Monday, February 21, 2011

An Interesting Take on Barca's Game

Ran into this article at Football 365.com
It's a great look at the other side of this Bara-worshipping bandwagon.
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The original article is here
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Sorry, But Barca Bore Me To Death...
by John Nicholson
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As I watched the Arsenal-Barcelona game, I realised something; it was a heinous thought; something blasphemous, something considered evil in the world of football. It is this: I really get bored of watching Barcelona play and I'm always delighted when they are beaten.
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I know it's a football heresy to say that, but I just get restless while watching their endless bloody passing, as skilful and intricate as it might be. It's all too much. Do something else, boys, please. How ironic that you were beaten by a side that aspires to do likewise but who were victorious by shafting you with pace and direct play: the very things that the Catalan perfectionists lack.
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I find myself admiring them, the way I might admire a mathematics professor who can illustrate something with a number of perfectly expressed equations; intellectually I know it's brilliant but it doesn't move my soul.
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I appreciate Barca's football, I really do; I can see that it's clever and a master-class in the art form of passing and control; I can see exactly why people wet themselves over their play. But I don't care. To me, it just gets tedious after ten minutes.
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It's too one-dimensional. It's the pass-and-move equivalent of the long-ball team who just hoofs it because they have no other style of play. They can't do anything else other than fanny around a lot and try to pass through sides and we saw at the end of the game how this has actually become a limiting constraint. They couldn't respond in any other way to going behind with the clock running down and were still knocking it around the midfield as though still winning 1-0.
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It was the same against Inter last year - once Mourinho had worked out how to close them down, they had nothing else to offer. Admittedly, closing them down for 90 minutes is a hell of a task but Inter managed. They snuffed out the Barca flame because without the oxygen of being allowed to pass it to death, the flame flickers and dies quite quickly. Indeed, they looked especially impotent for large amounts of those two ties.
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I realise they're very good at this style of game, so why should they develop any other? Fair enough, I'm not saying they should, but surely I'm not alone in feeling that it doesn't stir the blood. It doesn't make your nostrils flare, it is somehow rather soulless for all its cleverness and technical class.
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Their lack of physicality robs football of one of its most attractive aspects. I got more joy from seeing Gennaro Gattuso going ballistic the previous night than any amount of watching Barcelona pass incisively. That's because I want football to engage the more visceral emotions, the more primal instincts as well as the more intellectual, aesthetic ones. Too often, Barcelona's football appears a more neutered form of the game - which I totally understand is exactly why some people like it - but is absolutely why it tends to bore me.
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And there is one more reason that I find myself not just bored but somewhat annoyed by Barcelona. It's because there is a certain kind of football fan - and we all know them or see them - who considers this the ultimate form of football; that is somehow the perfect expression of the game. Wrong. It is the perfect expression of THIS kind of football. It is not the only way to play, it isn't even the most successful way to play in the Champions League. It's like saying the only way to paint is like John Constable. Well I bloody don't like Constable, I'm more of a Paul Klee man myself.
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You might like this kind of football, but it's simply one dish at football's dinner table, it is not the whole menu. With this attitude towards supposed Catalan perfection comes a snobbery; as though to not consider Barca as perfect is to be anti-football, to be, by extension, ignorant and crude. Bollocks to that. I loath that kind of elitism. This is why you see so many blokes in Barcelona shirts. They think that by wearing it, they are saying something about themselves that they appreciate 'good' football, not that brutal, aggressive, brutish game that the common folk love.
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I admit I am an ornery sod but surely I'm not the only one who gets bored of watching some little fellas passing the ball intricately for ten minutes without much happening while the opposition stand off them slack-jawed in awe of their technique. I'd love Arsenal to beat them again by using their skill, their pace, some direct running and some physicality because it would shut up all those self-regarding purists who witter on about Barcelona's perfection and it might convince Wenger that trying to copy them wholesale is not an exercise in virtue nor necessarily in success. Surely last night proved that once and for all.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day Presents


