Saturday, April 30, 2011

‘Till a Wolf Came Along


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It was supposed to be round 3 of this once-in-a-lifetime ‘World Series’ of Clasicos, and it was supposed to be the first of the 2 games where the chance to vie for the biggest prize in club football was at stake. It didn’t even have to be Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, any 2 Tom, Dick and Harry teams vying for this prize would’ve turned this match into a potential classic. Instead of what was supposed to be a great match however, we witnessed a fiasco that’s made everyone lose their appetite for football. Thank God for the Royal Wedding huh?
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Barca ‘Football Moralists’ and their Horseshit Logic
Everytime a Madrid-Barca match finishes, some ignoramus usually comes out to say that ‘Only Barca tried to play football.’ As if to say that Barca’s brand of possession-based Tiki-Taka football is the only way to play football – that anyone who dares to deviate from this model is ‘anti-football’ – that is the biggest load of horseshit I’ve ever heard of in my life.
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I’ve said it so many times before: People who take this line of thinking seem to think that the rest of the non-Barca world are as stupid as the Arsenal last season (or was it 2 seasons ago) – who had the Barca players’ mouths frothing up at the prospect of facing them: so that the poor naïve Gunners would get hammered 145-0… which was what happened (sort of). These people also believe that those who try something different are committing some form of sporting blasphemy. Horseshit I say.
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I am reminded of those ridiculous battles of the past (American Civil War era I think) where it was considered ‘ungentlemanly’ to shoot the officers of the opposing side and that soldiers would neatly arrange themselves in file and be shot dead one row at a time till someone wins. It’s as if Barca-tactic-lovers are saying that this is the only way to do battle and that any other way is ‘wrong’ – like it was some moral issue. Horseshit I say, Horseshit!
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Mourinho’s Evolving Tactics over the course of the 3 Clasicos so far
I am very happy as a Madridista about the fact that our coach doesn’t believe in such horseshit. And it is with that thinking that he had set out to play the Clasico to have Barca’s midfield hobbit trio of Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta face our very own trio of giant midfield beasts: Pepe-Khedira-Xabi Alonso. His first experiment resulted in a stalemate: a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu though there were signs of promise given that we played with 10 for a large part in the 2nd half. So for the second match, he tweaked the system a little bit and found success: with the now-mangled Copa Del Rey trophy to show for. He did notice however that his charges ran out of steam in the first half: resulting in his team almost teetering to the brink of defeat in the 2nd half.
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Mourinho's tactics went out of the window when his linchpin Pepe was sent off... wrongly. He lost the match. He also completely lost it.
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And so with this third game, as observed in the utterly boring first half and pre-Red-Card Second Half as well as from Mourinho’s post-match comments: it seems that we were supposed to see Mourinho’s third adjustment for this ‘World Series’. That plan seemed to me like he was going to let Barca have their possession early in the game while Madrid would only secure their territory. ‘We could have played for another 3 hours without conceding a goal’ he said. And this was evidenced by the fact that Barca’s mostly had the ball either in their third of the pitch with a slight edge in the middle. Mourinho also said that the plan was to play the last 25 minutes with 3 attackers with playmaker behind them to overwhelm what was supposed to be a frustrated Barca team. It is and was a strategy that made perfect sense for me… Until a ‘Wolf’ came along.
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The WOLF’s Red Card makes a STARK Difference.
Barca ‘Moralists’ should have a look at the actions of their Blaugrana heroes: Busquets, Alves and Pedro. This Madrid do not speak of their football in moral terms, but you guys seem to love doing it – so perhaps you need a closer look at these Hollywod B-movie playacting stunts. These were performances for mostly-B-Movie films at Cinemax (for which I am not signed up for to in my cable TV subscription) instead of the ridiculously expensive Mio TV Sports Package I fork out $50+ SGD for monthly. And while we all pretty much know how incendiary Mourinho can be in a press conference, let it be noted that it is this whining and feigning of injury that has had most of the world shaking their head with embarrassment at this display of football. After all, was it not Barcelona who has hijacked the image of Spanish Football care of this ‘Tiki-Taka’ formula which they are now castigating the rest of the world for – for not playing?  Yet it seems none of these actions are captured in the match report or in the charges UEFA has filed against either of the 2 clubs.
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Pepe gets the ball. If there was contact with Alves, it was at his ankle. But...
...Alves acts out like someone shot his... KNEE?
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On the flipside, the biggest talking point of course is Pepe’s Red Card, for which replays show that Pepe was wrongly sent off (images and videos of Pepe making contact with the ball in a 50-50 situation have since surfaced). In the heat of the moment, without the benefit of a reply: calling a foul would have been acceptable in my opinion, a yellow card, perhaps – but a straight red? Horseshit, I say. And for those who might not have noticed, as I recall, Wolfgang Stark was all the way on the other side of the pitch when he made the call (on the right side of the pitch – Arbeloa’s ‘wing), the foul took place on the left side (Marcelo’s wing). The foul was committed with the players’ backs turned to him: how a red card can be handed out so mindlessly is beyond me.  When I am reminded however that this was the referee who was rated as the worst in Germany, sense comes back to the picture.
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To top things off: They sent Mourinho off too. It is still unclear to me as to what Mourinho said or did that merited the sending off. By all accounts I’ve read and seen on video, all I saw was him 1.) Whispering to Carles Puyol after Pepe’s Red Card (he was probably telling Barca’s Captain ‘You and I BOTH know that that call was BULLSHIT!’) and 2.) Sarcastically smiling, giving a thumbs up and applauding. I’ve read plenty of lips from managers over my many years of watching football “Fuck Off” or “Oh Come on” with a rabid hand gesture or “….. FUCK…. FUCKING…” are common amongst English-speaking managers. The word “Puta” is also very much readable from the lips of Spanish / Portuguese-speaking managers  - and they’ve not been sent off for this. Why Mourinho would get sent off for a sarcastic gesture free of swearing is beyond me. Clearly they were asking for it from Mourinho after the match… or they were perhaps goading him into it.
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Stark ruined the game. Mourinho’s plan had to be thrown out the window. Xabi Alonso was left unprotected, trying to avoid receiving a yellow card that would’ve ruled him out of the return leg. Sergio Ramos had a yellow by then so he had no plans of getting an early shower to leave his team with 9. So before we all allow the angels from heaven to blow the trumpets and sing God-like praises at Leo Messi, let’s all remember first the circumstances of those who were playing on his opposite side. Having said that, the second goal was a wonderful thing to watch. Would he have scored it with Pepe on the pitch? I say ‘not!’.
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Mourinho Turns the Foul-Smelling Air Into Poison
Now I wish to say this as Madridista: while Mourinho did not deserve to be sent off for his reactions to Pepe’s sending off DURING the game, I feel that he deserves a suspension for what he did after the game.
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The air was already filthy with Barca’s playacting antics and the ugly football we all witnessed. But when he exploded into his tirade to allege an organized conspiracy that favors Barca dating back to seven years, dragging with them the name of UNICEF and even Pep Guardiola’s credentials: he turned the filthy air into poison. While I agree with the CORE message which he had (that Barca are favored for perhaps their club’s ‘Moralist’ undertones – subconsciously at least), the manner by which he conveyed his message was absolutely distasteful.
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It is impossible that Mourinho has not won a title on the back of a questionable decision here and there. If his logic states that every title that is won on the back of a ‘scandal’ is a dirty one, then that is the same as saying that every title won in the history of the game is a tainted one – including the ones that he won. He went too far and I as a Madridista will also admit it.
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In Search of a Miracle
We now head to the Camp Nou for the return leg in search of a miracle. Pepe, the ‘antichrist’ of Barcelona (as AS has dubbed him), the man who has completely turned Barcelona upside down is out of the game. Khedira, the team’s ultimate utility man is out injured while Ramos, the Vice-Captain, a prime Aerial and Physical Threat is also ineligible to play the game.  Most of all, Mourinho will also be seeing this match from a VIP box and will be monitored even more closely to ensure that he doesn’t turn up in the dressing room from a laundry basket during halftime. We need a 2-0 to send the game to penalties and extra time and or 3-0 or 3-1 to go through. If there was ever any opportunity to show the world that he’s the greatest coach of all time, it would be this.
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And let’s all admit it too: Mourinho is as brilliant a manager as he is a loose cannon.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mourinho Turns Academic while Pep Goes Gangster


