot of respect and admiration for the talents of many of their players, most notably Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso who I think are top quality professionals who manage (somehow) to show Real in a good light. So although I wouldn’t have them in my starting 11 right now I do think Alonso could fit in to the Barca set-up very easily and Casillas is a great keeper, just slightly less so than big Vic.
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I also think Gonzalo Higuain has the capability to be a great player but so far he has failed to live up to this potential due to his lack of consistency and what appears to be the little faith shown in him by the many different Madrid managers of late. Unfortunately it seems Mourinho is guiding him the right way and we may soon be seeing the pichichi heading to the Bernabeau, maybe not this season but certainly soon.
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With this in mind my preferred 11 and manager would go like this : VALDES – ALVES – PIQUE – PUYOL – MAXWELL – SERGIO – XAVI – INIESTA – VILLA – MESSI – PEDRO, of course being managed by the great philospher that is PEP GUARDIOLA.
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Mahmoud Rasmi (totalBarca)

The question could have been easier if we had to choose a combination between starting line-up and substitutes, but when there is a team like Barcelona it is always hard to choose any other players who can, taking into consideration their current form, substitute the Blaugrana players! But here we go:
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Starting XI:
GoalKeeping:
To start with the easiest but one of the tough decisions, I would rather see Casillas starting as a goalkeeper. It is true that Valdes has always showed his quality during the past couple years, including a critical save in the game against Panathinaikos in the Champions league and not to forget the saves against Madrid last year. However, when deciding in between the two, Casillas has more presence on the field as a goalkeeper; he is always a source of confidence for the players, whether in the Spanish team or Real Madrid. He is always ready to take the burden when necessary as he saved Spain and Madrid from many, many critical situations.
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Defense:
What has been one of Madrid’s problems the past couple years is the weakness in defense even though they have tough defenders like Pepe and Sergio Ramos. On the other hand, Barcelona’s defenders were in top form whether Pique, Puyol, Milito, Abidal or Alves. The Barcelona defense combines various skills: defensively Pique and Puyol form the solid rock of the defense; offensively Pique and Alves are always on the attack; while Puyol is always there during critical situations to score a typical header. I would thus rather choose Dani Alves as a right-back, Pique and Puyol as central-defenders. Their versatility on the field and technical skills adds more choices for the team – Pique’s goals against Inter and Madrid always come to mind! Abidal, Maxwell, Marcelo, Adriano? I would rather Abidal as a left-back, as he is more a defensive player being able to cover for Alves when he’s on the attack. Marcelo, Adriano andMaxwell are both good as left-backs but defensively they are not as tough as Abidal. This means in an offensive game they would be much better to choose than Abidal, but on more conservative games, the best choice, I think, would be Abidal.
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Midfield:
The choices get harder as we proceed, because this year, and unlike the past two or three years, Madrid has top-class midfielders, the likes of Di Maria, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khadira. While these players are actually highly effective with great technical skills, yet they cannot outperform the lethal combination of Iniesta and Xavi both on the left and the right sides of the midfield. Ozil, however, can be a substitute for Iniesta in case of injury, but, now, the maestro Xavi and Iniesta would get the starting line-up. They could best possibly be joined with Alonso, Khadira, Busquets or Mascherano. On a tougher/defensive game I would rather Mascherano or Alonso, while on a more attacking-game, Busquets.
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Attack:
On the attack, I would rather choose a combination of Messi-Villa-Higuain. Seeing these three players on the team will most probably form a lethal triangle as the three of them are versatile and they can always be moving. The three of them are merciless on goal, and they all have magical skills to show game in game out. Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo is not there, because when one players is always egocentric, things will not go well on the field. Barcelona tried that before with Ibra, and the result was not successful as Ibra and Messi could not combine together. The example of Villa can show the difference in the players’ psychology between last year and this year: when they celebrate a goal, when they pass to each other, when they’re substituted. Players like Villa, Messi and Heguain – along with Pedro and Bojan – celebrate for the team before the individual performance.
