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.

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