Valentine's Day Irony
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How ironic is it that it had to be the man who has declared Jose Mourinho public enemy no.1 in the Spanish Coaching Community who would gift Mourinho such a lovely pre-Valentine’s Day Gift. Marca’s cover last Sunday said it all: a gift of 2 La Liga points from Sporting Gijon Coach and Super-Mario lookalike Manuel Preciado to Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho.
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To be able to fully enjoy this gift however, Mourinho would still have to maneuver his team successfully to victory against our ‘allies’ in Catalunya: RCD Espanyol. It is interesting to note the similarities between our ‘ally’ in Catalunya (Espanyol) and our crosstown rivals who supposedly hate us so much (Atletico): that they both lose to us in our regular La Liga meetings but manage to scalp a few points from our ‘Eternal Rival’ Barcelona.
This season’s annual trip to Barcelona to face our Blue-and-White ‘friends’ however was not going to be so straightforward as the move to their new fortress Cornella El Prat (which has a fort-sounding name too) has brought about the much-needed changes to their club which they have been seeking out for some time. Espanyol are now finally having the ground-breaking season that they wanted to have last season which grandly coincided with their move to their new stadium but also tragically coincided with the death of their Captain Dani Jarque. This was not going to be the cakewalk we had gotten accustomed to over the years.
And of course there was not better indication of it than having to lose Iker Casillas in the 2nd minute of the game. Having to play 90 minutes with 10 men is tall order by any measure. Having to do so without the team’s insurance policy at the back… who happens to be the team’s captain and talisman… that’s another league of trouble altogether. Mourinho had to win this one the hard way. Maybe he was thinking to himself: “I probably should have waited till next weekend to catch Lyon.”
And speaking of ‘allies’ – it just had to be ex-canterano Callejon who would cost us Iker in the game – prompting Mourinho to yank Di Maria out in favor of the untested Antonio Adan. Di Maria’s ‘Me!?! But I haven’t even touched the ball yet!’ look to his face was pretty clear to seen when his number went up.
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Mourinho’s Deft Touch shows in his Team Selection
Not long ago, Jose Mourinho voluntarily explained to the press that Arbeloa’s place in the starting XI was not merely due to Sergio Ramos’ injury but also because he had become impressed with Arbeloa. In a recent interview, he also singled out the Ex-Depor and Liverpool man as one of those who have really impressed him so far in Madrid – praising him for having ‘to face the best attacking players of the opposing team most times and getting them in his pocket.’
Weeks passed where we have seen various defensive combinations: mostly a result of absences due to injuries or suspensions (to the likes of Ramos, Marcelo, Pepe, etc.) – it was this week however where for the first time in a long time, Mourinho had a full roster of defenders to pick from. And it was his choice of backline for this game that in my opinion won us 3 points despite going a man down.
Though Mourinho is not a man who bothers with team or club politics, I’m pretty sure he was nevertheless aware of a ripple effect that may result from the benching of Sergio Ramos. He opted for the more tactically disciplined Arbeloa on the right but still went with Marcelo as his motor-on-the-left (Madrid’s version of Inter’s Maicon and Chelsea’s Ashley Cole) – selections that eventually allowed us to keep our shape with 10 men (Arbeloa) and score the winning goal (Marcelo). 
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Pepe -and Alien born in Brazil - A BraziLIEN
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And while the world is no longer surprised by the fact that Carvalho is the first man on Mourinho’s team sheet, I was certainly surprised by Pepe’s selection into the starting XI without the benefit of ‘warm up minutes’ – and it was ultimately his selection… which was then justified by his man-of-the-match performance that was pivotal in keeping Espanyol at bay and ultimately securing the 3 points.
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Pepe and Ozil would look SO GOOD playing together
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Pepe was at his best last night: using his pace to chase down Espanyol’s running attackers, precisely tackling and winning balls and providing neat exits for the ball to start Madrid’s counters. It was a performance so good that Valdano had no choice but to assure us Madridistas he was hard at work in getting Real Madrid’s first alien-looking player signed to a contract extension and that we shouldn’t worry because Pipita was in a similar situation last year. Might this turn out to be a case of Mourinho getting what he wants yet again?

