Monday, April 4, 2011

Sucker Punched

On a weekend where the outcome of the Battle for the League Title has pretty much been decided for Europe’s 3 Top Leagues: I find myself amongst like-minded Madridistas lamenting the fact that we are perhaps to be victims of fate. A 15-minute hat trick, complete with a swearing fit in front of camera from Manchester United pseudo-bad boy Wayne Rooney put Manchester United ahead by 8 points in England. A stellar 3-goal performance in the Milan derby for AC Milan pretty has also pretty much decided the destination for the 2011 Scudetto as well. And in La Liga, Shakira’s new love, Gerard Pique, fired the proverbial torpedo that sank the Yellow Submarine – putting them 8 points clear of us: on the night the Bernabeu proved it hadn’t banned Shakira. But who cares about Shakira? It’s the bloody title we want.
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An Occasion with a Meaningful Prelude
The prelude to the match was of course a meaningful one: it started with a tribute to honor Ronaldo. Not Fat Ronaldo as many (including me) have come to call him. But THE Ronaldo. The Brazilian Ronaldo. O Fenomeno. The ‘R9’ Ronaldo – arguably the greatest striker of all time. It was he who got me started to watching and LOVING football – starting me out on the road that would ultimately displace Basketball as my favorite sport to watch – an incredible feat when you consider the fact that I was born and raised in a basketball-crazy country like the Philippines.

