Thursday, December 15, 2011

2011-12-13: Real Madrid Weekly

Gabe, Corey and I discuss the aftermath of last Saturday's El Clasico

The Morning After


Just this week, in a podcast we never got to post Managing Madrid’s Gabe Lezra asked me a question: “Imagine this: Barcelona wins, Real Madrid loses, the lead has been cut to 3. It’s the morning of December 11th – how are you feeling?” I no longer remember what answer I gave, but here I am today in exactly the same question.
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The answer now that I’m here: “Like Shit.”
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I also did say before the matchIf we lose, it will be a time of reflection and analysis of what went wrong and what we can to win in the next encounter.”
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Before I go to that part however, I’d like to congratulate FC Barcelona and Pep Guardiola (and by extension, the cules): for a very well-played game, superbly clever application of tactical adjustments and the character to overcome going 0-1 down away from home and at the hands of their bitterest rivals. I woke up at 5am in the morning today to catch the match without the slightest inkling that I would say such a thing, but here I am doing so now, because quite frankly, it’s clear that Barca were the better team of the night: Madrid were inferior and neither the performances of the players this morning nor were tactics employed by Mou and his coaching team were successful in bridging the gap (you could have said that during the 4 clasicos at the end of last season with Mourinho’s 4-3-3 with Pepe, but not this morning). Having said that, Barca were not as superior as their arrogant president (who called it a ‘bano’) or the Mullah of Barca’s Football Taliban Xavi whodescribed themselves as ‘muy superiores’. It’s the arrogance of idiots such as these that makes being a graceful loser so difficult. I’ll try anyway.
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Whatever Happened to Carpe Diem?
I'll never forget the day Reggie Miller introduced the word "Choker" into my Sporting Linggo. He was talking about the likes of you this morning Cris
Whatever happened to ‘Seizing the Day’??? It was right there – the game was there to be won and still we failed! Many might be cursing the fates for the second goal we conceded but heck, they also handed us the dream start to the game. And while their second goal was indeed flukey and borne of sheer luck, while our first goal was a product of our deliberate application of our tactics, going a goal up in 22 seconds for such a match will always bear the fingerprint of good fortune. And when destiny deals you with such a good start, you’d best reach out and grab the opportunity with both hands – that’s what Champions do. And that’s what we did NOT do. If there was a game whose circumstances allowed us best to demonstrate our suitability as Champions, it was this one. Sad to say, we came up short – thank God for half of the season still being there for us to ‘grow up’ in this respect.
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One eventually might be able to argue that their second goal was a product (albeit an indirect one) of Pep’s brilliant in-game tactical adjustments (more on that later).
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“…Putting the ‘luck aspect’ aside, this has now reached a point wherein the winner will be decided by the mental toughness of the players and coaching staff of each team: will we have the level of concentration required to score on the chances we create? Can we keep ourselves defensively-focused for 90+ minutes? These are all the little details that are derived from mental toughness, poise and focus…”
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It is with the quote from my Carpe Diem Post above where I’d like to call out Cristiano Ronaldo. You choked big time brother – big time. Had he scored on that golden chance to make it 2-0 in the first half, we would’ve probably walked away with at least a point. And what about those free kicks in the second half – all of them well within scoring range. Worst of all, what about the wasted free header that would have brought us level at 2-2. What’s the point of scoring all these hat tricks against the Osasunas of the world if you can’t score on such golden chances that your teammates who have conspired with the fates to create for you against THE Barcelona… or rather THIS Barcelona? Barca was there for the taking: Cristiano the sword was in your hands. Why you chose to knock them with the butt of that sword rather than put them through its blade, I have no idea. If you suffer from some sort of lack for bloodlust when facing the Blaugrana then what the hell are you doing wearing a Real Madrid shirt?
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Cristiano Ronaldo – you cost us 96 million Euros. NINETY SIX MILLION Fucking Euros!
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Tactics: Losing the Midfield Numbers Game
Mourinho stuck to a 4-2-3-1 pretty much all game (I photoshopped out the positions of the subs) (image from Soccernet's Gamecast)

I’ve been asked many times on my opinion in the who’s-the-better-coach debate between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. And almost always, before the guy asking me has even finished his question, I’ve already given my answer: Jose Mourinho – hands down. As much as I appreciate the fact that Pep Guardiola has taken what is already an amazingly effective (and for the most part, attractive) way to play and upgraded it SEVERAL notches higher, I remain skeptical that such a system can ever be implemented anywhere outside Barca. And even if you say it can be done, he hasn’t proven it yet. Mourinho on the other hand, has taken 3 VERY different teams (Porto, Chelsea and Inter) and have taken them to the top. For this reason, I rate Mourinho ahead of Pep.
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Last night however, Pep totally outfoxed Mourinho. I also said that formations would not matter so much (whether we would decide to play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3): they did – I was dead wrong. Mourinho started the game with a 4-2-3-1 to face Pep’s 4-3-3: conceding a 2 vs. 3 disadvantage in Central Midfield numbers from the get-go. Nevermind, if we press them high and press them well, it wouldn’t matter anyway just like in the Super Cup (which was decided by Messi): and as long as we kept the midget in check, we’ll be alright (to be fair to Mou, Messi wasn’t as decisive this morning even though he assisted their first goal): Benzema’s opening goal was confirmation of that. Ozil’s early first half involvement was a sign of that too. I also took Khedira’s presence on the bench as a sign that Mourinho had taken fatigue into consideration: that Lass / Coentrao can come off in the second half if tired and a very competent pair of fresh workhorse legs would continue the midfield pressing battle. Pep however, undid all that without so much as even a substitution.
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Barca on the other hand, started as a 4-3-3 but 'morphed' into something of a 4-4-2-cum-3-1-4-2. It was killing our midfield but Mourinho never responded to it.

