Sunday, October 23, 2011

From Witches to Bitches

Karim Benzema: our very own 'Mr. Champions League

As I watched the UEFA officials crack open the balls to show who our Champions League ‘Groupmates’ would be during this stage of the competition a few months ago, the sight of Olympique Lyonnais’ logo turning up made me groan ‘them again!?!?’ This voice of displeasure that seemed to reek of boredom at having to face them again however was also my indirect way of feigning concern and a slight bit of fear at having to face our Champions League bogey team. At no point in time whatsoever, not even during their glory days to their Back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-(I dunno how long it goes) Ligue 1 titles, were they ever as good as us – but for some odd reason, they had our number. At the Bernabeu, we could play well and score goals but still wind up with only 1 point during the group stages. Same thing if we met them in the last 16. And at the Gerland – they owned us. It is as if these witches from Lyon had cast a spell upon us that our boys would turn into squealing mice everytime we faced them. We were always goners when faced with Les Gones (yes, pun intended).
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And though last season’s liberating victory vs. Lyon vanquished many of those ghosts, they psychological tick of not winning at the Gerland still bothered me: as if our 3-0 in the return leg at home meant less after we’ve scored that valuable away goal at the Gerland and allowed us to come into the game with an away goal and a massive psychological advantage. It’s as if the curse from these witches have not yet been fully banished.
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While I expected a win, predicting a 2-0 or a 3-0, I did not expect us to win so convincingly. La Liga Weekly’s Kevin Walker even doubted my 3-0 prediction (listen to the podcast below). Either way, this is a welcome development for the team – playing our first 2 games so well after an international break: a stark contrast to our performances after the first international break of the season.
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Last night, Lyon visited us again and we duly showed that all that crap was well and truly behind us. With a 4-0 scoreline, 60+% possession, a boatload of chances for us, and the fates even seemingly intervening in their attacks (e.g. Gomis’ disallowed goal + Gourcuff’s shot that hit Gomis instead of going into the goal after Iker’s punching save): it finally seemed to be that the Witches of Lyon suddenly realized that their spells no longer work on us. They seemed short on ideas, ambition and the will to fight: as demonstrated in what seemed like the 10 minutes they gave Sergio Ramos to chest the ball down, wait for it to reach his preferred height before smashing it into the net to make it 4-0. We OWNED them last night.
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Last night, with Witches of Lyon became the Bitches of the Bernabeu. And I do NOT mean this insultingly or offensively: I only say it with the satisfaction (more like relief) of being able to witness what I did last night after all those years that brought me to equate facing Lyon with heartache and heartbreak.
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Tactics and Personnel