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As for the coach for the team, I think Guardiola would be the best choice. As time passes his tactical plans are maturing including the use of substitutions and connecting with players on the field. Mourinho is a tactical genius? Yes. He has a strange personality? Yes. However, Guardiola does not deal with pressure by running away from it, or putting it all over his shoulders to make the players relax, nor does he ask from the players to give more than they could possibly give. By that, we see how the Barcelona team is evolving through the years and continuously improving tactically and physically. Players are traded, others are relaxed, others are motivated. Thus Guardiola has a total approach when dealing with players outside and on the field – without a fuss.
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Thus the line-up would be a formation of 4-3-3 and the players are:
Casillas
Alves-Pique-Puyol-Abidal
Xavi-Mascherano
Iniesta
Higuain-Messi-Villa
Manager: Guardiola
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QUESTION #2: Would you trade Andres Iniesta for Mesut Ozil?
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Madridista Mac
I’d take Iniesta over Ozil. Iniesta is young despite his experience, a proven winner and is easily the more consistent of the 2. Above all, Iniesta can play a full range of positions: Central Midfield, Attacking Midfield, Winger or Support Striker. Ozil is essentially only effective as an attacking midfielder playing behind the striker/s. Above all, Ozil at the moment works best within a counterattacking tactical scheme where his pace and vision is lethal against back pedaling teams who have given him space. Iniesta on the other hand, has proven within this Barca tactical scheme that he’s just as effective against a team that has parked the bus in front of goal.
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Corey Fiske
Nope. Ghostface Khilla is a fantastic player, but I am more than content with Mesut. If you wanted to trade Kaka for Little Andres, I would throw in a pack of gum with the Brazilian.
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Jordan Ziehl
No. While Iniesta is a good player in his own right, I feel like he has hit his skill ceiling, if you will. I’m not sure he is going to get much better. He also has a few more years on Mesut which from a President’s point of view makes him more valuable. I think Mesut skill-wise is right behind Iniesta and continues to improve every week. Give him a couple of years and he will live up to his Zidane comparisons and perhaps even overtake the great Zizou, but I won’t get too far ahead of myself.
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Emma Cardenas
No way. While Ozil is a great footballer, and was brilliant during the World Cup, he still has a lot to learn. Iniesta has skill and beyond being a great person, he truly embodies Barça style. To be honest I think Ozil could rise to the level of Iniesta if he keeps up and has a good mentor [I was pulling for him to come to Barça this summer, not gonna lie].
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JM Spencer
The short answer is no.
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Andres is more experienced, more consistent and more at home within our brand of football. He is the complete package, or he would be if he got one or two more goals a season. He is already a Barca legend and will go down in football history as a truly wonderful footballer. The stuff of legend.
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Ozil on the otherhand is a terrific player but with all due respect to Madrid I think he made a bad decision in moving to the Spanish capital in the summer, as personally I think the young German needs to be playing as the centre-point of a team who is then built around his talents – e.g, Cesc at Arsenal, Sneijder at Inter, Robben at Bayern and maybe even Leo at Barca. And while this may happen at Madrid in the future it does seem unlikely that he will be able to force his way ahead of Ronaldo, et al.
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I wish him well as I want to see such talents as Ozil’s flourish but I have my doubts if we will ever truly see the best of him under Mourinho.
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Mahmoud Rasmi
In four years I might, as Ozil would have gained much more experience and Iniesta would be close to thirty and he might be retiring soon, then. Ozil will most probably be one of the most important midfielders whether with Germany or Madrid: he’s skilled, flexible, thinks fast and takes critical decisions; he would definitely fit with Barcelona’s philosophy. That, of course, would be if we did not take into consideration the fact that the trading teams are rivals: Barcelona-Madrid!
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QUESTION #3A: For the Madridistas: Give three criticisms of Jose Mourinho
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Madridista Mac
1.) He craves attention from the Media. Though it is true that it effectively deflects unwanted attention being aimed at the players, it is at times unnecessary.
2.) His knack for the unnecessary scandal. His public spats with numerous coaches, presidents and journalists / pundits during his time in Italy come to mind. His ‘Arsene Wenger is a Voyeur’ also comes to mind.
3.) I can’t really think of a third reason. I thought of calling him out for his ‘defensive football’ but his goal-scoring Inter Machine and this current Real Madrid side has proven my impression wrong.