Starting with Cesc as a ‘false 9’ with Messi and Alexis on the wings of his 4-3-3: his 4-3-3 was essentially ‘convertible’ into a 4-4-2 when Cesc is asked to drop deep: turning their 3 vs. 2 central midfield advantage into a 4 vs. 2 (with Messi and Alexis as the ‘strikers’). This would then be further compounded by Alves pushing up at Right Midfield (to seal off Marcelo’s runs to support CR, while Puyol would move to RB) and allowing Busquets to be a sort of hybrid DM-cum-CB. It would turn out to become a sort of 3-1-4-2: and however which way you wish to count it up, that’s a CONSTANT TWO-man Barca numbers advantage at the middle of the pitch against us. It essentially choked our midfield to death. Lass had a pretty good game but it was VERY far from enough.
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Mourinho could have countered it by sending in Khedira to reduce their man advantage and give us that pair of energetic fresh legs. Instead, he insisted for the by-then ineffective Ozil to continue and waited for Lass to be booked before sending Khedira in: an indication to me that Mourinho either a.) insisted on believing that we could still have won with our dying midfield or b.) didn’t fully realize at the time what Pep was doing to us. I didn’t necessarily agree with the substitutions either: while there was logic to sending Pipita in to add firepower when we needed a goal, Di Maria, who looked really bright in the game and seemed to be a real potential creator for that needed goal. Our attack seemed to lose even more of its edge without him too.
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All throughout the game, from the middle of the first half to the end of the match: Pep’s substitutions had been all about gaining the advantage in midfield numbers while Mourinho sent in players, not to battle Pep in the critical warzone, but send troops on the wrong zone of the pitch (Pipita, Kaka).
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In a match where Mourinho came in without his mind games, where he stepped into the dugout to coach a match where his true capabilities as a tactician were supposed to guide us to victory – he too fell short. Yes ladies and gentlemen: our great Jose Mourinho choked too.
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Character
One of the things I hate the most about many talented Sports Teams is the lack of ‘character’, the lack of ‘championship material’: that knack for automatically knowing to rise above the occasion, to become a better team than the sum of your parts suggests. Most of all, I speak of that quality to make things happen when it really counts. Today, at the absolute highest level, we have failed miserably in that test of our championship mettle.
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 There will be 23 more La Liga matches and then a few more from the Copa Del Rey and the Champions League to go for the rest of the season. Many of these matches are the kind where we probably to expect to romp through, others will be tricky, while a select few will be tests of character. Of the 23 remaining La Liga matches however, there is but 1 remaining La Liga match left that will once again be the measure of our championship material. Yes folks,Barcelonahave become the measure to true excellence in football and we’ve only got one remaining chance left this season to test ourselves against them. If this team truly wants to earn its rightful place in the football world, then it must begin counting the days for the next encounter – they should in fact pray to the football Gods that we meet them in battle once again in the Champions League or the Copa Del Rey. Times and defeats like this are not cues to cower or shudder in fear: these are moments for Madridisimo to bang their fists on the table to demand another go.
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We will be irritating, We will be stubborn… and We will not stop.
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Until the football Gods deem us deserving of the opportunity to face them in the Champions League or the Copa Del Rey, our next clasico will be on the 22nd of April 2012 (or that weekend at least). But today, on the 11th of December 2011 – we go back to work: back to the chalkboard for Mourinho and his men, back to the training pitch for the boys and hopefully, back to winning for the team. Time to lick the wounds, time purge the sadness, time to learn again… most importantly, it’s also time to start looking for the champion in them.
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It’s somewhere in there. All we need is for Madridisimo to continue believing.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kicking Away The Banana Skin