The Portuguese coach led his 100th in European competition since inciciara his career on the bench in 2000.
What the hell was Mou wearing last night? Is he trying to imitate Pep?"
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Jose Mourinho’s squad rotation strategy seems to have worked to perfection:
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1.)    Allow La Liga goal-master Gonzalo Higuain to ride his streak to play vs. Betis and kill them with a Hat Trick – and then allow Karim Benzema to face his old team for a bit of sentimental value but more importantly, capitalize on the Frenchman’s knack for scoring goals in the Champions League. Pipita of course would make an appearance off the bench and nearly added to Real Madrid’s goal tally if it were not for a few unlucky bounces.
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2.)    Allow summer contract rebel Lass Diarra (excluded from the France NT during the international break) to integrate himself better into the team and using his fitness and work in training to play vs. Betis. And then, allow Sami Khedira to start vs. Lyon to show all his doubters what a stable Real Madrid midfield looks like. The goal scored is of course just the cherry on the Sunday
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3.)    Allow Brazilian Backstreet Boy Kaka (excluded from the Brazil NT during the international break) to continue his run of form, improved fitness and work in training to play vs. Betis (we were duly rewarded with a great performance and a goal). And then, ‘reward’ Di-Maria’s great off-the-bench cameo with a start after a rest (following his South American sojourn with the Argentina NT). Kaka of course also came off the bench (to a rousing ovation) for Ozil who is normally not a 90 minutes player.
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My only criticism of Mourinho’s rotation policy is his insistence to play the 30-year old (?) Xabi Alonso for 90 minutes every game. And while I know that Nuri Sahin’s return is around the corner (if rumors are to be believed that he will get a run out this weekend against Malaga), we also have a certain Esteban Granero available on the bench who can do a job in the Basque’s position. The fact that Kaka has now found his feet also makes it even harder, if not impossible for El Pirata to play in the ‘10’ role, where he can also play.
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Tactically, the presence of Di Maria on the Right Side also meant that we had 2 wingers (albeit inverted) to stretch the play wide just as Ryan Chase advised us to do during his Q & A – a function we wouldn’t have as much of had Kaka and Ozil played together with CR behind Benzema.
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Player Performances
Mourinho was probably correct in his backhanded slap at the press when he said that the Higuain vs. Benzema debate was one for the press and not for him. He’s very right as well when he said that with players like the 2, among his ‘6 bullets’ (according to Marca, they are, Ronaldo, Benzema, Kaka, Higuain, Di Maria and Ozil), discussions re: starters and subs are actually irrelevant.
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It’s hard however to ignore how truly good Benzema was for us last night: scoring a goal and serving one on a platter for Khedira, a member of the shoot-it-straight-at-the-goalkeeper school of thinking when it comes to taking shots at goal. Benzema looked lively and menacing throughout the game and keptLyon’s defenders constantly guessing what his next move would be: as he was just as likely to make a potentially-fatal-for-the-defense pass as he was to take a shot on goal. Testament to his livewire act was how he was uncharacteristically the successful target of several long balls from deep from Xabi Alonso.
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The other player also worth a mention is Sami Khedira. I have no idea how to explain why or how his presence stabilizes Real Madrid’s midfield: but that’s exactly what happens when he’s on the pitch. I would imagine that his interception, ball recovery, tackling numbers, etc. wouldn’t be much different to those of Lass, Coentrao or Pepe’s if they played in that role beside Alonso. In terms of his positioning to join the attack or stay deep, he’s also probably in-between Coentrao (who bombs forward like crazy) or Lass (who generally stays deep except when he has his wanna-be-Zidane moments where he dribbles the ball up the pitch). But for whatever reason, the level of control we had at midfield last night with Khedira vs. those nights with Lass or with Coentrao was profoundly different in a very good way. For whatever essential but ‘invisible’ things he does in midfield, I’m very happy to see him score and be duly rewarded in a very ‘visible’ manner for what he did out there last night... that is apart from the fact that Xabi Alonso dished out a sick 126 passes last night.
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To the Witches’ Lair
Stade De Gerland: The Witches' Lair
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Real Madrid will have themselves a belated Halloween Celebration this year when they visit the Stade de Gerland on November 2. Jose Mourinho, our Dark Wizard-cum-Sith Lord will be with the team too and must along with his assistant coaches and Zidane, adequately motivate the boys on the task at hand: WIN (not draw, WIN!) and secure our place in the last 16. Our men-in-white (they will probably be wearing Red in that game) must remember that they faced a Lyonside with a half-fit Gourcuff and an absent-due-to-injuries Lisandro Lopez. If available and fit, both are fully capable of taking us back to the days when WE were the Bitches of the Gerland.
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Until that game, the players must brace for that game and look to it with humility and the willingness to leave their skins on the pitch to leave the Gerland with nothing less than a win.
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Only when that happens, will I be able to say ‘Them Again!?!?’ the next time we’re asked to face Lyon in the Champions League without feigning fear or trepidation – and really mean it.
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1 comment:

  1. "What the hell was Mou wearing last night?" He was fined (three times???) for not wearing the authorized clothing. I think he's trying to follow the dressing rules. Just my guess since they obviously (?) don't match his sense of style. Or perhaps it's just the weather?

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