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Some years back, Rafa vented out his now famous "Mr. Ferguson rant" (gotta love the way he says 'Meesterh Feirghusohn'): which pretty much sounded like a pre-emptive or perhaps a reactive strike at Alex Ferguson's famous mind games to rattle Liverpool. The critics came out in droves after Rafa's now-famous rant and many of them concluded that Meesterh Feirghusohn's mind games might have already taken effect in Liverpool. Liverpool soon 'bottled it' as most have concluded, stumbling towards the end of that season to second place leading many to conclude that perhaps Fergie's mind games did indeed get under Liverpool's skin.
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Earlier this week, Jose Mourinho made a pretty comical comment re: Pep Guardiola:
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"Up until now we've had two groups of coaches," Mourinho said. "[There's] a very small group who didn't talk about referees. Then there's a larger group, of which I'm included, of coaches that criticises referees when they make big mistakes... And with Pep's statements we've come to a third group, which is a one-person group, who criticises good decisions made by the referee. I've never seen this before."
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It was a hilarious jab at Pep Guardiola which was followed by some off-color comments in his comical attempt at being academic:
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"I told my players there was someone called Albert, Albert Einstein, who said that there is a force more powerful than steam, electricity and atomic energy - will. And this guy Albert was not stupid.''
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He even goes on to a shocking attempt at level-headed humility:
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"They (Barca) are a top team with a top coach and everything is possible," Mourinho said. "I am exactly the same coach who lost 5-0 to Barcelona and I don't have any magic potion....These are two teams that know each other well, with tradition, with players who know success and what it means to play important games. My opinion is that there are no favourites. In a semi-final with two legs there are no favourites."
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"I don't have a magic potion to beat Barcelona. I work very hard and very seriously, and I spend many hours trying to help the people around, but a few months ago we lost 5-0 (at the Nou Camp) and I was the manager then,'' he said.
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"We played a good match (against Barca) at the Bernabeu in the league and we also played a good match in Valencia (6-3 win on Saturday), but tomorrow we are facing a top opponent with a top coach.''
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I had in my last blog post talked about having been able to detect (as I'm sure many have simlarly found out) a change in Pep Guardiola's demeanour and outlook in the last games: from his outrageous labelling of Barca as underdogs to his first attempt at talking about refereeing. The shock came however this morning:
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What has happened to this world gone mad? Mourinho turning academic and Pep going gangster...
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"In this room [press room], he's the fucking chief, the fucking man, the person who knows everything about the world and I don't want to compete with him at all. It's a type of game I'm not going to play because I don't know how." he said.
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He added: "If you think that his allegation that I always complain about the referees is true after you've all heard from me over the last three years, well, there's nothing I can do. Off the pitch, there's nothing we can do to fight that."
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I don't recall that Mourinho ever called you out for ALWAYS complaining Pep - he was just saying that you complained about weird things (i.e. criticizing the ref for making the right call). AS reports that the players applauded their coach when he rejoined their squad. We will have to see tonight (and I await with trepidation) how this 'explosion' of Pep will affect his team out there on the pitch: will the Blaugrana explode onto the pitch all guns blazing? Or is this Pep's 'Mr. Ferguson Moment'? The premonition that begins the process where they choke in all the blood and vomit that's been rushing up and stirring up inside them all this time (i.e. They Choke or as the English like to say 'Bottle it')...
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One thing's for sure... In my book at least... "Meesterh Feirghusohn" is still funnier.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Entire Machine Begins to Hum