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Corey Fiske
Mourinho is very confrontational and I think that brings a great deal of negative attention upon the team. The recent spat with Manuel Preciado was distasteful to say the least. I also do not like that he calls players out in the media. While it may have seen stronger performances recently from the likes of Benzema and Pedro Leon, unfortunately I do not see young Canales responding well to the public criticism and that is worrying. He also has shunned some excellent players, such as the Diarra’s, Raul Albiol and Esteban Granero, despite these players performing well in their limited game time.
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Ohh, and the gum chewing/note taking is a little silly.
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Jordan Ziehl
I really detest how Mou leaves for the tunnel before the half ends. I think it’s disrespectful. Sure, he probably wants to show his disapproval of a lousy half and give the commentators something to talk about instead of his player’s performances, but I still think it’s a sort of slap in the face to the boys.
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My second criticism of Mourinho would have to be his willingness to pick up and leave clubs. I feel as though Real will only hang on to Mou for a couple years before he looks to move back to the EPL. I think he could be one of the greatest coaches at Real, but once he claims La Decima he’s going to get ants in his pants and start packing his bags. We all know it to be true, just wish it weren’t the case.
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My final criticism is that he wears the same colored shirt and suit everyweek. I mean, he’s got to have something in his closet other than blue shirts/ties and gray suits. I complain about it just about every match in our Liveblogs. Jazz it up a little, man, this is Madrid, the big time. He wore the same thing at Inter too, but hey, it seemed to really work there. I guess the mantra is, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
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QUESTION #3B: For the Culés: Say three nice things about Jose Mourinho
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Emma Cardenas
- While I [and many others] may not like his media theatrics and antics, you cannot deny that he has a way of giving all of the confidence in the world to his players. Players who’ve been coached by him have only great things to say about him.
 He’s a great tactician. For as long as people can recall, he’s always spent countless hours studying his opposition and the best ways to match/top them.
- So far, he’s proved to be a winner. Titles definitely speak and the fact that he’s done great things with Porto, Chelsea and Inter can’t just be a fluke. Let’s hope his lucky streak is over though…haha
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JM Spencer
1 – He protects his players very very well, acting almost like the don of a mafia family. If the press or another manager/player insults one of his players he attacks instantly and deflects tension and controversy elsewhere. Of course this is nothing to do with the actual playing of the game but it proves a huge pyschological boost for players that seems to help them succeed, so cocooned are they within Jose’s protection. He did it with the ‘diving’ Drogba and look what happened there. He may be the perfect manager to get the best out of the tempremental Cristiano and a team full of battling egos.
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2 – He has a very clear and intelligent approach to the game. Maybe we don’t all like it. Maybe it can be rather negative. But it gets the job done. He is the ultimate footballing pragmatist and he sticks to his philosphy as he knows it gets results. Centred around a high work rate and quick counter attacking play Mourinho may not make many friends amongst football purists but his track record for winning trophies proves he doesn’t need to worry too much what those people think.
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3 – He is a real character. He is entertaining, controversial and outspoken and as such he provides some real memorable moments for all (well most) football fans. Again it could be argued that it belittles the purity of the game but football has always had its quirky, eccentric, controversial characters – Brian Clough, Maradona, Cantona – and the game would be a far more boring thing without them. If he is your teams manager you hate to love him, if he is your enemy you love to hate him. This is something, as Barca fans, we know all too well.
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He also always gives old hacks like myself something to write about on an almost daily basis which I can only be thankful for. That doesn’t mean I like him though! =)
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Mahmoud Rasmi
1) He’s one of the best tactical coaches.
2) He’s a coach that knows how to direct a player and make him do exactly what he wants from him on the field.
3) He’s always trying to out-weigh Barcelona. He has an objective, and this is good in itself!
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QUESTION #4: A “special one” for the Madridistas: The Spanish team that won the World Cup was very heavy on Barca players, and comparatively light on Real Madrid players. The squad set a World Cup Final record for most players on the field from one club, with seven from Barcelona. Some in Catalunya have called it a World Cup trophy that belongs to Barcelona, both in the players on the field and the style used. Share your thoughts on that.