So finally we’ve gotten this game out of the way. After Madrid’s Burger King Boys (Getafe) knocked the wind off the sails of Barcelona, opening up a SIX (6!) point lead between us and them, the trolling from Cule trash talkers seems to have gone on overdrive (check out the last few posts at RMFB)  – pushing the pre-clasico fever a couple of days too early. I’m finding it hard to choose to not to talk about last night’s match vs. Sporting at the Molinon though, because the match after all had ‘Banana Skin’ written all over it. Because I Think about it, the ingredients are there:
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1. Playing Without Xabi Alonso
2. Ronaldo coming off an ankle knock
3. The Combination of Manuel Preciado, Sporting Gijon and the Molinon – somehow they just have that upset-artist look to them given the torrid time they gave us last season over there and how they ended Mourinho’s 500-year old unbeaten streak at home.
4. Iturralde Gonzales – the biggest Jackass of a referee on the planet.
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In other words, if you had asked me to bet on this game, I wouldn’t have so confidently laid my money down for a Real Madrid win. (Incidentally, if you’re the betting type and are looking for a good Sportbook Review site, have a look at the link).
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Tactics and Personnel
That Jose Mourinho laid out his team to play a their 4-2-3-1 isn’t a surprise. That Fabio Coentrao made the Starting XI to replace the suspended Xabi Alonso wasn’t the surprise either (he does after all play in that pivot role). The surprise was seeing Lass Diarra who had been ok at the right back position in Arbeloa’s absence move alongside Khedira to give Coentrao the Right Back spot was the surprise. There are a few things that come to mind from this: First, that it should be no issue given that in the Mourinho system, the right fullback attacks much less than the left full back, which means that the likelihood of having a high demand for Coentrao’s crossing from the right wings will low. The second though that comes to mind of course is that Mourinho is experimenting for the clasico: he already knows that the CB pairing will be Pepe and Ramos and that his left back is going to be Marcelo, but having tried Albiol and Lass at RB, he’s perhaps wondering how Coentrao will fare in that role.
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The other tactical question would also be: without Xabi Alonso, who would dictate the play of the team? The answer was also quite interesting: By choosing to not field Sahin into the game, we also pretty much know by now that Mourinho doesn’t think it’s time yet to field the Turk into the Clasico (I in fact expect him to play 90 mins. Vs. Ajax midweek). And also by choosing Lass and Khedira as the team’s 2 pivots, we saw how the CB pairing of Pepe and Ramos can perform some (but not all) of Xabi’s functions: with our high defensive line, the 2 midfield pivots only serve to function as ‘screens’ and the occasional role of being a utility passer. The main role of ‘passing fulcrum’ for the team at a deep position would then fall into the hands of our CBs whose defensive line is higher up and whose players (Pepe and Ramos) are both decent passers (better in fact that both Lass and Khedira).
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Player Performances
Last night’s game wasn’t one for mouth watering football. Manuel Preciado’s boys made sure of that. With their string of robust tackles, coupled with our Xabi Alonso-less passing game (made worse by Ozil’s unability to stamp his authority on the game), it wasn’t a match for the lover of football aesthetics: don’t let our 66% ball possession figures deceive you). It was a match that in fact, reminded me very much of the Madrid derby (the fact that Sporting wore Roji-blanco shirts with blue shorts just like the Colchoneros made it even moreso). Though control of the match was there and I didn’t feel like we were in danger at any point in time during the game, it remained a largely bland game with little sign of things happening until Di Maria’s 35th minute heroics.
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Di Maria’s goal was the sort of thing that managers want to see from their talented attacking players: putting not only their supreme technical skill to use, but also non-technical virtues such as cleverness, industry and persistence. Di Maria’s goal started with an attacking move on the left side, where he turned up after switching wings with Ronaldo: the move starts with a speculative run at Sporting’s fullback that then turns into a duel which Di Maria wins merely by persistence. The goal was no means in the bag even after Di Maria managed to get behind the full back and make his way into the Sporting box: he first looks for a guy to cross to (but fails) but insists on making himself appear to look to cross to get the keeper out of the way. The deception is turned into a picture of beauty when he then shoots it into goal from the tightest of angles. I’ve seen the replay a few times today already and I still can’t get over myself (or get over Di Maria for that matter). Di Maria earns my vote for Man of the Match later on with his now-becoming-signature assist-pass for Ronaldo in the 65th. Ronaldo still had work to do of course, taking the ball past the keeper before poking it in at a tight angle as well. It’s quite an interesting thing for me to see too as just hours before, I had seen a Norwich City player attempt something similar against Man City’s Joe Hart – and fail miserably. What can I say? That’s quality I suppose.
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Ronaldo’s goal celebration of planting himself on the ground before leaping up into the air with his boy band mates Marcelo and Pepe was repeated to celebrate the 2-0, only this time, Ramos joined in too with the rest of the team still not getting what these guys are doing – maybe the whole team will do it to celebrate a goal scored in the Clasico?
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Mourinho would later send in Benzema, Kaka and Albiol as subs to the game: with the former 2 looking lively and contributing in well on attack. Benzema of course would assist Marcelo’s cherry-on-the-sundae goal while Kaka would have a crack at goal and didn’t look half bad out there. Albiol on the other hand remains unconvincing at RB.
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Next Stop: a dead rubber in Amsterdam where I expect to see the likes of Sahin, Granero, Callejon and Altintop and Varane to get a bucketload of minutes. After that, it’s time to go loco for El Clasi-Co.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

2011-11-29: Real Madrid Weekly Podcast

Real Madrid fans’ massive derby gambler tifo display
The Ultras went 'all in' for Real Madrid during the derby and they certianly enjoyed a windfall
There's a new podcast in the block and it's called Real Madrid Weekly featuring: Managing Madrid's Gabe Lezra, Corey Fiske from Real Madrid Football Blog and Yours Truly!
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This podcast is entirely about Real Madrid this time. In this episode, we talked about our goalfest vs. Dinamo Zagreb, last Saturday's derby, looked forward to Sporting this Saturday, and basked in the comfort of a SIX (6!) point lead. Enjoy!
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Monday, November 28, 2011