At the beginning of the season, Jose Mourinho, as part of his I’m-not-Harry-Potter tone to condition the expectations of the Real Madrid faithful, said that this Real Madrid would hit their peak form on their second season, just as he did with Inter (winning the treble on his 2nd season). It was also with this as a ‘base starting point’ that explained his early season decision to establish a core starting XI and play them over and over and over again within his set system to get them familiarized with the ‘Mourinho way.’ This was also the reason why it took some time before the B-teamers started late in getting their playing time and of course, getting the hang of Mourinho’s system.
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I never thought I'd see the day in this 'era' that Real Madrid would get praised for attacking football and Barca would get criticized for being boring... much less from the EPL-centric Singapore Sports Media (click to enlarge)
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This B-team of course includes the likes of Lass, Granero, Arbeloa, Albiol and to a certain extent, Benzema (who became part of the A-Team by default). The additional members of this current B-Team would then include Kaka and Higuain due to their injuries. And as we constantly spoke at length early in the season about Madrid’s ‘squad advantage’ (i.e. having 25 men in the squad as opposed to Barca’s 18 plus of course the actual quality of the players in that squad) over Barca, we all wondered when Madrid would actually be able to cash in on this advantage. Last Saturday, it actually seems like Mourinho overshot his estimation on when the ‘second layer’ would be up to par with the ‘A-team’… in terms of fitness, match-fitness and tactical awareness of the ‘Mourinho way.’ Last Saturday, after the euphoria of the Copa Del Rey celebrations with the big Champions League Semi-Final matches (Games 3 and 4 in the ‘World Series against Barca) on the horizon, in contrast to Barca’s labored win against Osasuna, Real Madrid’s ‘B-Team’ put on a performance that finally had all of us thinking that this time Mourinho’s ENTIRE Machine has started hum.
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Madrid Were Lethal, But ALSO… Valencia  were Shit
3-6 was the final result. In the Mestalla, and no, this is not Madrid’s ‘home away from home’, this wasn’t the same ground that we saw last Wednesday with half the stands a sea of Real Madrid jerseys, with white-flag-plus-Spanish-flag-waving Madridisitas. This was Valencia’s Mestalla, a sea of Black-and-White-plus-Orange, venting out their traditional angst against Madrid. If anything, the Pasillo with which the Valencia players honored Real Madrid would have / should have been taken as a kind of ‘Trojan Horse’ (i.e. they ‘jump at Madrid’ at the ref’s whistle to start the game). The funny thing of course was how the match turned out: by early second half, it was already 0-5 to Madrid – all of them practically tap-ins: a testament to how truly lethal Real Madrid were.
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Let’s make no mistake about it though: in the first 60-70 minutes of the match, Valencia were shit. Unai Emery summed it up perfectly when he said that ‘the Pasilla lasted till the 60th minute’ where Valencia kept allowing us to just keep tearing them apart.
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But it’s not all the team’s fault: who told them to set their defensive line so high up anyway? (That would be you Unai) In a League where teams have begun to figure out Madrid as the team whose primary weapon was their blitzkrieg counters: and this was the reason why coaches have had their teams wait for Madrid rather than pushing down Madrid’s throats and rendering themselves vulnerable to our counter attacks.
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Mourinho’s Tactical Comfort Zone
As the starting lineups were announced about less than an hour before kickoff, I actually thought that Mourinho was opting for a Villarreal / Pellegrini-esque 4-4-2 which would in turn shift to a 4-2-2-2 with the attacking midfield combination of Kaka and Canales supporting the striking duo of Pipita and Benzema in a Brazilian ‘Magic-Square’ configuration while being supported on a ‘base’ of Granero and Lass. Once again, I was wrong.
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We looked like a 4-3-3 out there that sort of became an Ancelotti-AC Milan-eque Christmas Tree Formation (4-3-2-1):  a system Kaka is VERY familiar with.  (Red Arrows denote offensive runs)
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Mourinho went straight to his tactical comfort zone: his good old 4-3-3. Lass played the role of being the central anchorman / ball winner while Canales and Granero played as Carilleros. The headline feature of it all of course was the front 3 of Kaka, Benzema and Higuain: with the 3 interchanging constantly either with Kaka flourishing in the fantasista role between the 2 strikers to form a narrow ‘rombo’ or in an AC Milan-esque 4-3-2-1 with Kaka in his familiar role as one of the men behind the central striker with the other position being constantly interchanged between Benzema and Pipita. When in full flow, the combination of the front 3 could be devastating:  and that’s exactly what happened last Saturday.
Benzema was his menacing best and had a goal to show for it, while Pipita and Kaka had basketball-like stats: 3 goals and 2 assists for the recently-recovered Argentine (whose first goal surely had his ‘mentor’ Ruud Van Nistelrooy screaming at the TV: ‘I taught him that! That’s my boy!’) and the 2 goals and 2 assists for the just-turned 2nd-time father Kaka (his second goal was an absolute peach! congrats to him by the way on his newborn baby girl Isabelle – my wife loves the name).
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The performance of the front 3 gives Madridisimo absolute satisfaction on all levels: Firstly, it’s affirmation that Benzema has not lost his way despite his injury. For Pipita, it’s affirmation that that he’s still the Pipita we’ve all grown to love (he won an affectionate smack on the head from Mourinho when he was subbed out, as if to say ‘good to have you back’). And best of all for Kaka, it shows that all is not lost with him: that he can still turn on the jets (no ‘afterburners’ though) and give us glimpses of the player that had us all excited the day he held Real Madrid’s Jersey #8 with his name aloft in the Bernabeu. Above all, it gives Mourinho those additional reinforcements for the coming Champions League encounters just in case we might need alternatives to his preferred first choice front 3 (CR, Di Maria and Ozil, there’s Adebayor too)… and that much more for Guardiola to worry about.
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Granero vs. Lass
Marca have already 'declared' that Lass has won the place to be Khedira's replacement this Wednesday. On the back of last Saturday's performance, my vote goes to Granero though
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While all the goal action took most  people’s attention, I also had my eye on the midfield performances. Canales didn’t look like a lightweight and his runs and passing forward were pretty good (one wonders which club he’ll go to now that our usual La Liga farm team Getafe has gone Nouveau Riche). The key men in the middle to watch however were Granero and Lass. Given Khedira’s injury, it’s an intriguing question to see who gets the nod for Wednesday’s Champions League tie. While most have concluded that Lass should get the nod (e.g. Marca), I’d have to say that based on last Saturday’s performance, my vote would have to go to Granero. El Pirata’s performance last Saturday reminded me very much of the key ingredients of what Khedira offered: short neat passing, pressing and decent ball winning (albeit not to Lass’ level on the last one).  
Good News: We seem to be starting freak Barca Out
Pep Guardiola, the man whom Barca ‘moralists’ (I fucking hate it when they talk about themselves on moral terms – it’s bloody football you dicks!) like to parade as their moral compass / patron saint has started act out of character. It is not lost on me that he branded Benzema, Kaka and Pipita as ‘replacements’ in his pathetic attempt to turn them into malcontents (it’ll probably only work on Peter Lion). Even more hilarious is his attempt to ‘do a Mourinho’ i.e. talk about refereeing. He should perhaps leave this sort of thing to Victor Valdes, whose pathetic arrogance is more suited to such villainous tasks.
I much prefer Busquets’ level-headed assessment of their current up-and-coming matches. ‘Madrid are the worst team we can face at the moment’ he said.
He’s also right.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

2011-04-23: Valencia 3 - Real Madrid 6


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The 'B-Team' Turns it on!
The Mestalla has become Real Madrid's Home away from Home!
It was truly a Black Saturday for Valencia... For Madrid, Easter came a few hours early!
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Happy Easter everyone! More thoughts on the game maybe tomorrow...
Keep those prayers coming for the next Clasico encounter in the Champions League!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Beautiful Taste of Victory


I went back to work the next day with 30 mins. of sleep but I didn't feel like it at all. Victory does wonderful things to you.