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Madridista Mac
Even if I wasn’t a Madridista, I’d find such statements totally appalling and extremely disrespectful to the clubs where the other players of the Spanish National Team have come from (not just Real Madrid).
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Though the numbers don’t lie, they don’t tell the whole story. Real Madrid players as well as those from other clubs for that matter played a HUGE role during the World Cup campaign.
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Also, I’d like to point out that though David Villa was technically a Barca player by the time the World Cup took place, he still hadn’t played a single game as a player of the Blaugrana, making him count in favo of Barca on the basis of a ‘technicality’.
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Let me also talk about the team’s style and tactics, which were devised by one of the greatest coaches in Real Madrid’s history: Vicente Del Bosque. It made perfect sense for Del Bosque to use Barca’s pass-them-to-death style as the base approach to the team’s play because of the number of Barca players in the team (and the number of players whose qualities were more based on their technical skills rather than their physical charactersitics). It was a decision made on the basis of common sense instead of ‘ideology’. What was brilliant in Del Bosque’s tactics and squad selection however was on how he has selected a team that was capable of playing in SEVERAL styles because of the players he brought on. Spain played a 4-2-3-1, a formation used by Madrid and many other teams in Spain instead of Barca’s interchangeable or ‘modular’ 4-3-3. They also had the tools to play a classic English 4-4-2 with true outside wingers (e.g. Navas) and a classic ‘Battering Ram #9’ (Llorente), a style that bailed the team out very effectively when the ‘Barca-style’ of football had proven futile as some of the games wore on.
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The ‘Spain’s WC team was essentially Barca-in-Red’ statement is as ridiculous and immature as it is superficial and disrespectful.
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Corey Fiske
David Villa does not count, he had not even been to a training session with his Barcelona teammates yet. Even so, its always nice to take credit for something that is the triumph of many, but to each his own….
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The style thing to me is rather presumptuous, considering it was the same group of players that Aragones had established, and it was a formation that Del Bosque had played while the coach of Real Madrid. The 4-3-2-1 is a very “Spanish” formation, quite common in La Liga. As for the tiki taka, Barcelona may be able to take credit for that, but again, its pretty common across Spain to see teams passing the ball in such a manner. Barcelona have made it a high art, a fine science, but it is not a unique theory all to their own doing. That Pep instituted this system he was taught when he came through the ranks of the club lends historical credence I suppose, but then again if you watch a Classico from the late 80s, Real Madrid uses intricate short passing just as much as Barcelona did, or does now. Like I said, all of these things are not Catalan, they are Spanish ideals, which can be found through out the league.
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Barcelona contributed a great deal to the World Cup, but I think the entire league and the entire country contributed to the victory.
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Jordan Ziehl
Well, to be honest Barca wasn’t the first team to pressure the ball and maintain possession. They do it really well and it carried over to the Spanish National Squad. My one criticism over its effectiveness is that this WC was very, very defensive in most games and teams seemed very content with sitting back and playing for OT and the shootout, which the tiki-taka style really strives against. They can poke and prod all they want and not fear a heavy counter. My problem is that this style tends to lead to very boring games, but I’m starting to digress. My final thought is this though (and it is in jest), without the union of Castile and Aragon and the later formation of Spain, would there be any Barcelona?

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.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mindgames at the Molinon… and 3 points of course


Higuain scored YET ANOTHER important goal for Madrid
Last Sunday, Real Madrid walked into one of Spain’s toughest stadiums, Sporting Guijon’s El Molinon, and came away with a gritty 1-0 win. It was the kind of win one would expect from a Jose Mourinho team (not the goalfest massacres we’ve been conducting in weeks past). It was an unusually supercharged match brought about by a series of unnecessary circumstances: all the brainchild of Jose Mourinho’s mindgames.
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Pre-match Mindgames
Mourinho for many years been revered for his calculated statements in the press and in the way he has made use of his public persona as part of the psychological war he wages with his opponents to get the upper hand. Last Sunday however really had that unusual smell of miscalculation on the part of the Portuguese tactician.