Cuatro, Cinco, Seis




It was Inevitable - Kim Jong Il thought so soo - hahahah.
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In a way, even after Adrian scored the opening goal in last night’s El Derbi Madrileno, Madridistas the world over (and perhaps even Rojoblanco supporters) didn’t feel too rattled (or euphoric in the case for Atleti supporters). It was after all a goal scored in the 15’ minute. There was plenty of time for Real Madrid to equalize and to take the lead. And even if we didn’t bash them with a lot of goals, that would’ve been fine too (last season’s affair ended 2-1 as I recall)… which is why a comeback and win was in a way, considered inevitability by many.
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Gregorio Manzano ominously set the tone for how the match was going to be before a ball was even kicked: warning that the game was going to be ‘aggressive and ugly’. And while Adrian Lopez’s goal wasn’t ‘aggressive and ugly’ (it was in fact a product of a super-quick and beautifully-executed 1-2 play), what happened after it reminded us all of Manzano’s ominous words before the match.
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The Non-Tactics
There really isn’t much to discuss in terms of tactics for Real Madrid given that we lined up pretty much exactly as many has predicted: a 4-2-3-1 with Lass at RB in the place of the injured Arbeloa. Up front, Di Maria starting the game was perhaps the semi-surprise – given how exceptional the Pipita-Benzema link up mid-week was vs. Dinamo without having to alter Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1.
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If there was a notable tactical point for the match, then it would have to have been the decision of Gregorio Manzano – a coach known more for his ‘psychological techniques’ than his tactics, to use Diego to ‘mark’ Xabi Alonso in a bid to negate his effectiveness as the team’s passing fulcrum. It was a decision which in my opinion might have proven to become a game-changer had he decided to stick to that plan regardless of the number of players they had in the game – because until they stopped doing it, Real Madrid were noticeably less effective.
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Carbon-Fiber Shin Pads for the Head
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"Luckily we had carbon fibre shin pads that work really well. We did our job. We played with discipline and only received one yellow card in the entire 90 minutes. We remained calm, concentrated and didn't react to anything."
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For Real Madrid, if there is anything that’s really worth pointing out with regards to their performance last night, then it would have to be the fact that they came in to the game fully prepared mentally. And for a team that’s got Sergio Ramos and Pepe in it, with neither of them getting booked or involved in any ‘incidents’ – that’s saying a lot. Last night’s match was going to be defined by poise, mental and toughness both for Real and Atleti: for Real, it would be about whether they were going to let Atleti to get under their skins with the physical play and for the latter, if the psychological trappings / baggage that comes with 12 years of failing to beat Real Madrid was going to get to them. Marca did afterall hilariously if not snootily reminded us all that the last time Real Madrid was beaten by Atleti, Spain’s currency was still the Peseta.
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Courtois' Sending Off was the Early Beginning-of-the-End for Atleti
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Predictably, in a match of wits, or rather, keeping hold of your wits, it would be Mourinho’s men who would come out on top. Granted that Atleti were too blunt for most of the match after Courtois’ sending off to disturb Pepe, but Lass had quite a few nasty and physical tussles on the right flank – none of which resulted in the Frenchman losing his cool. Perhaps the shock to me was Angle Di Maria who reacted to a foul on him (by Diego) not by rolling on the ground to exaggerate the contact, but to actually confront his assailant – an incident that resulted in a yellow for the Brazilian.
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The opposite unfortunately would happen to Atleti: they just collapsed. And no, I’m not going to say that it was the sending off of Courtois that prompted the psychological collapse: because in my opinion, his decision to foul Benzema was PART (and not the catalyst) of their collapse. Looking back at the incident via replay, it’s now even that much clearer that it was terrible decision-making on the part of Courtois, because Benzema was still not scot-free to roll the ball into the net: as Karim was actually veering further and further away from the goal and the angle for him to shoot was in fact getting tighter and tighter: ‘chasing him out of position’ would’ve been, in my opinion at least, the better decision.
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Snowball Effect
If there is to be one person in your team who is supposed to get you out of such a hole, it would have to be your coach. Manzano’s reaction however sped up the Snowball Effect for his team to go on a tailspin: by choosing to remove Diego to send in Asenjo for the Red-Carded Courtois. It wasn’t so much as about removing the Brazilian per se, but actually removing the tactical component he introduced to the game that bothered Real Madrid the most: the marking of Xabi Alonso. Diego was not only taken off, but Atleti’s tactical function of marking Alonso had also been taken off (instead of being re-assigned to another guy). Xabi Alonso would then have the entire game at the palm of his hand, helping Real Madrid to a cool 60+% possession.
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Di Maria - Back Amongst the Goals
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Lass wasn’t the only one who kept his head too. After being on the receiving end of a nasty tackle from Perea that nailed his ankle, Cristiano Ronaldo kept his head too. The 2-1 was a result of a classic Ozil-through ball to Ronaldo which normally puts the Cristiano through to goal… but this time he was once again confronted by Perea who knew all to well how fatal it would be to allow Ronaldo to cut diagonally in form the left flank. With his newfound ability (or rather, willingness) to pass, Ronaldo instead used what little space he had to send a cross (rather than force the issue which the old Ronaldo would do) – giving Di Maria the all-clear to shoot.
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It was from that point in time where Atletico’s World had completely fallen apart. The fouls got more cynical and their play degraded to the level of pathetic: best embodied by Pipita’s goal where he essentially swiped the ball from Godin + Asenjo and maneuvered around them to score. A replay will show that when Higuain scored, Atletico had 3 players in the penalty box PLUS the goalkeeper. 4 vs. 1 and still Pipita scores: if that’s not a symptom of their mental breakdown then I don’t know what is.
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By around the 78’, the announcer doing play-by-play in the TV broadcast I was watching said:
“At this point it’s now only a matter of whether Real Madrid can score another one and if Atletico can manage finish game with the 10 men that they’re left with”
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True enough, we would score another one and they’d lose another man (Godin). Before the match, there had been rumors linking Godin to Chelsea. Err... I think Godin just lost any chance he had for that Chelsea gig last night.
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The Count Continues
I promise that I will not give my article about the Sporting Gijon a name with a reference to counting (i.e. continue with the Uno, Dos, Tres… then Cuatro, Cinco, Seis thread). It’s just too difficult to stop thinking about the fact that we have a SIX point cushion over Barca at this point: who would have thought it? I certainly didn’t (my most optimistic, shot-in-dark hope was 4 points before El Clasico). All of a sudden, the dots are beginning to connect:
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-       A proper pre-season that balanced the publicity stunts (China) with the serious training (UCLA)
-       A Large, Deep Squad
-       Strategic rotation of players (not quite enough though) – allowing us to play our best XI in La Liga (and our ‘B-Teams’ in the CL) till the clasico
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It’s late-November heading into early-December: this is the time of the year Barca are supposed to be stringing together massive 5-6 goal massacres on a weekly basis. Yet here we are with the unique opportunity to send them to the Club World Cup 9 points adrift of the La Liga title – a deficit they will need to start clawing back as soon as they get back from the winter break that usually slows them down. We have conspired with our fates to put ourselves in this beautifully favorable situation: if there was ever a moment to seize control of the battle for La Liga, it was this. Last night, we took our chance with both hands.
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All that’s left is for us to just keep going.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Creepy Covers