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It was the day before I was to meet one of our dreaded clients at work… something that usually meant a night spent at the office making sure that everything we were to show him had to be beyond impeccable. I finished my work just in time to be able to leave the office at about 2am – and home by 2:30am. The match would be at 3:30am Singapore time, so the question for me was: should I take a cat nap? The answer as an empahtic ‘…and risk oversleeping!?!?!? hell no!’ The outcome justified every second spent without sleep.
Mourinho and the Cup
Mourinho had always been very clear about how he was going to treat the Copa Del Rey: he was dead serious about winning it. The tournament in which the likes of Schuster and Pellegrini used to satisfy potentially disgruntled second-stringers within the squad: at the price of the club’s overall morale following 2 exits care of 2 3rd division sides.
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This season, Mourinho has been clearly in it to win it: perhaps looking at the Copa Del Rey in a similar manner to the Carling Cup: as an apparatus to condition the club, its players and fans that winning is at the heart of it all. Nevermind  that we’re facing the likes of Murcia and Levante, he perhaps said, let’s send in Casillas and Crisitano to wipe the floor with them.  And in doing so, here we are, having finally been able to raise a trophy long missed in the trophy halls of the Bernabeu… a trophy we can actually have around for Sergio Ramos to drop into the path of a bus for it to run over: to the amusement of the world.
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Tactics – The Triangle Moves Forward, and Changes its ‘Moving Parts’
The key talking point for me however in this game would have to be the tactics employed by Mourinho in this game that turned out to be magnificently successful. The first Clasico last Saturday was remembered for Mourinho’s decision to move Pepe from the center of defense to the heart of the midfield in a 4-3-3: shifting away from his familiar 4-2-3-1.

Mourinho’s Midfield Triangle Version 1.0 (used in ‘Game 1’ i.e. El Clasico in La Liga)
Against Barca last Saturday, Pepe sat in the middle was the only man making 'defensive raids'. (Red Lines denote Offensive Runs, Blue arrows denote Defensive Runs)
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The key feature of Pepe’s role was not just in the fact that he played as a defensive midfielder: it was that he was employed in a role described by Sid Lowe as a ‘defensive raider’. Set up in front of the 2 Central Defenders, it was Pepe who would surge forward, using his pace to snap at Xavi and Iniesta, to disrupt the momentum-generating passing sequences which would normally generate Barca’s offense. In this role, he was also able to track Messi’s moves to drop deep from his ‘9’ position to become a ‘false 9’.  Xabi Alonso and Khedira were then employed in almost fixed positions, ready to ‘receive’ Xavi or Iniesta after Pepe’s ‘raids’ would result in either of the 2 midfielders ‘ferried to them’ to force 2 vs. 1 situations which nullified Barca’s momentum-generating passing game from their vaunted midfield.
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The outcome of the ‘Game 1’ version (or version 1.0) of Mourinho’s ‘Midfield Triangle’ resulted however in a situation where the key central position of the midfield (the ideal ‘passing platform) was taken up by Pepe with Xabi Alonso (who uses his passing) and Khedira (more of a runner and utility man) used on the other points of the midfield to link up with the front 3. The outcome was a more imbalanced Madrid when going forward.
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The front 3 also needed a bit of adjustment as it was only Di Maria who had the real inclination  to press the Barca midfield when we didn’t have possession. Ronaldo and Benzema focused their pressing more on Barca’s defense. Going forward, we also all discovered that while we enjoyed Di Maria’s ‘help defense’ so much when we didn’t have the ball, we also found him a bit frustrating with his lack of ability to keep possession when he had the ball – something Ozil showed us all he could do wonderfully when he came on as a sub.
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Mourinho’s Midfield Triangle Version 2.0
Last Wednesday, Mourinho made adjustments to his midfield triangle that clearly shocked Barcelona. It shocked Barca so much that they almost lost the Copa Del Rey in the first half of the Final.
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Last Wednesday's CDR Final Formation: 2 Offensive AND Defensive 'Carilleros' (Pepe & Khedira) with the midfield line in a more advanced position. Ozil also helped press in the midfield while Ronaldo was superb as a '9'. (Red arrows show offensive runs, Blue arrows show defensive runs)
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The midfield configuration was the same but with 4 main twists:
1.)    Pepe switched positions with Xabi Alonso, allowing the Basque midfielder to be once again the positional and passing fulcrum of the team.
2.)    This time there would be TWO MEN FUNCTIONING AS DEFENSIVE CARILLEROS: Deployed in more advanced positions were Pepe and Khedira who were BOTH used as ‘raiders’: tasked to cut off the Busquets-Xavi Link (Pepe) and the Busquets-Iniesta Link (Khedira). Xabi Alonso would then be tasked to ‘receive’ any leftovers who managed to get through.
3.)    The entire midfield ‘line’ was moved up by about 10 meters: right about smack on the halfway line – killing off the ‘oxygen buildup’ for Barca’s midfield buildup before it could even begin.
4.)    The 2 ‘defensive carilleros’ were also much more effective as attacking options with the zone of play advanced closer to the Barca goal: resulting in Pique + Mascherano having to worry not just about Ronaldo, Di Maria and Ozil, but also the runs being made by Pepe and Khedira.
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(Sidetrack thought: I remember Ramos being used in a similar role as Pepe in our loss to Sporting during the dying minutes of the game where we desperately, albeit unsuccessfully tried to tie the game with a goal: with Ramos used as a kind of attacking midfield target man)
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On attack, Mourinho  made changes too:
5.)    Cristiano played as a ‘9’. It seemed like a trick when Mourinho said he would play with a ‘9’ before the game only to start with all his ‘9s’: Adebayor, Benzema and Higuain on the bench. Upon seeing the starting XI, I thought he would deploy a narrow ‘rombo’ (with Ozil between CR and Di Maria but dropping deeper between the midfield at attacking line) – I assumed wrongly as CR7 played as a classic ‘9’: with his back to the goal. He did so very well while still offered himself as a target for on-the-ground through balls by playing off the shoulder of the last defender as well. Last Wednesday, Ronaldo played like the best version of Drogba and the best version of Fernando Torres PUT TOGETHER.
6.)    This also meant that Mourinho would be able to defend with 9 men when Real didn’t have the ball as the formation would become a 4-1-4-1 with Di Maria tracking Alves (what a duel they had! With Di Maria winning of course having been able to ‘launch the winning cross’) and Ozil helping the midfield: allowing Madrid an extra man to press on Barca’s midfield.
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The outcome of Mourinho’s tactical ploys resulted in Barca’s ‘little midfield midgets’ (Xavi and Iniesta), perpetually surrounded by Madrid’s ‘Beasts’ (Pepe and Khedira) with 2 men to spare (Ozil and Xabi Alonso). And with Di Maria nullifying Alves, there was only Messi dropping deep to worry about. Messi was allowed to do that of course… but with the key battleground closer to Barca’s goal than Madrid’s, it also meant that he was further away from the guys he wanted to link with (Villa and Pedro).
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Cristiano was superb as '9' last Wednesday
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As the battle in the first half waged on, I went from praying that we don’t concede a goal to praying we would score. We didn’t though and we paid the price in the second half.
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Having them by the scruff of the neck but not letting them pay the ultimate price for it was always going to haunt us. And that’s what Barca did to us in the second half. A fired up Barca tore through what was a visibly mentally and physically tired Madrid squad (who were probably kicking themselves for failing to score in the first half). We almost paid the ultimate price for it were it not for our new Captain Iker Casillas who stood up to be counted and put on that forcefield on the Madrid goal just for long enough for his team to get it together again.
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By the 75th minute, Madrid had taken the sting off Barca again but were without the teeth to threaten up front. I began to think about waiting it out for penalties as I saw the likes of Adebayor, Granero and Kaka warming up (Penalty takers, I thought).
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When the ref blew the whistle that confirmed we’d be playing extra time, I found myself laughing at the Dirty Tackle’s twitter comment re: the on-the-pitch huddle team talk being voraciously led by Mourinho in the Madrid side (he said that this will surely tun up in the Spanish Version of 'Any Given Sunday' hahaha). The other squad players also seemed to be signaling to the Madrid-side of the crowd to keep the noise down so they could hear their master. Who knew that all he probably said was ‘Cristiano and Adebayor attack! Di Maria, try to help them if you’re not too tired, the rest of you DEFEND!’. Hahaha.
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That’s how it pretty much went in the first half of extra time – Barca, clearly tiring out trying to have a go at a re-formed Madrid midfield and defense while Ronaldo and Adebayor getting hoof-up service to try to break through the space left behind by Barca.
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Things would work out soon enough: Marcelo wins the ball and plays a nifty Barcelona-like 1-2 play ending with a through ball to Di Maria, who stamps his seal of victory in his personal duel with Alves with the Title-winning cross. And it just had to be Cristiano, the man they said who disappears in the biggest games, the man who they said couldn’t score against Barca (who needed a penalty to do it) – who finally pierces Barca’s heart. 
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And let me say this to the cules who are still in denial: Victor Valdes wouldn’t have been able to save that. Madridisimo would’ve wanted him to be the guy who would helplessly flail his arms at the air in that helpless attempt to block the shot – because it would’ve given Cristiano the chance to walk up to him and say ‘… now that’s in color! Even in HD and 3D!’
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The game was pretty much over after the goal I’d have to say. Barca’s Plan B after all is in Milan (Ibra) – no one to cross the ball into if he’s not in there (a thought shared by Sid Lowe who was doing the play-by-play commentary of the telecast I was watching and Serie A weekly's Kevin Walker with whom I was tweeting with during the match).
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We’re not Laughing YET.
Cristiano Ronaldo had a stunningly and shockingly sober (even a slightly poetic one) assessment of the matchups before the games rolled along “He who laughs last, laughs the loudest” he said – surprisingly stark contrast to Victor Valdes’ disgustingly arrogant: “The last time Madrid beat us was in the days of Black and White.”
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I’m happy with Mourinho’s sober reaction as well as from the majority of the players and the club staff. Even Pepe, whom replays showed was given a scolding by Arbeloa for his reaction to Cristiano’s goal has come forward with an apology for his reaction. I’m happy to know that there aren’t any buses rolling around Madrid as of yet making a meal out of this win. I’m happy to be a humble winner and I’m happy to know that the club has so far been the same.
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There are 2 Clasicos remaining and the prize is the chance to meet Raul or Sir Alex in Wembley for the biggest trophy of them all. Sandwiched between them are 2 La Liga games. I can only hope Osasuna and Real Sociedad have learned enough things from our last 2 games with Barca to give them a few clues on how to get to the Cules – or to REALLY tire them out at least.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Take That Victor Valdes!