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Many weeks before, he had called out Sporting’s Super-Mario lookalike manager Manuel Preciado in public: criticizing him for choosing a lineup filled with second-stringers to face the mighty Barcelona i.e. for ‘laying down’ on Barcelona in much the same way other clubs have been accused of doing against his own Chelsea during his Premier League days. It was rebuffed with the ‘I’ll worry about him when we’re about to face Madrid’ reply from the normally fiery Preciado.
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Days before the match, Mourinho stirred the pot in the public again by asking the Bernabeu to ‘honor’ the Copa Del Rey by showin gup to the game and supporting the team as they pursued the task of vanquishing the Copa Del Rey ghosts of seasons past. They did indeed only to see him earn himself a sending off and a 2 game suspension that would see him out of the game for the Sporting and Bilbao match (albeit reachable by walkie talkie). The Bernabeu essentially fried the Murcians live with the team’s ‘Kill ‘em all’ mentality, the fans’ delight at seeing first teamers enter the fray and their outrage at the referee’s sending off of Mourinho.
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This was of course followed his re-iteration of his thoughts on Preciado and Sporting prior to the trip to the Molinon: earning himself a nice cushy view of the match from a VIP box whilst protected by 4 bodyguards. Behind the glass, his team was cooked in a fiery cauldron of expletives from the fans and nasty challenges from the fired-up Sporting Players. Beyond the glass, a rallying cry from Preciado to all the other members of the coaching establishment was sounded out in an effort to go after the bully.
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An Unusual match with the Usual Result
Was this all a great, big miscalculation from Mourinho? Was he merely sending a message out to other La Liga teams not to lay down to Barcelona and things got out of hand? Out of hand to a point that his team, bereft of his presence on the touchline, actually risked dropping points against a team whose objective in the league this season is only to stay afloat?
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Or was this all part of a masterplan? To throw his club and his players into a cauldron of hostility in the public forum and on the football pitch?
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On an institutional level, Emilion Butragueno seems to be reading from a similar script: ‘We didn’t hire Mourinho to make friends.’
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On the pitch, the once-drama queen Cristiano Ronaldo is no longer clutching his face in pain after a pat on his chest… instead, he now leaps off the ground, chest puffed out, and yelling ‘is that all you got!?!?!?’ at opposing defenders and fans after red-card tackles.
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Benzema used to get minutes as a sub as part of an experiment to bring his talents out. Now he comes on to change the outcome of the games.
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On the pitch, Karim Benzema, he of the I’m-looking-for-a-nice-place-to-have-coffee-at-the-Champs-Elysees attitude on the pitch has turned from a charity case for playing time to not embarrass Florentino, into a full-fledged impact substitute. He has now come off the bench and ‘rescued’ us from the jaws of defeat or draw against Hercules, Milan and now Sporting Gijon.
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On the pitch, Gonzalo Higuain, the goalscorer whom many had dismissed as being incapable of scoring important goals scored 2 winning goals for us (albeit one wrongly flagged for offside).
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There has been talk and evidence of a Barca re-surgence in the month of November. A free-scoring Leo Messi, a ‘recovered’ David Villa and a much sharper Barcelona that has already clearly shrugged off the fatigue from the World Cup and their pre-season preparation blues. Barcelona looms over the horizon on the 29th of November. And with this string of victories over Sevilla and Villarreal, I am reminded of Pep’s first season where the ‘Tourmalet’ (the phase where a gauntlet of La Liga’s better teams such as Sevilla, Atleti, Valencia and Villarreal appear on a team’s schedule one after the other) was peaked with no fuss at all. It is clear that they are being primed to peak when they meet us on the 29th on their turf.
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Mourinho’s Machine (or Monster – choose your metaphor) on the other hand, seems to have gotten their mechanics sorted out already… not to menton having done so at a surprisingly early stage of the season. Yet this team who has yet to ‘learn to play Champions League football’ (as Mourinho himself has said) must also begin to learn how to get their head straight before walking into the Camp Nou for the big one.