Up front, Adebayor was chosen to lead the line again – despite Benzema’s heroics vs. Brazil midweek. We all remember of course the couple of sitters that the he missed after being served up those chances by Ronaldo on a silver platter. What me night no have noticed is how he actually managed to match Ronaldo’s pace (without the ball of course) to get himself into position. It all seems to bode well for the Togolese striker then. I do hope however that this doesn’t spell the end for Benzema.
Visitors (a Postscript)
My friend Leandro (an Arsenal fan) dropped by Singapore over the past weekend. And as we sat in my Living Room watching Arsenal create 50,000 scoring opportunities against Wolves but only managing to score 2, he told me with  an utterly serious look on his face ‘I really think we have a chance to beat Barca in the Champions League this time’. It was hard to keep a straight face. But I did reply to him ‘… as long as you guys tire them out’.
But what the hell, if Manolo Preciado managed it, why can’t Arsene?
Here’s to 50,000 goalscoring chances against the cules this week. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Breaking the Code



In reviewing the outcome of Real Madrid's 2-0 victory against Sevilla, Sid Lowe in his recent podcasts last week as well as in his guest spots at Real Madrid TV cleverly pointed out how Real Madrid had essentially ruined their streak of binary-code-like scorelines for the past few games.
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1-1, 0-1, 1-0, 0-1, 1-0... that was until Ozil and Adebayor's goals sealed our place in the Copa Del Rey Final with our 2-0 scoreline.
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And if the midweek spelled the end of the Binary-Code-like scorelines, last Sunday's result totally destroyed the pattern altogether... and along with it, Cristiano Ronaldo's supposed goal-scoring crisis.
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Last Sunday, without the worries of an upcoming midweek match, and only with worries of coping with the aftermath of the just-concluded Copa Del Rey Semi-final against Sevilla, Jose Mourinho was able to field an XI with hardly any restrictions. There were however a few changes that were made to the XI comapred to what we probably would have expected to see considering that we all now know what Jose Mourinho's first choice XI would be.
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At the back, Sergio Ramos' suspension meant the return of Marcelo to Left Back and the automatic choice for the now-Mourinho-favorite Alvaro Arbeloa at Right Back. Mourinho's all-time-favorite Carvalho took his place at the center of defense alongside... wait for it.... Ezequel Garay. As much as this may be a surprise for many, those who have been following the Madrid press probably would have been reminded of an training incident this past week that saw Mourinho give Albiol a good yell over 'being still asleep' in training. I can only speculate that this was the reason Mourinho had for deciding to start with Garay.
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At midfield, Lass made the logical move into the XI in lieu of Khedira's various knocks. The interesting midfield move however had to be Kaka's selection to be the team's '10' while the clearly-fatigued Di Maria took his place on the bench. Taking his place on the right was Ozil while Ronaldo took to his now familiar place on the left side. Up front, I think it's is now very plain to see that Jose Mourinho very much looked forward to using his new '9', Emmanuel Adebayor who played at the expense of Florentino's baby boy: Karim Benzema.
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Though the outcome was of course a very convincing win on the part of Real Madrid, it is still difficult to avoid looking at Real Sociedad and ponder on how poorly they played and they wimpy display they put on at midfield in particular. When you have 1 Rivas having to go toe to toe with Xabi Alonso and Lass, you're only going to have one outcome: the decimation of your midfield. And it is for this reason that La Real failed miserably to put in the type of challenge against Real Madrid that made it so difficult for us to get past them at the Anoeta earlier this season.
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Kaka
Having said that, we shouldn't take away the due credit that Kaka deserves for his performance last Sunday. Playing in Ozil's role behind Adebayor, the long-lost Brazilian midfielder put in an impressive 60-minute shift dropping deep to make himself available for outlet passes and played neat combinations goind forward to his 'running mates' Ozil (on the right side playing in the 'Di Maria role') and buddy Ronaldo on the left.