Victor Valdes seems to not only have a bad memory but also poor eyesight. He said that that the last time Real Madrid beat Barcelona was in the era of Black and White.

I distinctly remember seeing him form a guard of honor a couple of years ago and eat 4 goals at the Bernabeu...
...And last Wednesday Night's win was most certainly done in color, nevermind in HD and 3D...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Copa Del Rey Champions!

Last Saturday, I said:
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ATTN: BARCA, WE NOW KNOW HOW TO BEAT YOU
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Today, let me say:
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ATTN: BARCA, WE'VE NOW BEATEN YOU!
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Feels Nice. Hope to say it again next week...
More thoughts on the match this weekend... 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

ATTN: Barca, We Now Know How to Beat You

The atmosphere at the Bernabeu Last Night was Fantastic
Last night was Game 1 of the ‘World Series’ of Football… Real Madrid vs. Barcelona. It ended 1-1 on penalties scored both by Messi and Ronaldo. Both broke their respective jinxes: Messi finally able to score against a Jose Mourinho-coached team and Ronaldo finally able to score against Barca. The key factor of course was the fact that Messi’s goal, scored after being awarded for Albiol’s Rubgy-style takedown of David Villa – resulting in El Churo’s sending off and Madrid playing the bulk of the match 10 vs. 11.
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The fact that the match ended 10 vs. 11 in Barca’s favor was Mourinho’s ‘I always end up playing with 10 against Barca’ prophecy come true – as if the boogie man that he’s always talked about has really did prove itself true… giving credence to his conspiracy theory and perhaps giving the good refs of the RFEF some food for thought: especially once they look back at the decision not to send Dani Alves off for the penalty that Marcelo won. Did the Portuguese tactician just mould the terrain for the next battle (the one for the Copa Del Rey?)
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Let’s call a spade a spade: David Villa did deserve a penalty for Iker’s takedown on him during the first half (and Iker did perhaps deserve even a card for it). And Albiol’s takedown of David Villa did merit a penalty… but that was NOT a STRAIGHT red to me. A penalty and perhaps a yellow would’ve done it. Alves however, deserved a second yellow for that tackle on Marcelo that won us the penalty. So to put things into perspective, to play 10 vs. 11 till Alves’ foul on Marcelo was fair. To go on at 10 vs. 11 after that however might actually have deprived us of the win which looked very much within out grasp: It was clear that Mourinho really did prepare to play with 10 and Guardiola didn’t: an Alves-less Barca, post Puyol’s pullout from the game and with all of Barca’s substitutions used up, would’ve meant a heavily unbalanced Barca side with 10 against Mourinho’s 10 that looked very much comfortable under their skins.
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Mourinho earns his Pay
If there was ever a situation where we could call match a psychological victory even after a draw, it would have to be this one. And we’ve got Mourinho to thank for that. Because while the Cules will delight at the fact that the draw essentially sews up the La Liga campaign for them, Madridistas like myself will be delighted by the fact that we can now all say “Attention Barcelona: WE NOW KNOW HOW TO BEAT YOU”. And that above all is what we should all be thankful to Mourinho for.
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His legend continued last night. Because last night, it is as if last November’s 5-0 thrashing at the Camp Nou was like sending his starry-eyed team out as bait for this World Series: a chance for him to figure out ‘the enemy’. And just as he did with Inter last season, he did manage to figure out Barca – and we all saw that last night.
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Riling the Bernabeu up to rise up against Spurs and deeming the Bernabeu’s ‘performance’ against the North Londoners ‘inconsistent’ (as if he was critiquing one of his players), we saw the Madrid crows respond with loud cheers at the return leg in White Hart lane where we were all stunned to hear ‘Oles!’ and ‘Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho’ amidst the occasional wall of sound that we would hear from the North London Crowd. Last Night, the crowd was fantastic and performed well enough to win words of praise from Mourinho himself.

ON the pitch, the key tactical move was not just the switch to the Trivote, but in using Pepe in its deployment (as opposed to Lass). Granted that Lass was injured for this one, I’m pretty sure Pepe would still have gotten the nod. And of course we saw it ‘tested’ out at the San Mames last weekend too. The outcome last night however was different from last weekend.
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Pepe was the Difference-Making Madrid Midfield Monster Last Night
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Last Night, while we saw Barca rattle off their usual impressive numbers in terms of ball possession and passes completed. However, it cannot be denied that we still saw a largely different Barca team: unable to impose their will in the middle of the park and merely relegated to funneling their attacks around the flanks instead of through the middle. The difference was Pepe. Giving us an aggressive and quick physical presence in the middle prevented Xavi and Iniesta + Messi from romping through the middle of the park. And with Ramos and Marcelo’s newfound positional discipline, the flanks weren’t too much in danger last night either. Barca looked largely trapped in their own half lots of times with most of their incursions largely drifting wide rather than through the center even as Messi dropped deep to help start things up.
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Cristiano notably started on the right with Di Maria on the left as the 2 key targets for our balls out to start the counters while Benzema helped press Barca every time their midfield crossed the halfway line – compressing the Barca midfield’s operating space.
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Our 20-30% ball possession, however limited still actually produced a decent number of dangerous incursions into Barca’s goal, resulting in a good number of corners and dead ball situations including a couple of Ronaldo Free Kicks that could’ve given us the lead. The plan was of course quite simple: use Xabi Alonso’s ball distribution to reach Di Maria and Ronaldo who had the space behind Barca’s fullbacks to exploit. Benzema, rejoining the attack after his pressing duties on defense would then make a late run to help the 2 wingers. Secondary were Sami Khedira’s runs towards Barca’s defense in a box-to-box role which even saw him take a shot that almost gave us the lead in the second half.
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10 vs. 11
The key characteristic of the match however would have to be the challenge that had been posed to Madrid when it became a game of 10 vs. 11. And on the basis of Mourinho’s 1st substitution, I was worried: with Ozil coming on for Benzema – pushing Pepe back to his more familiar but less dynamic-for-the-game role as a Centerback. We of course were relieved yet still puzzled to see Pepe return to his role in the midfield as Arbeloa and Adebayor came on for Xabi Alonso and Di Maria – substitutions that had me thinking that perhaps the pragmatic Mourinho had in fact given up on the game. Who knew however that this was his 10 vs. 11 lineup? It was a lineup that was grounded on mobility as personified by Ozil and Marcelo who all of a sudden seemed to have been given the license to burst forward.
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The move obviously paid off as it didn’t take long before Marcelo won the penalty that allowed us to tie the game… followed by a siege on the Barcelona goal that hasn’t been seen in quite some time – much less in a 10 vs. 11 situation.
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The Battles will Rage On
Let’s be reminded that this is merely Round 1 of our 4-Round Bout with this mighty Barca team. And the signs thus far are promising. Let’s all be remember that it wasn’t only Jose Mourinho who hid an ace up his sleeve for last night’s match. Guardiola too tried to pull a fast one with the sudden appearance of long term injury victim Carles Puyol. It seems to have backfired on them though as Puyol pulled out of the game last night (looks like a hamstring problem) and looks to be unavailable for Wednesday’s Copa Del Rey Bout. Mourinho’s challenge in dealing with Albiol’s suspension is a far simpler task: as Arbeloa can take up the Right Back position and Ramos can play as a Centerback, apart from the availability of Garay as a direct replacement – both solutions that can keep Pepe in his Anti-Barca Midfield role.
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Johan Cruyff was right when he said Barca only needs to win ‘Rounds 2 and 4’ – Mourinho is very much aware of that too. Round 2 is up next and from what we’ve seen last night, there’s reason to be optimistic.
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p.s. Note to Florentino, Valdano, Pardeza and Jose Angel Sanchez: Renew Pepe's Contract. ASAP