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It is very clear now that the patch to La Liga glory this season can only be reached by winning almost every fixture in the La Liga calendar: any other Hercules-like performances or results against Barca can perhaps only happen by Divine Intervention. And now that we’re on the driver’s seat by means of this ‘divine intervention’, we have no choice but to live up to our end of the deal if we wish to get our hands on the trophy at the end of the season. Every now and then however, a ‘bonus’ challenge awaits us – one that can either give us that little bit of breathing room or doom us into hell. One such challenge awaits us on the 29th and it’s comforting that the ‘Mou’ is getting our heads straight leading up to it… whether he’s on the touchline or not.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Monster or Machine?

Carvalho literally bled for his team. 8 million Euros is a cheap price for the security he gives us every game and the maturity he brings into the dressing room. 2 Goals so far in 10 La Liga games, that's a BIG bonus too.
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Last Sunday was supposed to be Real Madrid's first test against a legitimately 'good' side. It is true that Real Madrid have the easier schedule. But it's very true as well that Real Madrid have made very good use of the hand that was dealt to them: using the likes of Depor and Racing as 'target practice' before moving onto title pretenders like Atleti and Milan before ultimately having to face up to the mighty Barcelona. Up against cross-town rivals Atletico, they were supposedly facing their first true challenge after romping through the La Liga minnows. The result however, was same old, same old.
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It wasn't just same-old same-old because we had beaten Atleti yet again... But because just like our previous 'conquests', the mattress makers were put to bed within a short spell in the first half. It was actually very similar to Madrid's victory against Milan in the Bernabeu edition of their Champions League group stage clash. 2 quick goals, and good night - thanks for coming.
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Pippo Inzaghi Returns to his Birthplace: Offside
Nevermind that the match could've turned into the San Siro version of our Milan performance: where after going up, we happily surrendered the initiative to the other team, content to hit them on the counter. Too bad for Atleti however that Diego Forlan is no Pippo Inzaghi: neither a perpetually a goal threat nor born offside.
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Singing for the Unsung Heroes
Looking back, we now find ourselves pondering the fact that this game was won by our 8m euro, 33-year old center half whom many in London deemed dispensable. I can only wonder now how Chelsea would have coped last Sunday night with him on their side: would they have been able to stop ex-Colchonero Torres (what a coincidence) from exploding with his 2 goal performance? (No need to ponder the reverse possibility of Torres vs. Real Madrid as we all know he chokes when he plays against us). The belief in this EPL-mad country that I’ve lived in for almost 7 years now, is that John Terry is the finest Center back on the planet. I’ve now awakened to the fact that what made him look so good was his curly-haired-yet-balding Portuguese ex-partner and Mourinho-loyalist: Ricardo Carvalho. Last Sunday night, we all saw what runs through Carvalho’s head when he makes those foraging runs from his position at the heart of the defense and right into the opposition penalty box. I’ve seen Lucio do it for Brazil but never thought I’d see Mourinho allow such things from his Center backs (I’m sure it’s now clear to all that I didn’t watch Mourinho’s Inter). He did it all last Sunday: intercepted, tackled, pressed, ran and even scored. It was a true Man-of-the-Match Performance.
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It was indeed a fitting outcome that Jose Mourinho dubbed him, along with the team’s midfield workhorse (Khedira), the top Real Madrid performers of the night. And in this world where the Real Madrid press is only keen to talk about the likes of Ronaldo, it is great that the personality of a coach so revered and worshipped by the Madrid press can call attention to the efforts and performances of such blue-collar yet 5-star-performances.
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This win was earned not through multi-goal performances by the likes of Ronaldo and Higuain and instead won through the tireless efforts of the guys at the ‘back of the house’ (i.e. Khedira & Carvalho). It announces to the world, during Madrid’s first La Liga game against a non-minnow team that Mourinho’s Madrid is not merely the monster hydra whose biggest head has had too much hair gel… but that it’s actually quite a sophisticated and efficient machine. And it was this machine that allowed us to hold on for the win when the Mattress makers decided to get off their Mattresses and have a go at us.
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A Dead Ball Kills the Game – Pun intented

A Self-Confessed Barcelona Fan, Ozil tells the Bernabeu that he's converted.
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Our second goal then had quite the unusual source: Mesut Ozil. The German has until that point only been allowed to take free kicks if the ball was to be placed 50 yards away from the goal or if ‘Ronaldo feels like letting others take a crack at it: this would be why the free kick usually turns out to be a delivery into the box where guys like Ramos, Pepe and Ronaldo can get it in the air. Ozil of course shares this role with Xabi Alonso. We all of course also know that Xabi Alonso and Ozil split corner kick duties.
