Friday, November 25, 2011

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.

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