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It is significant to note however that despite playing a good game for Madrid, Kaka has yet to display his once-signature acceleration in his return. Will we ever see the Kaka that tore Manchester United apart several years ago in the Champions League again? From the looks of it, the answer is no. Maybe it's a matter of confidence or perhaps even apprehension on his part to 'turn the jets on' but I would sadly have to say that if Kaka's once-famous jets are no longer in his legs, then we've pretty much seen the last of his Balon D'Or-calibre days.
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This is not to say however that Kaka is doomed for the scrapheap. When Kaka went straight into the surgeon's table instead of onto Mourinho's training pitch at the beginning of the season, I began to ponder what he would look like after he is done with this whole ordeal (or rather if this ordeal is done with him). And I do remember talking about seeing him play a similar role to that of Frank Lampard in Mourinho's Chelsea. Because even if he loses the 'jets' in his legs to accelerate past defenders, Kaka will always still have the capability to link up play and make sound passes (as seen during his interplay with Ronaldo for Real's 2nd goal - watch how his pass-and-move maneuver drags the attention of a defender away from Ronaldo). He will always have that nifty long range shot too... which is why it didn't surprise me to see him score a Lampard-esque goal last Sunday... recovering a loose ball from a late run into the box to score from just outside the box. No Balon D' Or anymore... but such appearances will prove very handy for Madrid.
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Granted that we've splurged 65m Euros on him... perhaps the consolation would be this: considering Ozil cost us a mere 15m... and Canales 10m. That's 90m for 3 World-Class '10s'... one from the past (Kaka), one for the present and the immediate future (Ozil)... and another for the long term future (Canales - more on him later). That's 30m per player... now it doesn't hurt 'too much.'
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A Different Kind of Double-Pivot
Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 had quite a different look to it last Sunday. Kaka's presence on the pitch and his tendency to drop deeper to link up with Xabi Alonso and Lass (moreso than we've seen from Ozil when he plays this role) gave our rendition of the formation a different flavor. It also tempered the consequences that were normally brought about by a the usually-positionally-loose Lass Diarra. The Brazilian's tendency to release the ball immediately to initiate an interplay of passing (as opposed to Ozil's preference to motor forward with the ball) also gave pretty different look to our play (despite the massive success Ozil had in replicating Di Maria's livewire act on attack and the more familiar free-scoring version CR7 deciding to turn up).
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The biggest difference however came from up front. Mourinho's decision to start with Adebayor gives out a very strong statement as to the kind of football he is keen to play: it also sends out a chilling message to Benzema... and perhaps even Gonzalo Higuain (yikes!) that Mourinho is keen to play with a classic '9' when the choice is available to him. Whether that striker turns out to be Adebayor or Bilbao's Fernando Llorente next season on a more permanent basis is another question altogether (lending credence to my theory that all the recent talk re: Kun Aguero is a load of rubbish). Adebayor, though still not at the level he reached during his best days in Arsenal, showed us that he's not just a brutish '9' from the English game, but also showed some bright touches of the ball, some nifty passing and even displays of pace which seemed to impress the Bernabeu crowd. The 6'3 Togolese striker offers Madrid yet another option in the air (apart from Ronaldo, Ramos and Pepe) and provides us with a Target man to knock the ball up to in the box for him to poach into the goal or bring down to allow the likes of Ronaldo, Di Maria, Ozil and Kaka to latch onto and score.
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I think I pretty much understand Mourinho's fetish about having a more classic '9': someone who is able to embody the pace, technical and finishing ability of Benzema, the manic workrate and never-say-die spirit of Pipita, the poaching ability of Ruud Van Goal wrapped up in a power-packed hulk of a man. This explains his love for Drogba and why he never quite allowed Samuel Etoo to be the '9' of Inter (perhaps a look at what Pipita's role could be in the team once we get Mourinho's desired permanent '9').
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In any case, it's good to be back among the goals... to keep the rumbling press (and the mob it stirs) silent for the meantime. Nevermind that it was against a poor La Real. The formidable Cornelia El Prat beckons us this weekend. Here's to hoping got a sterner test this weekend, yet one we hope to hurdle over with our renewed trend of breaking our Binary Code-like scorelines.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