What's with Marca's knack for putting up all these creepy covers?
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Yesterday's cover had Karim Benzema mutate into a bizarre, hairy orange feline-like creature as if to suggest he was supposed to be Puss in Boots.
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Yesterday's Marca Cover with their Horrifying Version of Benzema as Puss in Boots.
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Wasn't my Benze-Cat (also using the Puss in Boots character from Shrek much cuter?)
My Benze-Cat
Well, what else can you say right, Marca are after all the same guys who are the creators of that even creepier creature called BenGuain.
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Marca's Benguain: Real Madrid's answer to the Terminator?
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Karim Benzema is probably thinking to himself: "Gosh, these people (Marca) really hate me eh?"

Dynamiting Dinamo: 2011-11-22: Real Madrid 6 - DInamo Zagreb 0


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The lousy folks at Singtel's Mio TV who charge me a fortune to watch the EPL and the Champions League didn't have the courtesy to show the match live. So I was forced to try to stream it... 
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When I finally managed to hop onto a stream, the score was already 1-0. 
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When I opened a new web browser to check who scored that goal, it became 2-0.
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Soon enough, my stream started getting choppy. So I looked for another stream. By the time I got into another one, it was 3-0.
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Exactly the same thing happened during the 4-0. 
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Seems like the football Gods didn't favor for me to see the match. At 4-0 by the 21st minute, I decided to go back to bed. It was 4+am after all.

Uno Dos Tres


Valencia - Real Madrid
"Yeah we gotcha!" was what Benzema was probably singing to himself after he scored a peach of a goal from a cleverly-taken early free kick by Xabi Alonso
AS’s Alfredo Relano called last night’s game vs. Valencia our worst game of the season and though it’s easy to contest his statement with even worse Madrid performances so far this season (e.g. our matches against Levante and Racing), in a way, I don’t blame him. But come to think of it, all the ingredients were there for Madrid to play poorly last night.
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1.)   Injuries: no Di Maria, Kaka, Carvalho and even Coentrao.
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2.)   Everyone in the starting XI was tired or even part-injured from their international commitments. Arbeloa had to ask to be subbed out, Higuain, flew more than 10 hours from National Team duty with Argentina, not to mention Ronaldo who was considered doubtful for the game in the days leading up to it. Ditto for Xabi Alonso who was once again heavily involved in both ill-fated Spain games during the international break.
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3.)   We were facing Valencia – our first genuine La Liga challenge for the season (not Villarreal).
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Valencia as a team are no slouches. They’ve go firepower upfront (Soldado), quality on the wings (Hernandez, Alba) and even looked solid at the center of defense (Ruiz and Rami). They play well as a team too and they also have with them a guy who in my opinion is one of Spain’s best young coaches (and tactical minds) sitting on their bench: Unai Emery – a sort footballing nerd who has somehow evolved to become some form of tactical guru (he is a man who is said to do little else but lock himself up in the office watching opponents’ videos with his chalkboard). It is no wonder that even though Relano described the game as our “worst game of the season”, he also entitled his column “Estas victorias son las que dan las ligas” (Victories like this win league titles).
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Mourinho knew this to be a very pivotal game too. Barca faced La Liga’s wimps (Zaragoza) at home while we were going to travel to the imposing Mestalla to face La Liga’s ‘third team’ – A Champions League team for that matter whose front line was being led by a man who openly craved for revenge (Soldado) – not merely for the 3-6 beating we gave them at home last season, but also for how the club (more like Schuster) treated him when he wore our colors.
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Tactics
With Ozil shunted to the Right Wing, Xabi Alonso was the lone pivot of the team, and with Marcelo Neutralized by Emery's Tactics, we seemed stuck until we scored off that free kick
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Mourinho’s acute awareness of the dangers that lurked in last night’s game were clearely manifested in last night’s team sheet where a combination of injuries (Di Maria, Kaka and even Coentrao who can play in the attacking 3 behind the striker) and caution prompted him to play the trivote. Valencia are a tough team, the players are tired with some even part-injured – no risks. The midfield 3 consisted of Khedira and Lass functioning as Carrilleros behind Xabi Alonso, who sat deep in front of the defensive pairing of Pepe and Ramos and once again performed the role of passing pivot for the team.