Monday, April 11, 2011

The B-Team


Mourinho's Midfield B-Team: Kaka (as 'Face'), Graneo as ('Mad Murdock') and Lass as (Mr. D, er.. Mr. T). Mourinho would be none other than the Man with The Plan: Hannibal Smith.
In his post-match assessment of last week’s loss at the hands of Sporting Gijon, Jose Mourinho concluded that while the league is still ‘mathematically possible’, it is ‘virtually impossible’ to overturn Barcelona’s 8-point lead to win La Liga. This essentially became the clue or rather, the cue from Jose Mourinho that the season’s priorities had shifted away from winning La Liga to winning the 2 Cup Competitions that we were still in with a shout for: The Champions League and the Copa Del Rey.
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And after the 4-0 hammering of Spurs last week, Mourinho also gave us a glimpse of what’s on his mind: that the Champions League tie, no matter the 4-goal difference between us and Harry’s boys was by no means a closed case. And with the prospect of facing Barca looming over the horizon the week after the Copa Del Rey Final (which happens the week after this Wednesday’s match at White Hart Lane)… now was the time to get the priorities straight and act accordingly i.e. to tap up the B-Team for the remaining La Liga games… or at least for the games that are clumped up together with our remaining key Champions League games and the Copa Del Rey Final.
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It is significant to note that Barca is the main stumbling block for the 2 remaining competitions that we’re aspiring to. And while Barca need to REALLY still take things seriously with La Liga knowing that it’s theirs to lose, they also have to keep an eye on the 2 big prizes we’re still eyeing: the difference being that while they have to fight it out with their thin 19-man squad – while we have a(n almost) 25-man team to call upon. The logic seems sound enough: while Barca are fighting it out on 3-fronts and continually depleting their ‘stamina resources’ – we are able to maximize our deeper manpower resources to ensure a fit and a relatively fatigue-free lineup when the key games roll along. There’s also the not-so-small issue of being able to sit players out for the purpose of avoiding picking up that critical booking that can result in untimely suspensions.
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There is another dimension left to all this however: and that is the simple fact that it is still mathematically possible for Real Madrid to win La Liga. And while we’re still technically in it, Barca will still feel compelled to be at their best to win the league. So with the league ‘virtually impossible’ or not: it’s important that we’re still technically in it. Perhaps to place it in a more strategic context: where Barcelona are fighting a war to win on 2 fronts (let’s exclude Copa Del Rey since it’s just one match), Madrid are only competing to win on one front. Remaining competitive on the other front however, to force Barcelona to keep committing its best resources on the ‘lost front’ however, remains a critical part of Madrid’s overall strategy to win the battle in the front their fighting for: The Champions League.
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Taming the Lions of the Den
And that’s exactly what Mourinho did last night – with a little bit of luck of course: as the returning Pipita Higuain and Kaka are finally back from their long-term injuries and have now been given the perfect platform to take their recovery period to its final stages – in real match situations. This also bodes well for other peripheral figures of the team up to this point: Lass, Arbeloa, Raul Albiol and Garay: all of whom were starters against Bilbao last night.
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Sitting key players such as Ronaldo, Adebayor, Marcelo, Carvalho and even Ozil on the bench (even keeping Benzema out of the squad altogether): Mourinho seemed like he wasn’t going balls out on La Liga like he did the week before as I tweeted just minutes before the match. When starting lineups were announced, while it became clear that Pepe would be playing as a defensive midfielder as he does frequently for Portugal, the question that remained was if Mourinho was playing with his familiar 4-2-3-1 (with Kaka or Granero in one wing), or if it was to be a trivote. My gut feeling that it was to be the latter was confirmed as the game started. The truth however is that last night’s trivote looked very much like an Ancelotti-esque Christmas Tree formation (4-3-2-1):
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Christmas in April: We looked very much like an (Milan-era) Ancelotti-eque 4-3-2-1 Last Saturday. It was dull as hell with little passing out of midfield and defense to the front 3: but we were generally solid of Defense
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The outcome of the formation as a dud didn’t matter. It’s resulted in an incredibly boring and dull game: with Athletic unable to show adequate bite when attacking, and Madrid barely able to get out of their own half or midfield to start a decent impression of signature counter-attacking maneuvers that Real Madrid have made their hallmark thus far this season. It has to be noted that clarity was only established in Madrid’s game once Xabi Alonso and Ronaldo were able to come into the game as second half-subs: perhaps as a ‘warm up’ for this Wednesday’s return leg at White Hart Lane.
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Another thing we have to take from this is that while we were essentially very dull and stale during this match in attack, we were also very solid in defense. The combination of Lass and Pepe proved to be an imperious armour to the back 4: especially with  a more subdued-on-attack Ramos and a more discipline Arbeloa manning the fullback positions. And now that we know for a fact that this is indeed a workable combination, it might actually be a viable solution to blunt the Spurs' attack for Wednesday's Champions League tie: a match where Xabi Alonso + a few more are in danger of suspension for. It is after all, a match that will need a 5-0 from spurs to overturn: not even a 5-1 will do.
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Another point to note re: last night's rendition of a 'Christmas Tree' Formation was the fact that Kaka seemed a bit more involved. His ball dristribution as part of the front 3 wasn't bad and he even had a pretty good attempt on goal that was saved. We also saw him attempt to 'turn on the jets' a few times last night. In the end, it was the 2 goals, albeit from penalties that would serve him well. His reaction to his performance also display great sense of level-headed-ness:
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"Those two goals are good for my self-confidence, they are very important goals. I understand the fans (criticism towards him). I hope that with time and with important games I can win over the supporters again. I only ask they give me time...I need to work hard to enjoy football again. The only problem was with my knee, which limited me from playing all out. I have to work hard in this final stretch of the season. I hope to have fun playing football. I feel like I owe it to Real Madrid and the fact that I haven't fulfilled expectations bothers me."
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Words of a man whose head is NOT stuck up his own ass or trapped in the clouds, I must say. Even though he might never be the Kaka of Milan again, highly-competent and solid performances like last night would give us just that huge cushion we need when the 'B-Team' is tapped up to perform.
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Prelude to the Clasico
This week's 'Dead Rubber' to Tottenham Hotspur should serve as the calm before the storm: before the battery of matches against Barcelona. It's time for Mourinho and his men to be ready to show their best. Time to prepare ourselves to be the team that's left standing holding up (at least) 2 trophies when the dust settles... perhaps it's also time to learn a bit from Kaka's level-headedness.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pandering to the Football Gods