2011-02-03: La Liga Weekly Podcast

To all the Madridistas out there who have been celebrating the arrival of the New Lunar New Year... Here's to having a glorious Year of the Rabbit for Madridisimo!



Mr. Cambron missed the recording because he was playing Starcraft. And here we were thinking he was more of a Dragons 'N Swords (Warcraft) kind of guy. Enjoy listening!




Podcast Powered By MadridistaMac

2011-02-02: Real Madrid 2 - Sevilla 0

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

So This is What Losing Feels Like



Things would've turned out VERY differently had Ronaldo scored in the couple of chances he had in the first half
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It’s one thing to lose to team like Barca (regardless of the score), much less THIS Barca…
or losing a Champions League tie to a team with some form of European Pedigree…
or getting eliminated in the Copa Del Rey after trying to cheekily play a second-string team laden with Castilla hopefuls…
… it’s quite another thing to see Real Madrid get beaten the way it was done in last Sunday: with a starting XI chosen from the best available players and drilled by the serious-as-hell Jose Mourinho who is not one to lose for the lack of ferocity or cleverness.
What can I say? I guess we all found out that not even the great Jose Mourinho is immune to the curse of the Reyno De Navarre. I would have to say (and I think Mourinho agrees with me) that it was a competently put-together and executed strategy by ex-Madridista and crotch-grabber Jose Camacho. They were organized on defense and were able to get themselves constantly ready to receive our attacks even as we essentially dominated possession of the ball, they offered themselves very well going forward too: especially Castilla-graduate Aranda who conducted a clinic on the inner workings of the ‘9’s’ role on the field of play. Above all, they executed during the game’s most crucial moment for them: capitalizing perfectly on the one clear chance that opened for them in the game. And given the number of similar chances that Real Madrid had in the game (as well as the 2 dozen games played thus far during this season)… which they failed to put away… then perhaps they did deserve to lose.
The Other F Word – Flu.
There is a very simple yet irritatingly obvious and all-too-familiar reason for Real Madrid’s inability to re-create the form and state of grace which they eventually reached after our early-season: fatigue. In last week’s 1-0 win vs. Copa Del Rey win vs. Sevilla, I was of the opinion Jose Mourinho’s team selection was absolutely brilliant: cleverly altering the formation not just to respond to the difficulty of playing at the Sanchez Pizjuan, but also to give his key players a rest (playing a ‘trivote’ with Arbeloa at Left Back to give the clearly-tiring Di Maria and overused Marcelo a rest). It was conservative yet effective and even showed the way by which we will probably see Real Madrid treat matches in the Champions League or even against teams like Barca.

It looked like a Straight Forward Swap: Lass for Xabi Alonso and Arbeloa for Marcelo (plus a defensive Shuffle)
Last Sunday however, Jose Mourinho not only had to deal with the fatigue issues that was clearly taking its toll on his team: but also the flu which had struck down Marcelo and Xabi Alonso. And while the latter was still fit enough to be available for selection, perhaps Mourinho opted to give the Basque midfielder a rest as well – resulting in the midfield to be comprised of his 2 ‘usual partners’: Lass and Khedira. While on Defense, the motor-on-the-left Marcelo was thus replaced by Arbeloa, sending Ramos to his familiar Right Back Position, while goal-line-saving hero Raul Albiol from midweek got rewarded with a start. It seemed simple enough. Seemed.
A ‘Concealed Trivote?’
The first half formation looked slightly different to me though. As I watched and tweeted while the first half went by, Mourinho’s formation actually looked like shifting between the 4-2-3-1 and a ‘trivote’ with Ozil performing the role as the third Midfielder. I can only suspect that this was done to achieve a few objectives:
1.)     To relieve Di Maria of his role as the ‘Third Midfielder’, with the Argentine, (who usually performs this role) looking tired for the past few weeks.
2.)   To replicate Marcelo’s Motor-on-the-Left side role on the left side of the Madrid attack.
The change, thus, though seemingly subtle, was in fact quite critical in my opinion: as it takes Ozil out of his familiar role as the man behind the striker and into a deeper position from midfield. This also pushed the often-positionally naïve Lass Diarra right smack to the center of the midfield.