I would have preferred to see a narrow 'rombo' with Ozil functioning as an advanced playmaker (to mirror Xabi in a deeper position) while the 2 CMs continued their role as Carilleros
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The use of the trivote meant that up top, the dream lineup of Marca of seeing a Benzema, Higuain, Ronaldo ‘tridente’ with Ozil supporting them didn’t come true. Mourinho opted for Benzema (who didn’t have the disadvantage of a 10+ hour flight from South America to Madrid) as the lone striker. Ronaldo then passed (perhaps barely) his fitness test to be available for this game while Ozil was given the Right Wing in the front 3. It was this front 3 arrangement that bothered me as I’ve yet to see Ozil succeed as a right-sided player for Real Madrid. During the entirety of the first half, I constantly wondered if Madrid, who played with very limited width on the right side (with Arbeloa and Ozil), might as well have opted for a narrow ‘rombo’: with Ozil slotted in between Ronaldo and Benzema in his favored ‘10’ role. It would have been a ‘twin playmaker’ formation too with a fantasista in an advanced position (Ozil) with Khedira and Lass as Carilleros supporting our deep-lying playmaker Xabi Alonso. A midfield like that would’ve drowned Valencia’s midfield: we’d have had a 3 vs. 2 advantage deep in midfield (Xabi-Lass-Khedira over Costa-Albelda) and an overall advantage of 4 vs. 3 (if you include Ozil for Madrid and Parejo for Valencia). What we saw instead was an Ozil who pretty much looked lost last night.
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The change in formation however did not mean a change in the overall pressing scheme for Real Madrid. Mourinho used Lass and Khedira to full effect: sending them out to press high like a pack of attack dogs to force Valencia into mistakes. This resulted in the pair having their own share of attacking chances created for Madrid albeit with no goal as a prize.
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Unai Emery did his homework too: like every manager who faces Real Madrid, he knew that the majority of our attacks would come form our left side with Ronaldo and the motoring Marcelo as the instigators. Unlike the sides we faced this season though, Emery managed to thwart our attacking threat from the left with his willingness to sacrifice bodies in the midfield to seal off Marcelo every time the Brazilian tried to steam forward. Albelda was the man frequently used to seal him off and Marcelo looked to be unnerved by this tactic. All in all, this resulted in the Brazilian having an overall bad game. Mourinho should watch out too: because managers all over La Liga and Europe will probably have this game in scouting DVDs too.
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Character or Quality?
It’s difficult for me to call last night’s win a ‘character win’ given that we squandered a 2 goal-lead TWICE. It might actually perhaps even be more appropriate to call it a ‘character loss’ for Los Ches given their constant fightback, Unai Emery’s ‘magic touch’ substitution to bring in Pablo Hernandez who inspired both their goals and the rousing ovation the typically snobbish and unsupportive Mestalla crowd gave their boys. And if there was to be a posterboy for ‘character’ for this game, it’s difficult to find someone better than Roberto Soldado. His goals showed his quality, his knack for being at the right place at the right time and embodied Valencia’s fighting spirit. Vicente Del Bosque: please have a second look.
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It’s also difficult however to describe Real Madrid last night as being bereft of character. Injuries, our tactical plan being picked up on and stopped (i.e. Marcelo) and a tough opponent who refused to go down. And once a game you’re up 1-0 turns ugly, then it’s character that leads you across the finish line with 3 points. The play-by-play announcer in the TV broadcast I was watching summed up the second half beautifully when around the 64th minute he said:
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“Pretty Much every Challenge is now a foul and every foul a card – which means pretty much every challenge is now a card”
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What cannot be disputed however was the quality of the team fully on display last night. Karim Benzema’s goal was an absolute peach together with his ball control skills. That touch was immaculate – it’s the sort of thing that you’ll probably never going to be able to teach (and was that the most expressive goal celebration of Benzema in a Real Madrid shirt or what?). I can recall 3 other instances of wild crosses being sent to the Frenchman, all of which were ‘set down’ by that immaculate first touch of his. Kudos to Xabi Alonso too: he was finally able to take a quick free kick without getting yellow carded and managed to get a goal out of it as well.
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The second goal was classic Sergio Ramos. It had been a while since I last saw him score a header off a deadball situation and I was happy to see him do so again. I can only surmise that the deadball play was drilled by Mourinho in training as Ramos rushed the touchline to give his coach a hug after scoring it. Another notable thing about Ramos is that Mourinho seems to have come to the conclusion that he’s best as a CB – as revealed by Albiol playing Right Back after Arbeloa was subbed out (as opposed to Ramos slotting into RB to give Albiol the CB slot). Is this the beginning of a Ramos-Pepe partnership? Does this spell the ‘end’ for Carvalho’s career as a top-level CB? Does this mean we’ll be in the market for a Right Back this summer (whether a backup for Arbeloa or someone for him to back up)? Hmm…
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Uno Dos Tres

