Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The F Word. Fatigue


This was probably Benzema's most decisive Real Madrid goal to date.

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So it seems we are heading for a period of stretched resources for Real Madrid. Given our knack for early exits in the Copa Del Rey in the last few seasons (coupled with the ridiculous justification of ‘it helps with our La Liga campaign), we now find ourselves playing a game every 3 days for the month of January. After getting past 3rd Division Murcia and La Liga bottom feeders Levante last year, we’ve now had to spend midweek this January going through a 2-legged Derby Madrileno in our Copa Del Rey tie while having to keep up our pursuit with the machine-like Barca still blasting their opponents away (who were incidentally given 2nd Division Real Betis to face up against).
With beginning-to-wake-up Sevilla up next in the Copa Del Rey for Real Madrid’s next pair of mid-week matches, it is NOT just the Andalusians + Osasuna and Real Sociedad which are Real Madrid’s biggest foes for the coming weeks: it is also fatigue. Just as I find great difficulty going 4-5 weeks to get up at 2,3,5 am to watch Real Madrid play (much less to blog), I can only imagine the difficulties of the squad’s challenge to play top La Liga sides every 3 days constantly for 4-5 weeks.
Signs of the busy schedule and its impact on team fatigue showed their ultimate sign last weekend in our ‘Loss’ to Almeria last weekend – giving Barca a more comfortable 4-point lead. It is of course easy to look back and criticize Mourinho for choosing not to invest playing time to his second stringers so that they’d be able to pitch in more competently during this time when squad rotation becomes a necessity.
It is however a chicken-and-egg question: rotate the squad early on, and you might not have that strongest XI that you know can do the job for you when the going gets tough. Choose not to rotate, then you’ll have consistency problems in performance once you field your second stringers – as Madrid are going through at the moment. It’s clear which decision Mourinho has made. It is also very clear now what his strategy is to get by this crunch period is: get a lead and close shop… just as he did during the return leg vs. Atletico at the Calderon… and just as he did last night vs. Mallorca at the Bernabeu.
I’m with him on the decision he made: were we willing to risk going into January without knowing for sure who our best XI would be?
Battling the Balearic Islanders
With the match against the understandably-more-dangerous-Sevilla on his mind (at the Sanchez Pizjuan no less), Mourinho opted to roll the dice: starting Kaka, Granero and Gago for Ozil, Khedira and Xabi Alonso respectively. Despite the substitutions made in terms of the personnel, it was still a formation meant to attack: a 4-2-3-1 with Benzema up front.
Benzema getting a place in the starting XI was of course a hot-button topic for the press: given that he was left out of the Almeria starting XI as part of Mourinho’s experiment to play without a ‘9’ and also against Atletico Madrid where it was clear (to me but not to most) that Mourinho approached the game cautiously with only the intent to score  an away goal and protect the aggregate score (which was what Madrid did). All of this was of course made worse by rumblings of a return of Ruud ‘Van Gol’ (more on him later) as well as Kaka suffering a case of foot-in-your-mouth with his comments that ‘we ALL expect more from Karim.’ As much as I love Kaka, I really did find myself thinking ‘You’re one to talk!’ given his current state of clearly lacking match fitness. Mourinho tried to use the situation as a motivational tool for the Frenchman of course… only for it to be perceived that he was siding with the Brazilian in turning up the temperature further on the pressure cooker that Benzema was in. What a Bloody Fucking Mess!
Looking closer into Mourinho’s substitutions, I’d have to say they made a lot of sense. Granero’s quality has never been in doubt in my book and he showed very capably that he was a good fit to the box-to-box role that Khedira usually fills. The Canterano also added dimension to the role when he showed that he’s a technically better player too: more competent in shuttling the ball forward, and serving out dangerous passes for his attacking teammates. On the flipside, he’s less powerful in the ground and in the air, making him less effective in ball recovery (despite the energy he spends in pressing opponents). Gago on the other hand is what I’d like to call a poor man’s Xabi Alonso: simple passes, but without the Basque midfielder’s level of poise, passing range or vision.
Further forward, Kaka filled in for Ozil behind Benzema and started the game lively with some nice touches and attempts at 1-2 plays to carve Mallorca open. Hi clear lack of fitness however was terribly exposed as he faded away during the opening 45 minutes’ latter half.
The Second Half – A Pulse… And Goal!
By half time, it became pretty clear that Mourinho’s attempt to push his luck of getting 3 points from this game without Ozil and Xabi Alonso was not going to work: we’ve had the ball for over 60% of the time but still couldn’t manage a clear cut chance. What the hell, be probably rold himself: it’s only going to be 45 minutes anyway, as he sent in Real Madrid’s 2 main midfield power generators: Ozil and Xabi Alonso.
While it’s easy to imagine a Kaka-in-his-element playing in Ozil’s place, an effective Real Madrid without Xabi Alonso is almost unimaginable. The Basque midfielder was brilliant pulling the strings from behind to keep things organized at midfield (and at the back even) while keeping the attacking side more well-oiled in their incursions at the Mallorca goal. In the end however, it just had to be Mr. Hot-Button topic himself who had to score the winning goal: Karim Benzema.
The #9 Question Returns
Despite missing out on at least 2 other great chances to make it 2-0 or even 3-0, Karim Benzema played a pretty good game. Aside from making a lot  of great runs to open up space for the surging runs of his teammates, Mr. ‘I Like the Ball Played at my Feet’ himself actually found himself signaling his teammates to send the ball into spaces for him to run into. We also all saw him trying to play with the goal to his back while trying to hold the ball up in attacking positions. Tomas Roncero, still refusing to give up on the feline comparisons called him 'Puss in Boots' during his blog. What can I say? Maybe he's more 'cat' than 'dog'... and what's wrong with that? Cats can hunt too (e.g. Lions, leopards, etc.)... Either way, a few more nights like this and who knows? Maybe we'll see the Benzema of Lyon again.
And of course it was a fairytale ending for Jose Mourinho. 1-0 to Madrid. He wanted nothing more.
Postscript:
As of this writing, the possibility of Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s arrival is dead in the water. I hated him before he came to Real Madrid and I hated it when he left Madrid… and I absolutely loved the fact that his name was chanted from the Bernabeu’s Fondo Sur during the game amongst fans who held his jersey aloft. It’s too bad though that the dealt didn’t come through despite the reportedly reasonable offer from Real Madrid to Hamburg (2m Euros plus a friendly match) and his own supposed offer to put in some of his own money into the deal.
The man who might come to Madrid instead is Manchester City’s Emmanuel Adebayor on loan. It’s a deal that I thought to be a good idea when it was last mooted and I still think it to be so. After all, all Real Madrid have to lose is the one thing they’ve claimed for so many years they have plenty of: money.

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