Ozil oddly dropped much deeper to form a kind of 'Trivote' during most parts of the First Half last Sunday: vacating his familiar place between the midfield and attack.
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Despite our past misfortunes at the Reyno De Navarre in the recent past however, I’m not so sure why Mourinho would want to alter the previous system of having a combination of distributor + utility man (Xabi Alonso + Lass/Khedira) into one that employs 2 Utility Men while giving the ‘10’ an additional role to perform both on defense (as the third midfielder) and on attack (in the Marcelo role). Why couldn’t he have just decided to send either of Granero or even Gago to pair up with Lass / Khedira to replicate the Distributor + Utility man combination that we normally have in the Double Pivot.
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Losing this game in my opinion was simply a result of not being able to score in the first half. So if I were to point a finger at what went wrong in this match, it would have to be this subtle, yet critical adjustment.
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Adebayor Makes his Debut
Adebayor, once he gains match-fitness will expand Real Madrid's attacking game in different dimension
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Upon going down 1-0 at about the 70th minute, Mourinho rolled the dice the way we knew he would: playing with 3 at the back as he sent in Kaka, Xabi Alonso and finally, Adebayor. It was not just a statement to Florentino and Valdano to validate his initial call for a more traditional ‘9’, but also a vote of confidence in favor of the 6’3 Togolose Striker (whom I sure greeted this past week’s rumors of Mourinho’s supposed decision to make his stay permanent – with a huge smile). Though clearly still lacking in match-fitness, Adebayor showed a few touches that gave some clear glimpses of what his game offered. Holding the ball up with his back to the goal and serving as a target man in the box, Adebayor allowed his teammates to play in a manner that gave an extra dimension to Real Madrid’s attacking game.
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Though it wasn’t to be a fairytale debut in the white shirt (perhaps wearing a Defensive Midfielder/ Centerback’s ‘6’ was a premonition)… his inclusion to the squad offers a few possibilities for Madrid’s attack. He allows Madrid not just a different ‘take’ to their now familiar 4-2-3-1 in the lone striker role or in their alternate formation (the ‘trivote’ 4-3-3). Today, Real Madrid is now able to even play a classic English-style 4-4-2 where his skills would be a perfect complement to Benzema’s.
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Whether or not the endgame involves Adebayor joining us permanently or not, what’s ultimately left for Madridisimo to hope that the remaining months of the season is able to demonstrate to us how truly beneficial having classic ‘9’ is to the team.
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Dealing with a 7-point Gap
So here we are in February still in 3 Competitions but trailing Barca by 7 points. To put things into context, we were adrift about 4 points (I think) same time last season but with our Copa Del Rey Campaign long since finished. So perhaps in the bigger scheme of things all is not lost. What is important however is that we must all be honest with ourselves in assessing Real Madrid’s current season thus far: to have our current La Liga record be on the cusp of our first Copa Del Rey Final in a decade, and still have positive prospects in La Liga is a pretty good place to be in. It just so happened though that we are facing a super-human Barcelona at the moment. Whether or not they choose to prove that they are human of course is something we have yet to see thus far this season. What is critical however is as Valdano has said so eloquently, that “When Barca wake up from this dream of theirs… Real Madrid will be there.”