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Now, Free kick takers and free kick-taking techniques has been the subject of conversation here in this blog some posts back. Given that I don’t play the sport (only played it when I was very little but I don’t even play on a recreational level nowadays), I’m not keen to discuss the technical issues that come into play in an attempt to explain why Ronaldo’s free kicks have for the most part, failed to clear the wall thus far this season. My stance on the team’s free kick taking has always been with hope that not every free kick is used as a shot attempt by Ronaldo (however devastating his freekicks can be)… given that a looping delivery or a shot from another player whose favored foot would give the team a better advantage is at times, a better choice.

Casillas shows De Gea how it's done
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I’m thus happy that wisdom prevailed Ronaldo to let Ozil take the shot. Perhaps the reason why Ronaldo happily surrendered the free kick-opportunity (which he won by going down like a sack of potatoes with the most meaningless contact) was because of the odd angle (it was in a way almost a corner kick). In the end, it was an unexpected but perfectly placed shot by Ozil that gave us the second goal. I’m watching a replay of the match as I type this now and Ozil’s goal just came on: De Gea totally didn’t expect the shot: he just stood there frozen in shock like a teenager whose parents walked in on him watching porn for the first time. De Gea is a wonderful ‘keeper (‘ive got him on my fantasy team) and seems on track to be the heir to Casillas’ throne: he’ll need to grow up a bit more and watch his cross-town opposite number a little closer to get there though.
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Looking Forward
The Camp Nou beckons at the end of the month with a few ‘training matches’ lying ahead: a trip to El Molinon, one of the tougher grounds in Spain and home of Sporting Guijon, then we host the powerful Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez’s Athletic Bilbao the week after. Leading up to the following weekend, we then fly to Amsterdam in the Champions league, a match Mourinho can use to either ‘drill’ the team to face Barca, or give playing time to his fringe players given that we’ve already qualified for the round of 16.
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Before all that however, let’s all get behind the team in its quest to end the Copa Del Rey Curse when Murcia visit us tonight – it’s no practice match for the Barca game as Derby heroes Carvalho, Khedira and Ozil will be sitting this one out. Tonight will be a match for the likes of Benzema, Canales, Pedro Leon, Granero and Albiol to give Mourinho a selection headache… and get us into the next round of the Copa Del Rey: where hopefully, we can turn around our wretched fortunes.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Slaying the Giant Slayer


It was a TWO-THUMBS-UP Performance for the All-Action Khedira in for his night in Alicante
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According to Greek Mythology, Hercules is the half-man, half-God illegitimate son of Zeus. Known for his superhuman strength, he then became the first ‘Superhero’ of the Ancient World. Today, tasks that are deemed to be near-impossibly difficult are referred to as ‘Herculean.’ It is indeed a pretty romantic fact that a club President should wish to name his club after this Greek Mythological Superhero. And after accomplishing La Liga’s first true Herculean accomplishment: going to the Camp Nou to defeat Barca 2-0, this little club from Alicante finally faced their 2nd Herculean task for this La Liga campaign: to face Mourinho’s Monster: Real Madrid.
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Hercules came into La Liga soaked in scandal over allegations of match-fixing. Dismissed as relegation fodder and the beginning of the season by many critics (myself included), they now lie 14th on the table, proving many wrong with their gritty performances. Before the season kicked off however, they did pull off some great moves in the transfer market: first by shocking the world with their purchase of Juventus’ goal-scoring legend David Trezeguet. Then, they made a brilliant purchase from the German League, bringing in the Paraguayan attacking workhorse Nelson Valdes, and then of course, they managed to snag Royston Drenthe from Real Madrid to give them pace and power on the flanks.
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Mourinho’s Monster on the other hand is an 11-headed Hydra that had ruthlessly slain the likes of Depor, Malaga and Racing for a combined 16 goals. They seemed to look the part only in legend and reputation when the season began, but after a few weeks, Mourinho has finally turned them into the scourge of La Liga. Last Saturday however, for the first time, Real Madrid had to deal with La Liga’s true giant slayers: Hercules.