Last Saturday was a night for strikers: Ronaldo (the greatest of them all) was honored by the Bernabeu who also  commemorated the 19th Anniversary of Juanito's passing. How sad that none of our strikers managed to score last Saturday.
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Last Saturday’s match was also the 19th anniversary of the untimely passing of the great Juanito – making the Bernabeu’s traditional 7th minute cheers of ‘Illa, Illa, Illa, Juanito Maravilla!’ that much more meaningful.
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The First Half – ZZZZZ…
The sad part about it all was that such a meaningful prelude to the game was matched with essentially an incredibly dull game. It was so dull that not even my excitement at seeing Real Madrid after a 2 week absence prevented me from struggling to go to sleep. Honestly, had I not been on twitter, I’d have dozed off.
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Playing without Alonso (suspended), Marcelo, Cristiano and Benzema (the latter 3 injured), Mourinho opted to go for a ‘Trivote’ – with Granero, Lass and Khedira all playing in the midfield. Up front, Di Maria, and Ozil were on either side of Adebayor. It didn’t work.
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It is now clear that as the league has gone on from the beginning of the season, the way teams have faced us thus far has evolved. Most teams at the beginning of the season still fell for the trap we set: having a go at us: only to be hit back fatally with our blitzkrieg counters. As the season went on however, we’ve seen teams now smart enough to just wait for us to avoid the blitzkrieg counters we became so famous for. Our ability to cope with this has coincided beautifully of course with the blossoming of Ozil as a playmaker: now able to more effectively link up with Xabi Alonso at the heart of the Madrid midfield and find spaces through the sea of opposing players’ legs to put balls into space for his teammates to score. Last Saturday however, relegated to play in the wing (especially in the first half), Ozil was largely ineffective.
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The team’s only attacking plays would come from Di Maria who impressed us and frustrated us in equal measure: the latter a result of his poor final product in getting the ball to his teammates and his fall-to-the-ground-and-ask-for-a-foul-at-every-bit-of-contact routine. Adding to this frustration of course was the fact that Madrid could hardly get the ball out of defense/midfield past the halfway line: giving us a glimpse of Granero’s shortcomings in the Alonso role ESPECIALLY when he’s not supported by Ozil who’s tucked to the right side. Nevermind Adebayor’s first half performance: as he neither held the ball up nor did he make runs to help open spaces up for his teammates – the 2 functions he could supposedly do effecticvely that made him Mourinho’s Winter Market Choice.
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The Second Half: The Application of the Trivote Improves but gets Sucker Punched
The second half showed improvement in the way we executed the ‘flawed’ (in my opinion) trivote that we had sported in the first half: with Ozil drifting inwards from his right-handed position, the team linked up better – but still failed to score.
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In the end however, it was this tactical adjustment made by the team that ultimately led to our demise: Sporting’s magnificent play that led to their winning goal was a sucker punch: a move resulting from a quick counter on the right (Ozil’s flank) that caught out Ramos + Lass/Khedira (whose job it was to plug the ‘leak’) if Sporting broke through that flank. The exchange and link up play was lightning-quick: Casillas was caught so off-guard that he wasn’t even able to react to the shot. How painful it was (it still is) to be hit by the blitzkrieg counter that we had inflicted on so many others this season.
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Mourinho tried as ever to roll the dice: sending Pepe, Canales to join Pipita (who, is shockingly fit but lacking sharpness) in: resulting in some convoluted formation with Carvalho at Left Back, Pepe at Right Back and Ramos as some form of a wannabe Andy Carroll-role. To be fair: it all almost worked – except that Sporting seemed to play with a magical forcefield protecting their goal. Real Madrid’s late-game siege was so epic that it could’ve yielded 2 or even 3 or 4 goals for us. Imagine what a genius Mourinho would have turned out to be had we scored to draw or even win the game.
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Mourinho - a Sport?
Instead, here we are all talking about Mourinho’s level-headed and surprisingly uncontroversial post-match comments: “The league is still mathematically possible, but it’s virtually impossible” he said in light of the goal scored by Shakira’s better half at the El Madrigal to send Barca 8 points clear at the top of the standings. It should of course also be noted that Mourinho very publicly supported his team afterwards: shaking the hand of each man-in-white as they stepped off the pitch and declaring post match that his men are “all dead”. Also to be noted was his surprisingly gallant gesture of shaking the hand of each match official prior to leaving for the dressing room. And it didn't stop there: Mourinho also apparently stopped by the Sporting Dressing Room to shake the opposing players' hands for a job well done! Mourinho the Magnanimous? Maybe this is the 'Good Twin'? (the Evil one being the 'original')
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Some Tactical and Man Management Questions
I do however remain with my own set of lingering questions about the Special One’s tactics and man management for this match.
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Mourinho converted his 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 to a what looked like a convoluted 3-4-3 as his last roll of the dice to rescue the game. Fate had other plans. (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
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Let me start by saying that I do understand the logic behind sending out a cautious 4-3-3 in the first half thinking that the talent on the pitch, despite being without Ronaldo and Benzema would be good enough to beat Sporting: Lass and Granero are after all the key squad players being used in the rotation. What I find myself asking constantly however was why we opted not to revert to our more familiar 4-2-3-1 after such a limp first half.
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We could have done just as much with the same set of players but with Granero reprising the role he played at Getafe: on the right side – to allow Ozil his preferred role behind the striker (Instead of sticking to the 4-3-3 with Ozil drifting inwards amongst the front 3 – completely abandoning the right flank or allowing Ramos to fill it up).
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But here’s the question that haunted me for the past 2 days (I’ve had Sunday and almost a full Monday to think about it): Where was Pedro Leon?
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I can't help but think if we'd have done better if Pedro Leon was included in the equation. From Mourinho's 4-3-3, I'd have shifted to an asymmetrical 4-4-2 with Ozil tucking in from the right and with Lass and Granero (destroyer + creator) together at midfield. My last throw would have seen 3 ball-playing CBs a combination of different CMs, 2 wingers on each side and an AM behind 2 strikers. (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
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With a 6’4 Target Man in the box (Adebayor), it seemed to me like having a naturally right-sided winger with the knack to beat his man on the flank to send in an accurate cross was a pretty good choice to have – one that sadly we did not make. We didn’t have it because for some reason – the ex-Getafe man seems to have having a Lover’s Quarrel with Jose? Let us all of course not forget that it was our #21 who managed to come on as a sub and score a critical equalizer against Milan during the dying minutes of our Champions League Group Stage Match in the San Siro.
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Given the performances of the players in last Saturday’s match, IF we had, Pedro Leon on the bench, I’d have subbed Khedira out (given that Lass had a monster game for us) and used a Lass + Granero at the pivot positions with 2 wingers on each flank (Di Mari and Leon) and Ozil behind Adebayor.
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This is not to say that Mourinho’s decision to go with a 4-4-2 (by sending Higuain in for Granero) was a bad idea. It was indeed logical and Pipita did show us that he’s not far from fully recovering too. In the end however, the fact that we ended the game playing something that resembled a convoluted 3-4-3 (with Ramos doing an Andy Carroll impression) spoke of the lack of alternatives we had on the bench – because one of our legitimate alternatives was probably watching all of this at home – likely unsure of how to react. At a time where we all witnessed the re-emergence of the Lyon King in Madrid, one can only wonder when Peter Lion can have his turn too.
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Here Come the Spurs
I’m not really sure if Harry Redknapp actually visited the Calderon to attend the recent Derbi Madrileno with the gang of the Colchoneros’ best pickpockets waiting for him. Either way, he’s coming to Madrid tomorrow once again, this time looking to pick Madridisimo’s pockets. The Football-Manager Personification of the British Bulldog couldn’t have picked a better time to do so though: with our first choice Left Back and our team’s best player (there, I said it) still with some ways to go from fitness. Mourinho has pretty much confirmed that any appearance made by the 2 being deemed a risk - Nevermind Benzema who seems totally out of the question altogether.
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The Faces of Harry Redknapp: While I'm optimistic about our chances to advance to the Semi-Finals of the Champions League, I'm dreading yet another bore-fest tomorrow night. This is the best way I can entertain myself I suppose
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On the other end, things are looking good for ‘Arry. Gareth Bale looks set to be fit for the match with a hungry Rafa Van Der Vaart ready to stick one right to the heart of Valdano and Perez (you could just imagine Mourinho going ‘that wasn’t my call’ if it ever happened).
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And with Mourinho giving us that grim reminder that ‘a goalless draw at home in the first leg, or even a 1-1 wouldn’t be so bad’ – here I am wondering: perhaps the past 2 weeks without football wasn’t so bad.