Adebayor Thanks the Divine Powers that be for the happenings last night at the Bernabeu
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Many have come to the Bernabeu on a magical European night spellbound by the occasion and the legend of the stadium only to leave battered and bruised from the beating handed out by the players whose all-white uniforms seem to conceal their thirst for blood. Tottenham was certainly not the first team to have been subject to such treatment.
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They are however the first team in 7 years to have been such an ordeal at THIS STAGE of the season. At this stage of the tournament – in the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
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Last night, it was as if the football Gods wanted to make it up to Real Madrid for the harsh twist of fates they subjected us to last Saturday.
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Perhaps the Gods of Football saw Mourinho’s supreme acts of sportsmanship of heading to Sporting Gijon’s dressing room to shake every player’s hands …or his stunningly glowing assessment of Harry Renknapp and the Spurs prior to the match – remarks which included ‘… IF they win, I hope they go all the way to the final’
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This led the Gods of Football to go: ‘hmmm…. Maybe this guy deserves a bit of a break.’ The result was that they seem to have pulled out every thinkable obstacle for Tottenham Hotspur and laid it upon Harry’s boys:
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… A mystery ailment that resulted in Aaron Lennon’s sudden unavailability – he was the man who was supposed to exploit Sergio Ramos’ lack of positional awareness with his pace.
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… A Tottenham Hotspur team that seemed caught out like a deer in the headlights. They genuinely seemed to be over-awed by the occasion. Who could blame them? From merely being UEFA Cup hopefuls not too long ago, here they were: facing and seeing off the likes of Inter and AC Milan and now onto the Quarterfinals where they were to meet the greatest European Footballing Superpower in one of football’s true temples: Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. At kickoff, Spurs seemed slower, hesitant… even nervous. It was no wonder Adebayor managed to score an opening goal off a corner. When was the last time this season where we saw Real Madrid score directly off a corner anyway? I don’t buy Lennon’s absence as what led to the confusion to allow Adebayor a sniff at goal: Jenas, (Lennon’s replacement) was the guilty party in the man-marking. Are we saying that the 5’5 Lennon was expected to mark the 6’4 Adebayor?
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… The twist of fate bestowed by the football Gods onto Spurs that really did them in though were 2 moments of madness by the man many heralded as Tottenham’s ‘European Trump Card’: Peter Crouch. His 2 lunging tackles on each of our fullbacks resulted in 2 yellow cards within 15 minutes – earning him an early shower.
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And as if his sympathetic pat on Crouchie’s shoulder as the 6’7 striker trudged off was his cue – Mourinho and his men understood immediately the meaning of this sign from the football gods and duly obliged. ‘Let’s pile it on boys!’ And boy did they.
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'Cheer Up Crouchie... This'll be over before you know it!"... Was what I imagine (humorously, of course) Mourinho telling Peter Crouch as the 6'7 giant headed off for his early shower
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Keys to the Match
It’s very difficult to look into the keys to the match BEYOND the plot lines above. It doesn’t matter which club you are: when you’re playing 10 vs. 11 for 75 minutes while you’re away from home in a Champions League quarterfinal – you’re screwed.
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Peter Crouch’s absence from the match essentially nullified the usefulness of Rafa Van Der Vaart who has so successfully lived off the knockdowns from balls sent up to Crouch. Playing with Crouch on the pitch also meant that we would play a high defensive line (because of his lack of space). Playing without him and only VDV in front, allowed us to play even higher: squeezing the entire field of play almost exclusively into the Spurs’ goal area. This of course is also made possible by the monster game Xabi Alonso had who masterminded the entire operation (with the help of Khedira).
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The Spurs’ gameplan for 11 vs. 11 also seemed to involve having Gareth Bale on their right side: likely as means to pin back the Marcelo + Ronaldo combination on our left (the known source of most of our attacking). With 10 men however, Tottenham were forced into 2 banks of 4 – relegating Bale to a toothless defensive position on the right. He did eventually move to his preferred left flank where his incursions created danger – a display of such devastating pace that had my mouth open as I’ve not seen a player run with the ball and still manage to outrun Pepe and Ramos stride for stride going full speed.
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The final key to the match however was Madrid’s Man of the Match: Emmanuel Adebayor (Though I still feel strongly that Marcelo also deserves a shout). His performance was a form of vindication for many:
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… Vindication for himself against those who have doubted him, doubted his abilities and doubted his stomach for the big occasion
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… Vindication for Mourinho – who fought so hard to bring him to the club. Mourinho didn’t push to just get any striker: - he wanted a striker specifically just like Adebayor: a towering presence to knock the ball up to for those days where playing it on the ground just won’t open those defenses up. Adebayor did just that last night: knocking in 2 headers at the start of each half in a game where Spurs have set themselves up just to defend, defend, defend.
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The Aftermath
10 or 11 men, I’m finding it extremely impossible to not be elated by the result. From the prospect of a cagey first leg to a second leg that will stretch all the way to 3 days before this season’s second El Clasico but sandwiched with a difficult trip to San Mames, we’ve managed to put the tie almost completely to bed already (almost being the operable word).
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There’s been much talk about forgetting totally about La Liga and just completely concentrating on the Champions League. Last night’s result allows us to not have to do that for the meantime. After a tough test that will see us travel to San Mames this weekend, last night’s scoreline would allow us play a more defensive lineup at White Hart lane and rest some of our key attacking players (play a trivote perhaps?) for the double El-Clasico that will take place during the 2nd and 3rd week of April.
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Magnanimous Mourinho’s Mind Games Begin
And since we started out contemplating the role that the Football Gods have played in last night’s serendipitous happenings that led to such a comfy win: Mourinho was quick to revert to the stunningly magnanimous mood that he’s been in as of late:
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“I know English football well and I know the English mentality. It is not over… For you, it is not over. In another country I would say yes, but with English culture it is not over. They have belief until the last minute, so it is not finished." He said of the return leg in North London next week…
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And then he started pondering on the match: “…It's just a question of the team with 11 staying concentrated, playing with a high tempo and not letting the opponent breathe. We did that in the second half, not so much in the first half. It is an impossible job. It is just a question of getting three or four. It is an impossible mission and I feel sorry for them because 11 against 11, the match would have been much better.”
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But then, also while summarizing the game, the Mourinho we all know began to creep back in:
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"I know after that, 11 against 10 at Champions League level, it is an impossible mission," said Mourinho. And then it came out:
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"I played in Barcelona with Chelsea with 10 men, impossible. I played in Barcelona with Inter with 10 men, impossible. Arsenal played against Barcelona a few weeks ago with 10 men, it is impossible."
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Asked on his outlook for the possibility of a semi-finals encounter with Barcelona, Mourinho started with the usual coaching cliches: “We’ll have to see what happens with Shakhtar-Barca… blah, blah….” And then he finally he said:
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“If we have to play against Barcelona, we have to train well how to play with 10 men, because in Champions League, everytime I go there, it’s always the same story.” (watch video here)
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And just like that the Mourinho we all know is back… and just like that, the mind games have begun.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

RMTV Extra Time: Preview of Real Madrid vs. Tottenham Hotspur

In a rare display of generosity, Real Madrid TV have put out a free broadcast of their show Extra Time to preview tonight's game vs. Spurs.
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Here's to hoping for a reason to smile over football this week...
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2011-04-02: Real Madrid 0 - Sporting Gijon 1

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.