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I had predicted that the match was NOT going to be a washout as I rate Hercules as THAT small team with big balls who aren’t afraid to get under your nose and get one over you by sheer guts, cleverness and tenacity. Their cleverness showed when Marcelo gets beaten AGAIN from the wing, where a looping cross to the far post found the head of David Trezequet to make the score 1-0 for Hercules. From then, it no longer mattered that Marcelo’s new hairstyle makes him look less like a junkie from the 70s, that Iker is trying to look like a member of Shrek’s family (with his fully coordinated all-green outfit) or that Cristiano is trying to be Cristina again with his leopard-print boots. It was a first half where Hercules’ fight kept us from controlling the game. A few exits of the ball from midfield would find Ozil, who found too little space to make incisive passes. Passes that found Di Maria and CR7 would lead to some form of dribble to beat their man, and cross into the box where Alicante’s army of defenders awaited. It was the frustrating scenario we all dreaded to see. The first half ended 1-0 with leadership at stake. Jose Mourinho doesn’t like to play this way, but Real Madrid had no choice: they had to pull off their favorite cliché script from the book: they had to do a Remontada.
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The Second Half – the midfield begins to work again.
The 2nd half team that took the pitch in white last Saturday finally did look like Mourinho’s team. They controlled the match from midfield: recovering the ball effectively, keeping possession and keeping it adequately circulated to find openings in front. Xabi Alonso had finally kicked into gear, finally matching Khedira to make the Whites’ engine room begin to hum again. Khedira was my Madridista-of-the-Match (apparently, he was also Mourinho’s)… he was all effort, all running, all-action: the one guy who kept his performance and effort on the pitch at Real Madrid-standard for 90 minutes. I'm really happy that finally the Madrid press are giving him some of the due attention and credit owed to him. In the end, it was the typically goal-hungry Ronaldo who cracked the Hercules defense open: with a long range shot that forced the Alicante ‘keeper to parry to the oncoming Di Maria who was finally rewarded for his selflessly effective and brilliant performance from the Racing game.
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Mourinho’s Rolls the Dice… and Wins

Interesting Fact: Of Ronaldo's Last 6 Goals, 5 were 'Poacher's Goals' and 1 was a Penalty. All he needs to learn now is how to defend and save shots and he'll be able to play all positions in the field.
It was Jose Mourinho, the ruthless, sinister brain of the Madrid Monster that made the gamble that made the difference for Madrid. He had said it many times: he was going to take risks if the price to play for was victory. And risk he did, sending in the much-maligned Karim Benzema for Pepe (culpable for Hercules’ opening goal) in a PSP-esque 3-5-2 formation that looked like:
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--------- Casillas -----------
Ramos-Carvalho-Marcelo
-- Xabi Alonso-Khedira --
- Di Maria-Ozil-Ronaldo -
----Higuain-Benzema -----
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Or even a 2-2-3-3:
--------- Casillas -----------
----- Ramos-Carvalho ----
-- Xabi Alonso-Khedira --
- Di Maria-Ozil-Marcelo -
--Higuain-Benzema-CR--
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Who would’ve thought that it was going to be the much-maligned French wannabe-flop Benzema who’d be they key to give Ronaldo his next 2 goals (to make it 38 goals in 38 La Liga games)? The players all sang the same song in unison after the game too: We’re happy for Benzema, he did really great. It was fairytale stuff from then on…. Not for the hero giant slayer though: but for Mourinho’s Monster.
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Post-Script (Other Results):
“There are other teams who have other play¬ers who have cost a lot of money and have not got¬ten enough goals.” said Mourinho before the match.
“I heard you” said David Villa right back after his 2-goal performance in Barca’s mashing of Sevilla. It’s Madrid-Barca at 1-2 in La Liga all over again.
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What has happened to all these teams whom we’ve talked up so much? Valencia draws, Atleti look like their old Jekyll-and-Hyde selves again and Villarreal escape with a point by the skin of their teeth.
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Depor also won… and scored 3 goals too. A volcano in Indonesia erupts. What the hell is happening to this World?