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What are 2-goal leads for if not to prevent the attempted heroics of someone like Roberto Soldado right? Our third goal is classic, vintage Mourinho Real Madrid: hemmed into our own penalty box as they advanced forward, we burst forward into attack and turned Unai Emery’s other key personnel decision (of choosing Diego Alves over Guaita) into a dud: as the Brazilian went off his line as if to challenge Europe’s best goalscorer’s ability from a tough angle – a laughable prospect. Ronaldo duly celebrated his goal with the most unspontaneous ‘lie-on-the-ground’ goal celebration – one that was of course easily outdone by his boss Mourinho who piggy backed Jose Callejon on the touchline – it was the closest the Canterano had to being part of the game sadly.
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Mourinho knew what the goal meant – it meant 3 points. It also meant that his team had the stomach for a tough dogfight in a difficult stadium: the sort of stuff that a Championship team was made of. That was the way it looked like at least during that part of the game prior to Hernandez and Soldado’s heroics for the second goal. Last night however was not the night of the heroics of Ronaldo and Benzema (Florentino’s new galacticos) nor would it be for Valencia’s Soldado and Hernandez (who would ‘collaborate once again to put the game on a knife’s edge.
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It was Madrid’s ‘old guard’: Casillas and Higuain who would be the protagonists in Madrid’s rearguard to secure the 3 points for us. Casillas put his cat-quick reflexes in full display during Valencia’s last deadball situation of the game and in the goalmouth scramble that ensued, it wasn’t a defender or even a midfielder for that matter who repelled Valencia’s attack but a striker: Gonzalo Higuain. It ultimately proved a most interesting contrast that Mourinho would proudly revel in: where his 1 star striker would turn up the magic to open the scoring for his team and for the game, while his other star striker would open up his body to chest away the ball (yes Valencia fans, CHEST away the ball) much how we’d see Secret Service Agents take bullets for US Presidents on TV – away from danger and onto 3 points for us.
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I started this article with Relano’s thoughts in the game because I do, in many ways agree with him. They team was in many ways awful (Valencia’s first goal should be replayed to Marcelo over and over and over again while the same should be done to Ramos for the 2nd goal). The obstacles however (injuries, fatigue, etc.) stacked a considerable no. of odds against us – giving rise to the necessity for us to show both quality and gumption: and despite the negatives, these positives were all on full display for us last night. And yes, it is when a team puts on displays like that where its championship material is put to the test. I can only imagine that it was quite the treat for the neutral fan too.
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There remains plenty to say re: last night’s game. Whether we played well, we played badly, whether we showed character, whether we got a favor from the ref or we were just lucky. To me however, as a Madridista there’s only one thing left to say about it: 3 points. Count ‘em up: Uno, Dos, Tres.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Relief and Optimism


Olimpique de Lyon - Real Madrid
Despite the String of Missed Chances especially in the first half, I would say that we generally played well last night.