3 comments:

  1. An horrible match. Players usually in the bench didn't demonstrate to deserve much more with their lack of motivation. But the League was a competition in which we have very little true chances.

    We weren't playing against a well built (since Rijkaard's era) Barcelona, we were trying to win, with a team that isn't finished yet, against the whole (stupid) public oppinion that thinks that their way to play is the only one existing on earth and football began in 1990. We were playing without refrees always looking after which decision was better for us. And finally, we were playing with the logical fatigue of having played almost 50 mathces yet. A totally common thing if you are not a superhero or drink suspicious milkshakes.

    Despite all these matters, we have reasons to be a little bit happy. Ok, we're Real Madrid and we have to win all titles every year. But returning to real life, we managed for the first time in years to arrive to the decisve month of the season with chances of winning two competitions.

    Read you at

    http://mibufanda.blogspot.com

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  2. It was always going to be a difficult match, whole week without training, 4 players injured (thanks fifa & uefa), sporting having 10 days to prepare the match, without even considering what would have happened if the goal wasnt disallowed in the second minute(could the linesman see through the madrid player?) and if Pique had been yellow carded for handling the ball.

    The league was always going to be very difficult especially with the matches we have left (and the super potent milkshakes from northwest spain). Amazing that argentina medical staff say Messi was about to break down and Farsas seems he is as strong as an ox ...

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  3. Regardless of the constraints that we had last Saturday, I still believe that it wasn't unreasonable to expect to win. Sporting are a team fighting relegation and we're competing for titles. Even without CR7, BZ9, MC12 and XA14, we should still be good enough to beat them - this is why I feel so awful.

    I wouldn't feel so bad if we 'lost the title' at San Mames or the Mestalla or the Madrigal or even in the Clasico. But it hurts really bad to lose it at the Bernabeu to Sporting.

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