Last season, when asked about who I’d like us to face in the Champions League on our way to the final, I asked for the following teams: Olympique Lyonnais, AS Roma, Bayern Munich and Arsenal – I would have asked for Liverpool or Juventus too if possible. The reason was simple: I wanted Real Madrid to run the gauntlet of beating EVERY team that has made our Champions League campaigns so bitter and painful over the last several years. Those were the clubs that had beaten us and eliminated us from the Champions League for the last number of years and I wanted revenge. But more than revenge, I wanted to exorcize those ghosts of our ill-fated Champions League past. We got our chance last season vs. Lyon and we duly beat them, but failing to win at the Gerland gave me a sense of unfinished business.
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Last night, without Binary Code scorelines (zeros and ones – I would’ve been happy with a 0-1 win), Olympique Lyonnais were our Champions League Witches no more. The curse of Lyon in the Champions League is gone. Finally.
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While there isn’t much to discuss tactically (in my opinion at least) with regards to what happened last night, I think it’s much more appropriate to discuss the night’s key player performances.
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Ramos + Pepe: A 2-headed Defensive Beast
If my recollection serves me right, thanks to Pepe and Ramos’ performance at the heart of defense last night (together with the help of the crossbar), Iker Casillas remains the only ‘virgin’ (i.e. yet to be scored-on) goalkeeper in the Champions League this season. We’ve seen the pairing thrive in La Liga and it continues to do so in the Champions League. Mourinho is wise to the fact that the loss of Carvalho to injury has resulted in the need for a ball-playing centerback and Sergio Ramos has filled in nicely. Both Ramos and Pepe are physical beasts who are capable of covering lots of ground, dominant in the air and have the pace to chase after players who might slip past the now-preferred high defensive line (for our midfield pressing game). The partnership is indeed looking like a pairing thought up by a Video Game. I remain cautious however as both players are also red cards waiting to happen. If Mourinho manages to nullify this potential weakness with the necessary psychological preparation for the two: these 2 Iberian (ok,ok, ok - Pepe's born Brazilian) Titans will be as fearsome a combination as there will ever be in world football today.
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Lass
There was speculation that Raphael Varane would start the game at CB and Ramos would move to RB for this game, but it’s clear that Mourinho believes he’s onto something with this Ramos+Pepe CB combination – so he chose Lass to play RB instead. Lass justified his selection too: while he did not offer the natural width (without necessarily attacking) the way that Ramos and Arbeloa does (with runs to wide positions while on attack to receive passes and spread the field), Lass holds his own in his flank and occasionally barrels through the right side to give ‘shock value’ to the Madrid attack.
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He played Left Back last night too when Albiol came on (for Coentrao) to play RB. Generally, the Frenchman with the sperm whale-shaped head did well last night.
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Khedira – The Enigma
They should really stop calling him the ‘Panzer’ – ‘Enigma’ is the more appropriate nickname for him, after the famed encryption machine used by the Germans in the 2nd world war. ‘Breaking’ the Enigma’s code was one of the critical milestones that allowed the allies to turn the tide of the war.
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Khedira to me is an enigma. Watching him run around is almost painful – with his gangly, clumsy movement struggling with what appears to be a high center of gravity that makes him look like he’s going to topple over anytime. He doesn’t leap high, is a so-so tackler, has limited passing range, mediocre ball control skills, almost zero playmaking vision and has an irritating knack for aiming his shots DIRECTLY to the keeper when he gets a scoring chance. He has no skills or capabilities than I can look to and say: this guy’s a great midfielder.
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Yet without him, our midfield (led by Xabi Alonso) performs below par. All the time. I can only surmise that it’s a combination of his ability to read a game and knack for being at the right place at the right time, his work rate and most of all, his ‘humility’ (i.e. the absence of the I-think-I-can-be-like-Zidane syndrome that Lass suffers from) that makes him the player he is. I have no idea why Sami Khedira is so important to the team playing well – I only know that we play THAT much better with him. And for that, I love the guy.
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Ozil
Kaka’s bruised knee meant an automatic selection for Ozil – that wasn’t the surprise. The surprise was that Ozil played all 90 minutes while the ‘3rd in line’ to the ‘10’ position and rumored Arsenal transfer target Esteban Granero played 0. To be fair to the German, despite some weak finishing of the scoring chances he got, he did play very well and had some really great moments on the game including his double-nutmeg on Revelliere and Gonalons which prompted the latter to foul him rather than become a highlight reel prop.
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Di Maria – “Robin Van Persie Syndrome”
I No Longer Think Di Maria is as bad a Decision Maker as I first thought he was: The poor guy is onyl trying to get the ball to his left foot.
During the beginning of the season, Angel Di Maria became the subject of a flurry of criticism from many fans around the world. And while the source of many of these criticisms are rightly centered on Di Maria’s reputation as a diver, there are many as well who are keen to doubt his quality on the back of what is perceived to be his poor decision-making: taking too long to shoot or pass, over-dribbling, etc. Re: the former, to be fair to him, I’ve observed that he hasn’t made his overacting ‘flips’ at the slightest contact since that brief period where he was benched. With regards to the latter however (poor decision-making), I’ve come to a little theory: Angel Di Maria has what I call the “Robin Van Persie Syndrome”.
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Here’s the background: Arsenal’s Robin Van Persie, especially when he was younger had this irritating habit of twisting and turning unnecessarily before shooting which often cost his team the goalscoring opportunity as the seconds he spent twisting and turning gave his opponents time and space. I first attributed this to the ‘show-off attitude’ that comes with technically-gifted young players: that was until I realized that the reason for the all the twisting and turning was for him to find the proper ‘physical configuration’ that would allow him to shoot with his favored left foot.
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The same is true with Angel Di Maria methinks: only that his long limbs, plasticman-like fluid motions (perhaps part of his South American technical flamboyance) and frenetic style masks this weakness to the casual eye. It is of course more obvious with Van Persie whose skills are more ‘european minimalist’ thus making the weakness more obvious. I suspect that this is not lost on opposing coaches and scouts and is likely the first item written about him in scouting dossiers in clubs all over Europe.
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I had a closer look at Di Maria with this in mind and I believe it even more: most of the opportunities he missed scoring on were instances where defenders led him away from his left foot: forcing him to swivel, turn and posture to get the ball to his left foot for that shot at goal. The split seconds he lost doing these maneuvers would eventually cause the scoring opportunity to ‘expire’. Di Maria isn’t a bad decision-maker: he’s just NOT that ambidextrous.
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Ronaldo
Olimpique de Lyon - Real Madrid
Cristiano Ronaldo. 100 goals in 105 matches for Real Madrid. Now that's just sick.
It was a night of milestones for Cristiano Ronaldo. His first goal was Real Madrid’s 900th in Champions League (European Cup? All European Competitions?). Scored off a free kick, it merits mention that:
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1.)    He hasn’t scored on a free kick in a long time
2.)    He took the free kick with a totally different technique from his usual style where he runs to the ball from some distance before striking it after his signature ‘pose’. His strike was more reminiscent of a regular strike he would make when he gets scoring opportunities in open play
3.)    It was scored with the help of Real Madrid ‘decoys’ sent to the Lyon wall (Khedira and Pepe) who would ‘eat’ into Lyon’s defensive wall. The decoys would then serve as Ronaldo’s targets and then duck to create an opening for the ball to get goalward.
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His second goal on the other hand was his 100th goal in 100 matches for Real Madrid. That's 1 goal for every game. Jaw-Dropping
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Strategy
With 12 points in the bag in the Champions League, we are now guaranteed a place in the Champions League. The remaining matches should be used for the second stringers (Granero please!) to get some much-needed playing time in the bid to secure the almost-assured first place for our group. Mourinho should then focus the team’s ‘first choice resources (players)’ on the La Liga campaign to further pad that 1 point lead we have over Barca before the December clasico. If we manage to get that lead up to 4 points by then, we can then go to theCampNou with the absolute intent to win without fear of losing the leadership even if we lose the match itself. A win at the Bernabeu this December can be a huge blow against this Barcelona team and their small squad given the fact that they will come into January fatigued as they usually do with the added burnout from the Club World Cup.
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While there are those who will choose to look at last night’s win vs.Lyon with cynicism given the fact that we could have won the match 4-0 by halftime (I loved the deadening silence of the Gerland during the first half where we totally bossed them), I would rather look at it differently. Last night, we have finally vanquished the brooding presence of Lyon over us in the Champions League: the seed of fear and trepidation over facing them in the Champions League has finally been purged. But most of all, a closer look at the bigger picture tells us that last night’s win has also allowed us to lay down the foundations to possibly secure the La Liga title this season.
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Who knew that such optimism can come to us after a trip to the Gerland? If one ever needed an omen about the outcome for us this season, this might be just as good as it gets.